Brittany Hennig: A year as a Canola Agronomy Specialist

April 5, 2018

A year with the Canola Council of Canada as an Agronomy Specialist

by Brittany Hennig, now a University Of Alberta Masters Student

It’s been a busy year. Get comfortable, because this is one heck of a recap!

Brittany Hennig

In February 2017, I was presented with an opportunity that pushed me outside of my comfort zone, to cover a maternity leave with the Canola Council of Canada and become an Agronomy Specialist in Southern Alberta. This change was challenging as I not only moved cities, but I also left a full time, permanent agronomy position in my hometown. I grew up in a rural community east of Edmonton, and although both sides of my family farm, my agricultural experience is somewhat limited. After switching from the pre-veterinary program to crop sciences at the University of Alberta, I began working predominantly in agronomy-based sales positions, and when applying for the Agronomy Specialist position with the Canola Council, I thought it would be a similar experience. I was wrong.

Other than my somewhat brief education in agriculture from post-secondary, I grew my knowledge in the practical agronomy/sales positions in a professional setting. I continue to find agronomy fascinating and worked hard to provide my customers with the best knowledge and service available. As overwhelming as the agriculture world is when you don’t have a background in it – I tried to take away something different from each task I was assigned.

I did not have much knowledge of who the Canola Council of Canada (CCC) was, and how the provincial grower groups worked. I will admit, other than the CCC pamphlets in my desk drawers and the winter/summer Alberta Canola agronomy events, my knowledge of how these organizations operated and the value it offered to the industry was inadequate.

As someone who struggled to “catch up” with how the agricultural industry operated, and how it influenced our national economy, my goal in this article is to try and increase your awareness for what an Agronomy Specialist with the Canola Council of Canada does – and how they work for canola growers and the industry.

I’ll begin by emphasizing that each Agronomy Specialist with the CCC has separate duties and tasks – but hopefully by sharing the work I completed in a year, you will have a better general understanding.

Champion/Leads:

Every year, each AS takes on topics that they excel in naturally and creates key messaging for the entire team to study/learn. For example Dan Orchard, Agronomy Specialist from central ALberta North, is the Clubroot lead. He keeps everyone updated on clubroot and its progression by bridging the gap between researchers and growers.

For 2017, I took on developing CCC’s Tillage documents, and for 2018 I developed the Importance of Crop Scouting document. Each required a significant amount of time reading peer reviewed papers and statistics to develop a well-rounded, scientific based view on these topics. Alongside Western Manitoba Agronomy Specialist Justine Cornelsen, I also helped with creating a strategy and protocol for Social Media, specifically for each Agronomy Specialist individual twitter profile’s, and the ‘Canola Council of Canada – Agronomy’ Facebook page.

CanolaPALOOZA:

I attended this event a few times as an Agronomist – but at the beginning of my term with CCC, I was asked to work on the 2017 CanolaPALOOZA fertility plots. I jumped at the offer as I was fresh from a fertilizer dealership. I had a ton of ideas and interests, and I was lucky enough to put them into action and develop the session into 14 plots containing a urease inhibitor, polymer coated urea, sawdust for immobilization and dositubs to measure volatilization – to name a few.

A turning point in my professional development came as I realized how much I enjoyed setting up trials, watching them develop, and then discussing with Palooza attendees what we saw/learned. I also realized the time and work commitment it required; I visited the AAFC Lacombe site at least once a week after it was seeded on May 5th to document changes and growth.

I took on the responsibility of planning the full event for 2018 until Autumn Barnes returned in March. To help with a smooth transition, I tried to get all the logistics planned prior to her return. This involved Material & Methods, Site Map, Event Outline with sessions, New Machinery, Seed & MTA’s, and Speakers. Although I am obviously not involved with the planning process anymore, I am really excited to go back to the site on June 27th to see how it all unfolded! (FYI – AAFC Lacombe research centre. BE THERE.)

canoLAB:

Again, this is an event that I had attended a few times as an Agronomist – but when I was placed in the ‘herbicides and weeds’ session with Ian Epp and Neil Harker at the Alberta canoLAB on my first day with CCC, I was instantly intimidated by who I would be working with. I remembered thinking: “How could be qualified to teach alongside them?” – but realized this was just the beginning, and I had better start learning.

canoLAB Top Gun:

Brittany Henning, looks on at canoLAB Top Gun – an event that she took a lead role in organizing

This was a COOL event to help bring to life. You can check out the article I wrote on it here as to why CCC and Alberta Canola decided to reformat the event – but I wanted to highlight the experience I had. We began planning this event in April of 2017 and this event consumed a lot of my term. The only thing similar from the past canoLABs was that: the word ‘canoLAB’. From organizing the main 3-day (over three months) canoLAB Top Gun event, to planning three separate sessions with live plants at the FarmTech Alberta Canola booth, and finishing off the series with three flight schools was in total a four month experience. I will never again underestimate the work of event organizers and estimating food amount for caterers – that in itself gave me gray hairs. I also had to change my mind set of seeding in May.

Instead, we had to determine what the canoLAB Top Gun Agronomists wanted to see, when they wanted to see it by, and then subtract days in relation to maturity to determine planting date. There were so many moving parts that I sometimes just had to watch an episode of Real Housewives to zen me… Ultimately, I look forward to hearing the reviews from participants – as well as how Alberta Canola and CCC plan the future canoLAB’s. I am hopeful that this new format increased engagement and learning experience among agronomists – even though the number of physical participants decreased.

Workplan:

As with any job, expectations are established every year with what the position requires to be successful. Although many components vary per Agronomy Specialist, as previously mentioned, there are some tasks that are consistent:

  • We work with provincial specialists and help with insect and disease monitoring – aiming for at least 2 insect traps and 10 disease surveys a year.
  • We also focus on getting out to retails and ensuring they have the resources required to have a successful year; I was able to visit 95% of my 62 retails at least once throughout my term.
  • We attend as many crop tours as possible in the summer – regardless of the crop. Specifically, I attended nine tours throughout Central and Southern Alberta, varying from Canola, Corn, Faba Beans, Soybeans, Wheat, Barley, Peas, Sugarbeets and Sunflowers.
  • Public Outreach is an area that both the CCC and Provincial Grower groups see as important measures to educate non-industry consumers. I was able to educate at Lethbridge College, Calgary Stampede, and two Open Farm Days (Lethbridge and Lacombe).
  • A new project that was put forward in 2017 were the sentinel sites. All Agronomy Specialist’s had at least one field that they visited weekly. Not only did this help ground us in a field for an hour a week to understand where the crop was and current growing conditions, but fortunately most of us had a successful sentinel site. We are called to problematic canola fields throughout the year – and the sentinel site was typically a field that reminded us why canola was so great. If there was anything unusual, we discussed it in our weekly CanolaWatch call (ie. Diamondback moths).

CanolaWatch:

This is a resource that I took for granted as a retail agronomist. I had no idea how these articles came about and who were bringing them to life. Being a part of these conversations was awesome – there is so much experience on one phone call. Aside from the ten agronomists/growers each Agronomy Specialist would call on for territory updates, provincial specialists, agronomy specialists, and canola provincial groups all joined the call… I added where I could, but to solely be present on the call provided me with an abundance of information to add to my agricultural knowledge. During the busy months, CanolaWatch comes out weekly, but as the seasons slow, one article a month is distributed.

Brittany at the University of Alberta greenhouses

The Canola Council of Canada is very supportive in professional development and position related training.  I had the opportunity to visit the UK with SW Saskatchewan Agronomy Specialist, Nicole Philp, in the fall to attend the British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) and British Mycological Society (BMS) Fungal Control and Exploitation Presidential meeting (whoa – mouthful). We learned about current pathology research occurring in crops – grain, fruits and vegetables. We then headed to the Northern Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge and learned about their Oilseed Rape challenges, as well as their variety registration process. Both of these events really opened my eyes to agriculture challenges and diversity occurring at a global scale.

Although my position with the CCC was temporary, I couldn’t have imagined learning all that I had in 12 months when I first started. Each one of these interactions and experiences made me realize where I wanted to go next in my career. I presented to a group of roughly 100 growers at a Powering Your Profits tour on Genetic Resistance Breakdown and Fungicide Sensitivity – although nerve racking, that opportunity proved to me that I enjoyed teaching others what I have been researching and learning. Working with the sentinel sites reminded me I enjoyed working outside, scouting crops – with fresh air. Organizing canoLAB Top Gun and CanolaPalooza showed me I not only enjoy planning events, but I also really like setting up trials and watching them develop. I was able to experience the best of both worlds; research and agronomy.

Much of this helped me to decide – after 7 years of in-field experience – that I would like to obtain my Master of Science in Crop Pathology. I can further develop my knowledge of how to conduct research, understand crop pathology cycles, and then in turn provide practical help for growers in becoming more successful in their fields. Though I always thought about going back to school, this intelligent and encouraging Canola Family has opened another door in the agriculture industry for me; one I never knew much about.

I purposely focussed on my projects that occurred these past 12 months in this article – but there are 9 other Agronomy Specialists throughout the prairies that work on so many different avenues within canola. Canola Performances Trials, the Ultimate Canola Challenge, Blackleg Steering Group, Clubroot Steering Group, Honey Bee Health Coalition, “Operation Pollinator” and Sustainability metrics are just a few projects/groups that keep this Crop Production and Innovation team busy and on their toes. If you are ever unsure of events going, or how your levy dollars are being used, make sure you use all resources provided online to stay up to date; follow the Agronomy Specialist’s on twitter, the CCC Agronomy Facebook page, sign up for CanolaWatch and your respective provincial grower group newsletter (Alberta Canola, Sask Canola, and the Manitoba Canola Growers), get active in participating in trials and agronomy events, and attend meetings in your area!

There are so many ways to get involved and learn from this team – I highly encourage you to do so. I’ll continue my involvement and hope to see you there!


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