An agronomist is a professional who practices, or does research in the area of, agronomy, which is the art and science of managing field crops and the soils beneath them. Agronomy emerged early in the twentieth century when this component of agriculture involving the growing of plants was separated from animal husbandry. It has continued to evolve as subcategories develop within the crop and soil sciences, such as the study of forage crops, tropical cropping systems, weed science, and turf science and management (the growth of grasses for golf courses and parks).
Seed science and technology, agro-forestry (the growth of timber in plantations), agricultural economics and engineering, and the nutrition, physiology , and ecology of crop plants are other interests of agronomists. They also often concentrate on soil conservation and the structural, chemical, and physical properties of soil that affect the growth of crops. Because of this extensive diversification, professionals working in these fields now often use the specialty to define their occupation rather than the broader designation of agronomist. All of these disciplines contribute toward increasing the productivity of farmlands, enhancing the quality of the agricultural product, and improving the economic efficiency of farming practices.
Because farming cannot always occur under optimal plant growth conditions, many agronomists focus on the utilization of marginal habitats and problems occurring in the less-industrialized countries. These include conditions such as fields under frequent water deficiency, where dry-land farming practices can be utilized, and farming on nutrient-poor soils. Others seek to make plants grow under saline conditions; in extremely hot or cold environments; or in habitats with abbreviated growing seasons. Many of these challenges can be resolved through traditional plant breeding or the application of biotechnology.
These scientifically based aspects of the profession require undergraduate college study. In the United States, this is frequently at federally established land-grant universities. Many of these individuals become farm managers or owners, county agricultural agents, or work in industry or the federal government. Students interested in these subjects need to follow a college preparatory track focusing on science, computer, and writing skills and, where possible, courses covering practices in business and agriculture. Internships or applied experience in agricultural operations can provide practical information that is very useful in making career decisions. Furthermore, the continually increasing emphasis on scientific research by agronomists provides opportunities for trained scientists to contribute to the growth of knowledge in agronomy. Masters degree and doctorate programs can be entered as a continuation of undergraduate applied study, or following liberal arts degrees, particularly in biology or geology with an emphasis on soil science.
Hillel, Daniel J. Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.