Agronomy during COVID-19

Pubs closed, toilet paper an aspirational item, roadblocks on state borders, social gatherings limited to two people. COVID-19 has turned day-to-day life as we know it on its head – but what about life for an agronomist?

It’s widely agreed that agronomists started social distancing before it had a name – long days in a vehicle mainly communicating with clients by phone. So, for many it’s been business as usual; but with some subtle changes.  

As would be expected, the magnitude of these changes varies a lot depending on the size and nature of the agronomy business.

Damien Erbacher runs Dawson Ag Consulting at Theodore in Central Queensland, a one-man operation. With the continuity of his business heavily dependent on his health and fitness, he’s taken extra steps to ensure good hygiene and social distancing.

“I’ve had a discussion with all my clients about how we communicate with minimal face to face contact and they’ve all been pretty responsive”.

“It hasn’t changed what we do that much – a lot of communication was on the phone and if we need to catch up in the paddock, we exercise social distancing”.

Damien has also been diligent in using sanitised wipes when having external contact such as fuel stations and at the supermarket.     

As expected, larger organisations have also instigated strict hygiene and distancing measures across their teams.

Ben Dawson is an agronomist with B & W Rural at Moree, NSW – a branch with 13 staff, including 6 agronomists.

B & W have taken the approach of minimising contact between staff and between clients.

“We’ve split our merchandise and administration team that work out of our Moree office in two – so one team works one week and the other team the next so if we did have an infection the whole team is not at risk”.

“Our agronomists have based themselves from home so they’re not going into the branch at all”.

On-farm, Ben said most of the work is business as usual with most communication done by phone but avoiding people travelling together in vehicles.

While everything keeps functioning adequately Ben concedes he misses the face-to face contact with colleagues and clients.

“It’s useful being in the office and talking to the merchandise guys and other agronomists about what’s going on and a lot of decisions are made on farm around a kitchen table or in the front seat of a ute with a farmer”.

Amongst the challenges have been new opportunities utilising new communication channels.

The COVID-19 crowd rules saw a rapid end to the popular breakfast meetings B & W Rural held for their clients – an opportunity to discuss what’s happening around the district and new products amongst other things.

Not deterred, they started using the Zoom platform – streaming the meetings live and then having them available to watch later.

Ben was amazed with the response with over 200 farmers taking part in their meetings across several branches.

“We had some farmers on their computer, some streaming on their phones while they were driving around. Going forward, we’ll probably still stream the meetings on Zoom when we can get back to face to face as a lot of people find it convenient.”

Keeping clear channels of communication functioning is a bigger challenge than most for the team at Michael Castor and Associates (MCA). Michael’s team is comprised of 16 agronomists over three offices, and services clients from Belatta NSW to Dulacca QLD and therefore straddles the (closed) state border.

MCA Agronomist Tim Richards said while the restrictions imposed by the virus hampered many aspects of their operation – it had also fast-tracked some innovations in communication their team had been seeking to implement anyway. 

Tim said their team was utilising the Zoom video-conferencing facility heavily for communication both within their team and with clients.

“We’ve shut down our offices with everyone working from home so Zoom meetings have replaced or normal Monday morning staff meetings around the coffee table in the office.”

“On farm we’re aiming for less face-to-face contact with clients so we’re utilising Zoom there also – allowing us to have a discussion but also screen-share spreadsheets so we’re looking at the same thing.”

“This technology was something we’d hoped to use more anyway, and the restrictions have sped it up – made it happen.”

Tim said the biggest challenge of the COVID-19 restrictions has been training young agronomists.

“While the young agronomists are the most tech-savvy, you can’t replace the time spent in the paddock, over a beat-sheet or in the front of a ute with an experienced agronomist”.

So, when the restrictions are finished, pubs are open and toilet paper freely available – will the lives of agronomists return to normal also?

Certainly, the way consultants and their clients have embraced technology out of necessity during COVID-19 has clearly broken down some psychological barriers to adoption. It has also given us the opportunity to experiment and consider how it might enhance our service delivery in the future and some changes might be with us to stay.

Most agree however, that technology will never replace showing a young agronomist a rarely-seen leaf disease, a counter-meal catch-up on a wet day, a face-to-face conversation,  walk through a crop or a cuppa at the kitchen table with our clients.