Meet the ag graduates showing how they’ve used their degrees
THE GRADUATE: SAM OTTAWAY, 26, MORNINGTON PENINSULA
Sam Ottaway always had a soft spot for plants.
“For me, when I watch plants grow it’s a bit like watching my babies I suppose,” says the 26-year-old La Trobe graduate, who completed a Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree last year.
Growing up in a family of botanists on the Mornington Peninsula, Sam was surrounded by horticulture. But, he didn’t see a future in agriculture until he enrolled at La Trobe.
“I started working when I was 18 and worked in local orchards, mainly apple, pear and with avocados for a bit,” Sam says. “I always enjoyed working with nature and biology and had a strong passion for animals and wildlife.”
The Ag Science course opened his eyes to a career in agronomy and applied plant research.
Sam describes the work as “a challenge of a lifetime”.
“There is such a long history of invention and political stratification that is a result of agriculture,” he says, explaining why it captures his imagination.
“The thing with horticulture is it is mainly run by private enterprises. So, there is not as much room for engagement as a young person.
“In biology, the landscape is always going to be changing. There is always new technology and new discovery.”
THE JOB: GRADUATE AGRONOMIST, WESTERN AG
Sam was spoilt for choice when he started job hunting, adding evidence to statistics that suggest there are six jobs for every agriculture graduate.
With multiple offers, he accepted a position in Bannockburn with leading agronomic company Western Ag.
“I am still in training,” Sam says.
“Consultation on general agronomy for broadacre farms is something I need to learn a lot more about.”
The research part of Sam’s role involves evaluating new crop and pasture production as well as protection products and farming systems.
Sam’s manager, James Jess, is one of Western Ag’s 17 agronomists and has more than 10 years’ experience in the industry, which involves advising farmers about how to increase soil productivity, quality of seed and the nutritional value of crops. He says an ag degree partially prepares students for the role, but the real challenge begins the day they start work as an agronomist.
“To say you come out of uni and are fit to do the job from the day dot is a myth,” James says. “Students need to be aware that uni is a stepping stone that gives you the ability to source information easily.”
La Trobe co-ordinator of Ag Science Dr James Hunt agrees: “We try to teach them how to think and have a good attitude and they learn the applied stuff on the job afterward.”
James Jess says Western Ag recruits when it needs to cover gaps in its client base or move into new industry areas. “We service everything from potatoes to canola, wheat, chick peas, lentils, to hemp,” James says. “Sam fit the job description — someone who had the ability to conduct research trials for Western Ag. This gives us the opportunity to evaluate new products and farming practices in high quality trials before they are used by farmers.”
James says one of the biggest challenges for young agronomists is to gain the trust of farmers.
“I’m dealing with guys who are 50, 60, 70 years old and who have sons on their property in their 40s. But you have to gain their trust as well, because they are the key decision makers,” James says.
THE DEGREE: BACHELOR OF AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE, LA TROBE UNIVERSITY
Dr Hunt says the La Trobe course focuses firmly on ag-related science.
“It doesn’t cover practical on-farm skills,” Dr Hunt says. Instead, it teaches soil science, pathology, plant disease, animal nutrition and economics.
“Students are really pretty broadly prepared for agriculture careers,” Dr Hunt says. “A lot end up as commercial agronomists in the field, cropping or dairy industries. A fair number go into government jobs as animal health officers and some go on to do research.”
Sam tailored his study to include microbiology and technology, which was an exciting mix for the plant lover.
“They gave me a little leeway in my studies,” Sam says. “I did a lot of research while I was there.”
Sam cut genes out of plants to investigate the role of proteins in germination and worked on a winter wheat breeding program in the new AgriBio centre. “It is an amazing facility and the exposure to research is absolutely brilliant,” Sam says. “I really hope in the future with food security being such a global issue, that more people take an interest in the wider world and get involved.”
THE GRADUATE: JEMMA MCDOUGALL, 24, TATYOON
Jemma McDougall is the sixth generation of her family to grow up on their Tatyoon farm, south of Ararat.
“From a very young age I was always heavily involved,” the 24-year-old says.
“Always on hand during lambing and calving, always on tractors.”
As a boarder at Ballarat Grammar, she excelled in ag — it was her best subject.
When she finished Year 12, everyone was expecting great agricultural things from her, which was part of the reason Jemma shied away and took a different path.
However, after pursuing creative writing and finishing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, she realised how much she missed agriculture.
“I came back to study, and did a Masters in Agricultural Science with a specialisation in agribusiness,” she says.
“For me it was just the best fit.”
THE JOB: AGRIBUSINESS ANALYST, NAB
Jemma was offered a job with NAB before she graduated. She describes her role as banking for farmers.
She helps clients with equipment finance, loans, buying farms and other financial services to help them run an agriculture business.
“I think it is always a bit of a shock to step out of uni into the working world,” Jemma says. “But I think uni taught me the right approach to have. I use my financial knowledge every day but knowing how you process beef or grow wool means I can find that connection with clients and have the background knowledge.”
NAB Head of Agribusiness for Victoria and Tasmania Neil Findlay says NAB recruits about 16 graduates a year, four every quarter. The bank looks for people with a broad understanding of agriculture and farming operations.
“The critical pieces for us are people who are passionate about the industry, and the ability to be mobile and move out to regional areas where agriculture actually happens,” Mr Findlay says. “About 90 per cent of my business is in regional Victoria and Tasmania.
That is sometimes the challenge, to get people to move to the places where there is a lot of agriculture.”
He says the role of an agribusiness analyst is to support managers with a portfolio of clients.
“Certainly there is variety in the work,” Mr Findlay says. “From Sunraysia with almonds and wine grapes and horticulture to the cropping belt, livestock belt and dairy.”
The four current graduates are posted in Sunraysia, the Wimmera, Gippsland and central Victoria.
“They have all started with a different industry base,” Mr Findlay says.
As far as Jemma is concerned, her location in Shepparton is a perfect fit.
“I was incredibly lucky I was offered a job with NAB before I graduated,” she says. “They were almost the first company I applied for.”
THE COURSE: MASTER OF AGRICULTURAL SCIENCES, UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE
Melbourne Uni’s Masters of Agricultural Sciences degree runs for two years full time and students can specialise in agribusiness, animal science, crop production science or food sustainability.
Jemma chose agribusiness.
“My base subjects were all financial,” Jemma says. “But I was also able to take a few breadth subjects. I did Meat and Meat Products, which was all about how to grow meats from paddock to plate. I did a subject on genetics and animal breeding, and other really fascinating things that weren’t as financial.”
Growing up on a farm, Jemma says it never occurred to her that there were career options such as agricultural financial services, until she started her Masters degree.
“I’ve always known the breadth of agriculture. But I had my eyes open to it much more through the course,” she says, “particularly looking at post farm-gate operating in the agribusiness sphere, and it is where I’ve ended up working.”
Another valuable part of the course was a university-organised mentoring program. During her final year of study, Jemma was paired with beef farmer Nick Sher, who runs Sher Wagyu.
“He told me a lot about how his operation works and I met up with him at his farm,” Jemma says. “My mentoring program started when I started looking for jobs and I was flat out panicking about what I would do and where I would go.
You hear the job market is really tough to crack. Nick was the voice of reason, he said take it one step at a time, and it doesn’t matter if it takes you six months.
She needn’t have worried.
“A large part was down to the education I had and the mentoring program,” she says. “I was calm and focused on where I wanted to go.”
THE GRADUATE: TAHNEE MANNING, 43, BALLARAT
Tahnee Manning grew up in Ulverstone, a small country town on the northwest coast of Tasmania.
She finished school at Year 10 in the 1990s and spent 20 years working in hospitality.
After having a family, Tahnee felt unfulfilled with her career choice.
She had watched local farming families face more difficulties over the years, and saw the challenges becoming more frequent in the face of climate change.
“Mainly I was aware of issues getting harder and harder and I thought I could be involved in research to help the system,” she says.
So, she headed to uni.
“We are so lucky to live in a country where you can have a second, third and fourth chance when it comes to our education,” she says. “We can keep going back.”
THE ROLE: PHD CANDIDATE AND RESEARCHER, RMIT
Tahnee proves there is no age limit to decide you want to make a difference to regional communities.
She took a second stab at education in her late 30s and discovered a passion for plant science.
In particular, she was fascinated with chloroplasts, where photosynthesis occurs, and is now working on postgraduate research that could transform agriculture by improving photosynthesis.
Tahnee has taken a shelved tobacco study and extended it to potatoes and canola.
“A lot of our work is proof of concept. What I have developed is a research tool that will help expand our knowledge about the enzyme rubisco and its interactions with other proteins within plants,” she says. “We are hoping to be able to improve its kenetic activity and thus improve photosynthesis.
“We really wanted to see if we could extend it into crop plants, so we picked potatoes, which is in the Solanaceae plant family, similar to tobacco.
“I’m funded by the Grains Research and Development Council. They have supported me with a grains research scholarship. That is my closest industry tie. “
Although her work is academic, it is no stroll in the park. Tahnee commutes from Ballarat to RMIT’s Bundoora campus four days a week, a 2.5-hour train journey each way.
“I’m very lucky in that my supervisors are happy for me to do the writing at home,” she says.
In her spare time, Tahnee visits regional schools to inspire rural secondary students to pursue maths and science.
She has been involved in RMIT’s fly into STEM program, in which uni students visit secondary schools to illustrate how science and math careers can help industries in their home communities.
For Tahnee, the tangible benefits of her research are within sight.
THE COURSE: BACHELOR OF APPLIED SCIENCE, RMIT
Before enrolling in a bachelor’s degree, Tahnee needed to brush up on her math and science knowledge, especially since she wanted to study molecular science.
TAFE was her first stop.
She completed a Certificate IV in Laboratory Operation and was accepted to a bachelor’s degree course at the University of Tasmania.
After relocating to Ballarat part-way through her course and transferring to Bachelor of Applied Science at RMIT, Tahnee completed her degree with an honours year.
And now she is applying all she learned to her groundbreaking research.
“If we could improve photosynthesis, we could improve crop yield without inputs,” she says. It is a small breakthrough that could have huge impact on rural communities.