Young agronomists benefit from company career path

As two of Nutrien Ag Solutions’ next generation of young agronomists, Reece Heuir and Isaac Chizik work 3000 kilometres apart and in very different conditions. 

Both, however, are making the most of the opportunity to learn – from farmers, colleagues and the pests and diseases that appear in the paddocks. 

The grandson of sugar cane farmers in Queensland’s Burdekin region, Reece took up a job as a crop monitor on university holidays, which led to a position as a trainee agronomist in Nutrien’s Ayr office, working on capsicum, chilli, eggplant, watermelon, rockmelon and honeydew crops. 

Isaac came from an urban background in Victoria, where he completed a degree in Science at Monash University. He also completed three years of a medical degree before deciding he wanted a career change that still involved science and drew on his strong background in chemistry – leading him to working with Nutrien Ag Solutions in Wynyard, in the state’s key potato growing region. 

Both Reece and Isaac have completed the company’s two-year graduate agronomist program, which includes two group visits a year to growing regions in other states. They’ve gained accreditation in chemical use, completed soil management and fertiliser courses, and honed their craft in the paddock alongside senior Nutrien agronomists with up to 45 years’ experience. 

Reece says it’s been a big learning curve, but rewarding work. 

“When I started, I was really just eyes in the field, I didn’t understand how diseases presented on plant tissue and what nutritional deficiencies looked like, or pests,” he remembered. 

“I shadowed the senior agronomist and the two of us would start at one end of block and walk separately across each bay of veges, pull up at a plant and turn over every leaf, check every flower and make a tally of what we found. 

“At the end she would show me how to average out the insects, pests, and diseases or deficiencies to make recommendations for treatment. It’s a lot of learning to start with but that builds your confidence and then your relationship with growers.” 

Reece Heuir North Queensland

Pictured: Reece Heuir, inspecting a chilli crop in North Queensland

Reece graduated with a degree in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Queensland, but it took a while for him to become confident in making ‘recs’ for the broadacre beans and mung bean crops that have become his focus. 

One bonus was the 15 or so agronomists in the Ayr office who could help him with the detective work, to follow the clues and anticipate an outbreak. 

“The best thing about the job is making new connections with growers. It’s easy for a company to say ‘You need to spray’ if it just wants to sell chemical, but being able to show them photos and a spreadsheet of what you actually found develops their trust,” he said. 

“You feel as if you’re helping them to grow a better crop. And at the end of the day if a farmer is happy after their first pick, that’s a good thing. In a bad year, whether it’s pricing or weather or markets, you feel disappointed. You want them to do well.” 

The arrival of fall armyworm in the Burdekin in 2020 was a major challenge. Corn and sorghum growers were forced out of business and as a junior, Reece watched as his more experienced colleagues worked frantically to develop control programs. 

“At the start no-one really knew how to manage them. But with research and trial and error we found a way, and people are growing those crops again. I first had a big problem with them in capsicums,” Reece said. 

“We were using chemicals that killed the armyworm but it was more about whether they were necessary, or if the crop at some stages could resist the worms. You don’t want to develop chemical resistance. 

“The best thing about Nutrien is that we are trained in all the new products coming to market – we’re a big branch so it’s easy to bring in new ideas and products and deal with problems that come up.” 

As a local born and raised in the Burdekin, Reece knows local conditions and how the weather shapes up across the year, which helps with anticipating pest pressure. But he’s also working in the catchment area for the Great Barrier Reef, which has its own challenges. 

Through Nutrien’s graduate agronomist program, he’s enjoyed meeting his interstate colleagues on the company’s twice-yearly training trips. 

“As graduates we travelled to Melbourne, Fremantle, South Australia and the Sunshine Coast, to meet management, learn more about the company and take part in field excursions. We still have a big group chat where we can ask each other questions or share knowledge,” he said. 

In Tasmania, Isaac Chizik reports to Craig Dwyer, Nutrien Ag Solutions’ business manager for the Wynyard branch, which employs three agronomists and logistics and IT specialists to service local potato farmers as well as growers of poppies, onions and some cereal crops. 

Isaac Chizik Tasmania

Pictured: Agronomist, Isaac Chizik in Tasmania, surveying a thriving fodder beet crop

Craig has been with Nutrien Ag Solutions for 25 years, and when he first started his career in Hobart, there were two agronomists servicing the whole state. Now there are close to 30, all working to boost productivity in agriculture. 

To be a successful agronomist, he said, requires the right attitude and the application. 

“Isaac has a real interest in the industry and a passion for communication, and he has the ability to pull out relevant information and deliver to the farmer what they need to hear,” Craig said. 

“Sometimes farmers don’t want to be told a lot of scientific detail, they just want to know what will do the job and how long it will take. Clients value solid advice but they value relationships just as much. 

“Isaac is very good at building those relationships, and that comes from being reliable and a good listener, as well as developing trust through being able to speak growers’ language. 

“And timeliness – products need to be delivered even if it’s 5pm on Friday. Guys who ring on Saturday know you’ll get them out of trouble and they value that.” 

A bonus for Isaac has been having access to a senior agronomist of 45 years’ experience and one of five years’ experience in the Wynyard office. While he’s trained by more experienced colleagues, Craig said Isaac brings his own skills to benefit the company. 

“Obviously being younger is an advantage because he’s really good in that digital space which is really taking off, things like variable rate spreading of fertiliser, carbon sequestration and sustainable farming practices. Isaac is all over that, which is a real value add for us. 

“The way New Zealand farming has gone with restrictions on nitrogen use means we need to be ahead of the game, so if you’re in that digital space and can map paddocks, it really takes it to the next level.” 

He sees the challenge for young agronomists as getting used to the fact that no two seasons are the same, which makes it very difficult for forecasting. 

“Two years ago, cattle prices went through the roof and everyone contemplated getting out of spuds and into beef. Now beef prices have fallen and potatoes are doing really well.” 

In North Queensland, Reece Heuir says he would definitely recommend a career as an agronomist with Nutrien Ag Solutions. 

“It’s such a massive company with the ability to access agronomists all over Australia and that networking side is the best factor. The team at Ayr is a massive positive,” he said.  

“Even if you’re in a branch where there’s only a handful of people, you can always pick up the phone and ring other Nutrien staff and get pointed in the right direction.”