Growing ag's next generation

10 Apr, 2014 02:00 AM
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Without the best and the brightest we won’t be able to overcome the future hurdles

AS an agronomist Sharon O’Keeffe has spent much of her working life helping farmers grow higher yielding and more profitable crops.

But she’s also keen on encouraging the growth of agriculture’s next generation and seeing rural communities thrive.

Sharon, 34, is the northern regional manager for the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) based at Boggabri - a community of just 800 between Gunnedah and Narrabri in northern NSW.

It was one of the first places she lived and worked as an agronomist with Queensland Cotton.

In the years following, Sharon moved on to work with Landmark where she managed the company's agronomic and farm services for northern NSW and Queensland and worked as a field agronomist in various locations across the north before taking up her current position with the GRDC in 2012.

"I've got an interesting career that I absolutely love - that makes you that little bit more passionate about it," she said.

Sharon grew up at Bingara with farming in the blood on both sides of the family.

On her mother's side her great grandfather grew the first wheat in the district, while on her father's side agronomy and farming is up to the sixth generation.

Her mother, Kerrie, a school teacher and journalist, was originally from Moree while her father, Paul, was a trainee agronomist from the southern NSW before he purchased land at Bingara.

While they sold the family farm when Sharon was 9, the family maintained close ties to agriculture.

For Sharon, who attended Hurlstone Agricultural High School, agriculture was an obvious career choice.

She did a Bachelor of Rural Science at the University of New England and went on to complete her Masters in Agriculture.

"When you add all that into the mix I pretty much ticked all the boxes to end up working in agriculture and loving it," she said.

She believes strategic research has to be the best investment a farmer makes.

"What GRDC invest their levies in has to be delivered to farmers at the paddock level," she said.

"Without a good strategy and making sure we are listening to what issues farmers are facing we won't get anywhere.

"It's all about ensuring farmers’ needs and wants in those fields are carried out in a practical sense and making sure it fits the local farming system."

In her role, Sharon looks after a number of regional style projects, such as agronomy solution groups.

"We meet with farmers, find out what issues they are having, prioritise, find out what research is being done and then do the research on that and deliver it back to them on a local level," she said.

"It's taking the outcomes of our bigger research projects and making sure they fit and develop within the actual farming system."

One of the larger projects Sharon is developing is GrowNotes.

This was piloted in the north and GRDC has now launched notes for wheat, barley and durum.

"We talked to farmers to find out what they wanted - they wanted easier access to research and information so they could make changes to their production and profitability.

"GrowNotes is the first step in that."

Sharon also sits on a lot of the steering groups representing the northern region.

"The northern region probably has the most diverse climate and cropping regime of any of the Australian agricultural industry," she said.

"So a big part of this is making sure when we look at the different issues, we make sure they suit the northern region.

"You could say I'm a little bit parochial about the region, but fundamentally my job is to represent the northern area."

Sharon is fervent about the need to attract the next generation into agriculture and encourage them.

"We need to be working on teaching the next generation the importance of research and agronomy," she said.

"People are our industry and without the best and the brightest we won’t be able to overcome the future hurdles."

The Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 is a joint initiative of Emerald Grain and Fairfax Agricultural Media supported by Syngenta.

Read more of our 100's stories here

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