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Farm Babe: Stay ahead of the field with these careers in plant science


Horticulture was the class I took as a senior in high school for an easy “A.” Learning about plants? I chuckled as the stoners in school only showed up because they heard that part of horticulture was “weed science,” and they had no idea about invasive plants. Other students slept.

I remember once in that class we learned how to plant corn in the school garden, but I never thought I’d grow up to fall in love with a commercial corn grower. Even though I wasn’t that interested in plants as a teenager, now I find it to be one of the most amazing and interesting type of careers you can have. Plant scientists are working hard every day to improve our food supply — from making more flavorful fruits and veggies, new varieties that allow farmers to have higher yields or use less pesticides, drought tolerance, fortified with more vitamins/nutrients, save plants from diseases, have longer shelf life … the list goes on!

On our farm we choose to plant several varieties of corn, but here is a quick video to explain how the technology of these seeds work:

Seven modes of action! Less insect infestation means higher quality grain and no more insecticide spray. Science and technology have improved every aspect of our lives, and food/farming is no exception. Sometimes when scientists develop new crop varieties it can take years or even decades to get them on the shelf, and in my opinion, it is one of the most unacknowledged careers out there.

Take Dr. Norman Borlaug for example. A humanitarian credited with saving a billion lives … and most people have never heard of him.

Considering how underappreciated these scientists are, I decided to reach out to my favorite scientist to discuss different careers in plants. Dr. Kevin M. Folta, Chairman and Professor of Horticulture at University of Florida, helps me explain the different terms.

“Careers in plant breeding are broken down into two parts: production and genetics,” Folta says. “As the population continues to grow, we must figure out how to sustainably feed these people using fewer resources. Scientists operate from the laboratory to the field.”

The way I see it, the lives of plants are similar to that of any other living creature. For us as humans, we need medicine, food, nutrients, bugspray, sunscreen, and many other products to protect ourselves and allow us to thrive. Plants are living just like us and can get diseases, bug bites … they too have always and will always need human intervention to prosper. So here are a few careers in plant breeding that are very much in demand; and what they mean to us. What is the difference between these career titles?

Botanist: Botany is the academic study of plant biology, covering a variety of specialties such as anatomy, physiology, taxonomy, and population ecology. Botanists do the research, and agronomists and horticulturalists apply that research in the field.

Horticulturalist: In horticulture, ornamental crops, fruits, and vegetables are the focus. Scientists research improvements in plants and pass on that research to the farmers who grow these crops.

Agronomist: Agronomy is similar to horticulture except agronomists focus more on commodity crops like wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, and peanuts. Their priority is how to maximize genetics and improve production. They focus on the environment, fertilization, and how to harmonize that with management.

Folta explains, “These careers with plants are similar to being a veterinarian. Large animal vets focus on cattle and horses, where small animal vets stick with domestic animals. While there is a lot of overlap, there’s also a lot of specialization.” Good analogy, as all of these careers are unique and different, yet important in their own way.

Plant genetic improvement: Plant genetic improvement can be broken down into traditional breeding for the future of global food security — possibly creating new plants that don’t yet exist. Breeders may facilitate plant sex/traditional plant breeding or implement newer breeding techniques like gene editing/CRISPR. Students interested in these emerging technologies should load up on STEM and realize there is a huge demand for this type of career and that the sky is the limit in this very exciting career path full of new and ever-changing plant breeding techniques. Nobody knows what these new plant breeding methods may have in store yet. The beauty of science!

Pathologist: Plant pathology is the study of diseases. Just like in humans, medical research looks for and discovers cures for disease; plant pathologists research pathogens (viral, bacterial, and fungal contaminants) in crops. New pathogens are discovered all the time. Lots of scouting is involved — these experts will have their fingers on the symptoms. Pathologists could also help farmers having problems with nematodes, herbicide drift, or insect pests. Farmers describe symptoms, and pathologists research the solutions. Just like in medicine, pathologists can refer to other specialists. This is also the reason why farmers may have to use pesticides or seed treatments. Just like we need medicine to be well, plants need help with this also, so that we do not eat sick and diseased produce.

It’s so important to realize just how much science and research goes into the food we eat. Nothing we eat is “natural,” and feeding billions upon billions of humans and animals will never be easy. Fortunately we have these amazing careers and people behind studies to improve humanity while growing better, more bountiful harvests, and using less resources. Being a farmer is a science-based career that depends on these experts, and they all deserve great praise. Check out #ActualLivingFarmer and #ScientistsArePeople on Twitter to connect with more of these folks!

People are becoming more and more interested in learning how their food is produced, but it often times feels like no one knows a scientist. Take some time, explore these careers and the work these folks do so you can learn firsthand about plant breeding and the excellent work for humanity these intelligent people do. Who knows, you just may inspire a student to develop the next big crop development that can have dramatic improvements for mankind.


Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.

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