7 Indicators an Agronomy School Main Is Ripe For You | Crop and Soil Sciences
Posted On February 27, 2023
Are you a problem-solver who likes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects and getting hands-on with real-world challenges? You may be surprised that agronomy could be your calling.
Many people assume agronomy is the same as farming. Some farmers may be agronomists, but it’s not always the other way around. There’s a lot related to farming that doesn’t happen in the field.
Agronomy is the science of growing crops for food, fuel, fiber, and animal feed. And today’s agronomic science involves a lot more than a tractor.
Agronomy students explore plant biology, soil science, weed management, crop production systems, and a host of technologies and informatics that are quickly becoming industry standards, including global positioning systems (GPS); geographic information systems (GIS); drones and robotics; data analytics; and remote sensing.
Agronomy is hands-on, high-tech life science.
You’d wilt in a cubicle. Agronomy demands lab knowledge and field experience. No matter which career path you follow, you’ll need an outdoor perspective. Even if you never drive a tractor, field-based agronomy thrives in beautiful outdoor places.
You want to see and touch your work. “Agronomy is applied biology,” said crop science professor Keith Edmisten. It’s the real-world application of life science that supports fundamental human needs. For those who love to get hands-on, agronomy lets you use all your senses to produce products people use every day.
You want to be essential. Agriculture produces the products no one wants to be without. There’s job security in that kind of demand. The US Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency designated 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including food & agriculture, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in NC, agriculture was designated as an essential infrastructure operation for continued work during the state’s 2020 shelter-in-place order. Both underscore the importance of agriculture operations.
You want a piece of North Carolina’s biggest industry. NC Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler forecasts agriculture to become a $100 billion industry in the state during his tenure. From biotechnology giants to our state’s 46,000 farms to entrepreneurial crop consultants, over 20% of NC’s labor force works in agriculture. As ag technology expands and food production demand increases, so do the job opportunities.
You want to make a difference in global challenges. To feed the world’s growing population, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that food production needs to increase 60% by 2050 to feed the expected 9.3B world population. Meeting this global need requires the knowledge, production, and assets to support human life and healthy ecosystems. It’s satisfying work that connects people with our most basic needs. “Our agronomy graduates are prepared to address food, feed, fiber, and specialty crop needs–both local and global–in environmentally responsible ways,” said Bob Patterson, Professor of Crop Science. “Our faculty and students share a common passion for identifying and solving the problems confronting crop producers both in North Carolina and also in other parts of our world to fundamentally address food crop security.”
You want to start (or continue) a family legacy. Agriculture is an inherited passion in some families, but it’s also contagious. “You don’t need to grow up on a farm to study or even practice agronomy,” said David Crouse, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences’ Director of Undergraduate Programs. “Many of our students who are interested in feeding and clothing the world come from urban areas and can return there to make their mark in agronomy. Some of the largest agri-businesses in the world have major operations nestled in the pine trees between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.”
You’re good at biology, chemistry, or geocaching and … gaming? Agronomy is rooted in plant science and is quickly becoming a high-tech field that merges science and technology. “Today’s Agronomist needs to be as comfortable with a computer and data as they are with a tractor and seed,” says Rob Austin, GIS and Precision Agricultural Specialist. “Operating a GPS to collect site-specific soil samples or flying a drone to determine in-season crop performance is becoming commonplace.” Austin teaches these skills and more in his undergraduate course “GIS in Soils and Agriculture.” His students are introduced to technologies that support precision agriculture and learn how to use on-farm data in agronomic decision-making. These technologies are vital tools that equip agronomists for emerging needs in this industry.
What if you don’t want to be a farmer? No problem.
Agronomy may culminate in the farm field, but there is an entire agribusiness industry that requires agronomic expertise — without owning land or farm equipment.
“Agronomy gives you the understanding of what it takes to manage land and produce yield,” said Matt Winslow, Director of Research at Tidewater Agronomics. “Many grads may ultimately become farmers, but agronomy is an excellent way to get the fundamentals of all of the categories involved in agriculture: soil science, weed science, plant physiology, and even chemistry all tie together. In this industry, we all use those principles to grow a good crop, or make the decisions that grow a good crop.”
Agronomy graduates often pursue careers as:
Chemical, fertilizer, and seed sales representative
County extension agent
Contract field research advisor
Crop consultant, advisor, scout
Farm, grain broker/buyer
Farm insurance agent
Natural resources conservationist
Precision agriculture specialist
You might be able to drive a tractor without a degree, but the increasing complexity of agricultural, biological and computer science demands a specialized skill set to optimize crop production within tight farm budgets.
“The biggest change in our business is the need to grasp all of the new technologies available,” Winslow said. “A lot of the learning curve in farming isn’t about fertilizer or chemicals anymore, but more about GPS and variable rate application.
We’ve adopted two major technology changes in our business. One is drone technology and data visualization of fields. The other is prescription application techniques for fertilizers or other products that allow a farmer to use ultra-low volumes. That’s where we see this business moving in the next 3-5 years and don’t see it going back again.”
Industry Dominance – Since 1887, agronomy has been one of the founding programs at NC State (then called NC State Agricultural & Mechanics College). NC State’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (CALS) is firmly rooted in the variable soils of NC’s coastal, piedmont, and mountain regions. Employers recognize the depth and quality of an agronomy degree from NC State, making our graduates highly employable.
Field-Tested Skills – As NC’s preeminent agricultural university, we offer classroom and field opportunities that build your resume with the skills employers seek.
“Hands-on learning is really what prepares our students for their future careers,” said Charlie Cahoon, NC State Extension Associate Professor of Weed Science. “In my weed science course, students learn how to calibrate pesticide application equipment which is critical to the economical and sustainable use of pesticides. Yes, students learn the basic equipment, process, and calculations in the lab, but we cement the procedure by letting the students calibrate real equipment.”
Faculty Expertise – We have a large and diverse faculty who span a broad range of specialties in soils; plant physiology, genetics, and breeding; major commodity crops; animal forage; turfgrass; organic production; cover cropping and weed science. Our low student-to-faculty ratio means you’ll be a name, not a number, with faculty who spend one-on-one time understanding your interests and advising you on class choice and career paths.
Research Assets – Nationally, NC State’s CALS ranks in the top five land-grant universities for research grants. Research faculty operate in campus labs and on 13 agricultural research stations to test and develop varieties and management practices for on-farm use.
Other agronomy research assets include:
Extension Network – All of NC’s 100 counties have agricultural Cooperative Extension offices. This extensive network connects farmers and agribusiness professionals with specialized knowledge and training in every aspect of crop production. From internships to applied research and field day presentations, our students gain experience from a diverse range of opportunities.
North Carolina has one of strongest Extension systems in the U.S., and there are abundant opportunities for NC State agronomy students to interface with applied research and Extension programs during their undergraduate studies.
Capitalizing on these opportunities not only allows students to expand their technical knowledge but also to hone their interpersonal relationship and presentation skills.
“Some of my best graduate students got started by taking advantage of the opportunities they had to engage with Extension at the undergraduate level,” said assistant professor and NC Plant Sciences Initiative Platform Director Rachel Vann.
Central Location – NC State’s home in Raleigh, North Carolina, offers a unique combination of urban and agricultural land. While NC ranks sixth nationally in agriculture, its largest cities (Charlotte and Raleigh) nationally rank in the top 40 metropolitan areas and are frequently in the top 5 for population growth.
Professional Networking – NC State has a history of preparing students for impactful careers. Establishing and maintaining connections made here on campus are powerful tools for any job seeker. In addition to our department’s dedicated Agronomy & Agroecology clubs, CALS offers a wide variety of student-led organizations to find your interests and network with students and alumni.
What’s the Difference Between a 2-Year and 4-Year Agronomy Degree?
NC State’s Crop & Soil Department offers two undergraduate agronomy degrees:
Both programs cover topics on soil science, crop production, soil fertility, pests and disease.
Two-Year Agronomy Degree
Our two-year programs render an associate of applied science degree and are well suited for students seeking a more practical, hands-on path. Courses focus on developing the technical skills needed by those working on the front lines of agriculture, such as crop consultants and agricultural producers.
In contrast to the four-year degree, classes in the two-year program are more likely to be lab-based and provide opportunities for students to get their hands dirty.
“This focused curriculum path allows students to complete an agricultural program when they already have or don’t need the added value of a four-year university degree,” said Amy Johnson, assistant professor and AGI Coordinator. “It is ideal for non-traditional or older students returning to school, changing careers, or seeking technician or specialist positions.”
4-Year Agronomy Degree
Our four-year agronomy degree program culminates in a bachelor of science. Course rigor and breadth are more intense. This path benefits traditional college students interested in pursuing agronomic advising, plant breeding, and professional supervisory positions.
Four-year students can personalize their studies. The degree is structured with core courses and electives that allow students to craft a unique experience. Working with their faculty advisor, students choose the academic path that best prepares them for their professional goals.
“It is possible to earn an agronomy degree that leans toward plant physiology while equally possible to attain an agronomy degree that leans more towards management and business operations. The flexibility is there and the possibilities are endless,” David Crouse said.
Minor in Crop Science
The crop science minor is open to any NC State four-year student. It is designed for students majoring in agricultural business, education or biological science but is useful to any student wanting expertise in crop science.
Crop Science Certificate (Online)
A 15-hour online program combining undergraduate and graduate-level courses. In addition to crop science, students choose from electives in row crops, seed, forage, and turfgrass. A simplified admissions process is available.
Undergraduate Financial Assistance
The Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is part of NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
Crop and Soil Sciences major and minor students cumulatively receive over $200,000 yearly from 51 different scholarships, including one full-ride scholarship in agronomy.
An internship or research experience is required for four-year agronomy students. Our faculty help students find and tailor internship opportunities to students’ interests and career goals.
Test Drive NC State’s Undergraduate Agronomy Program
If we’ve piqued your interest in agronomy, you might like to take us, and the field of crop science, for a test drive. Here are two options:
Do I Need a Graduate Degree in Agronomy?
As with most complex questions, it depends. Choosing to pursue a higher-level degree primarily depends on your career aspirations.
“The need for an advanced degree is not necessary to earn a good living,” professor David Crouse said. “But education usually opens doors, so furthering your education can expand the potential opportunities.”
NC State’s Crop Science Graduate Degrees
A master’s degree focuses and increases knowledge and critical thinking skills, along with practice in organizing, writing and speaking.
“These skills are essential for private sector and government jobs,” said Deanna Osmond, NC State Professor of Soil Fertility and Watershed Management. “Many jobs in agronomy require a master’s, whether it is serving as a county agent, an environmental inspector, or a field agronomist.”
Master of Crop Science (M.R.)
The Master of Crop Science is a non-thesis program designed for agricultural Extension agents and other professionals who want an advanced degree focused on coursework. It is available on-campus or online for students who may be limited by time/or location. Additional coursework, reports, or special problems are required in place of a thesis.
Master of Science (M.S.)
The Master of Science in Crop Science is a research-oriented degree requiring a research-based thesis. Advanced study opportunities include weed science, plant breeding, genetics and molecular biology, sustainable agriculture and agroecology, field crops, forage, turf management and plant physiology and biochemistry.
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Candidates for the doctoral degree in Crop Science must demonstrate independence in conducting original research and generate substantial new knowledge in their field. The degree demands a demonstration of comprehensive knowledge and high attainment in scholarship.
“Fewer jobs are available at the Ph.D. level, but they are rewarding for those interested in college teaching or conceiving and leading projects in the corporate, academic, or public sectors,” said Candace Haigler, Crop Science Graduate Program Director and Professor of Crop Science and Plant Biology. “There’s nothing more exciting than discovering something previously unknown, seeing a new product come to market, or watching your students move forward on their own successful career paths.”
Graduate Financial Assistance
Funding for graduate students interested in agronomy is primarily available through research grants of individual faculty members. When a funded graduate assistantship is open, we seek a close match between a student’s goals and experience and those of the research faculty member.
If you have questions about open positions, please get in touch with the relevant faculty member listed on the position. For general program inquiries, please contact Candace Haigler, our Crop Science Director of Graduate Programs.
If you are a high school student interested in agronomy or crop science (or know someone who is), learn more about our multiple degree programs and sign up for an email exploration of our department’s undergraduate studies.
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