At a Glance
Imagine standing outside on a chilly spring morning, your work boots damp from last night's light frost. You are standing in front of a group of area farmers, poised to begin your demonstration. It is early spring and these farmers are already preparing to begin seeding their crops next month. As a soil conservationist, you have invited these farmers to your seminar to discuss techniques for conserving soil, thereby increasing the productivity of their farms. These farmers understand how vital rich, fertile soil is to their operation, so they value your knowledge and suggestions for maintaining the land.
As a soil conservationist, you will spend the day with these farmers, demonstrating new techniques and sharing new ideas for conservation and sustainable farming practices. You've brought them to a test plot to demonstrate zero-tillage seeding. Most of these farmers have heard of reduced or zero till, but you want to show them first-hand how little soil is lost if you aren't ploughing or cultivating every time you seed in the spring. For most of these farmers, zero-till would mean new, costly equipment, but from a conservation and business standpoint, the long-term benefits are worth it.
After the tillage demonstration, you will discuss other conservation practices these farmers can implement in order to reduce soil erosion and nutrient depletion, for example, crop rotation and moisture management strategies. Through the course of the day, you will pass on a number of good ideas for conservation and management practices that the farmers can use to protect the productivity of their soil.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a soil conservationist:
- Research and test soil management practices such as crop rotation, reforestation, and reduced tillage.
- Communicate with farmers and land managers and make suggestions for conservation techniques.
- Review plans from land developers to ensure proper erosion control and runoff management measures have been taken.
- Develop management practices to make the best use of available moisture.
- Design and oversee the construction of soil conservation structures.
- Monitor land use to evaluate the effectiveness of land-use practices and plans.
- Analyze study results to determine the action required to maintain or restore proper soil management.
- Generate cost estimates for different conservation practices based on the needs of land users, maintenance requirements, and the life expectancy of specific practices.
- Participate in environmental impact assessments.
- Produce reports and deliver presentations to clients regarding conservation practices.
- Collaborate with communities to develop watershed- or landscape-based management plans according to federal or provincial legislation on soil conservation, environmental health, and water quality.
- Manage projects and supervise technical and professional staff.
Soil conservationists work in a variety of locations, including:
In the office:
- Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
- Using Geographic Information Systems software for making or adjusting maps
- Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and experts in the field
- Researching new technology and advancements in soil conservation
- Participating in committees for policy, regulation, and research and educational program development
In the field:
- Inspecting and testing crops and soils, and problem-solving with producers and land managers
- Monitoring water control structures, for example, ponds, irrigation systems, and small dams
- Conducting trial evaluations and comparing the impacts of different crops on the environment
- Making presentations to farmers, agriculture businesses, and other groups, and participating in field tours and training sessions
- Responding to requests from clients
Where to Work
There are a number of places soil conservationists can find employment. They include:
- Crop consulting and farm management firms
- Seed or horticulture companies
- Federal, provincial/territorial, or municipal government departments
- Colleges and universities
- Conservation agencies
Education and Skills
If you are a high school student considering a career as a soil conservationist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a soil conservationist is a university undergraduate degree. If you are interested in research, a graduate degree is usually required. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a soil conservationist, the following programs are most applicable:
- Soil Science
- Natural Resource Management
- Land Reclamation
Although in most cases it is not mandatory to become certified in order to work as a soil conservationist, some practitioners choose to apply for professional status, for example, Professional Agrologist. Requirements for certification and professional status vary among provinces.
My interest in agriculture came from living as a youth on a farm in Ireland. After high school I decided to pursue “green agriculture” – the growing of crops, however, it wasn’t long before my focus changed to the study of soils. During my undergraduate degree, I received good instruction in soil courses and my interest in soils continued to a Master’s Degree in Soil Science. I left Ireland after achieving a Ph.D. and came to the United States to do post-doctoral work. This experience gave me a good foundation and ultimately guided me to my present position. My current position was the result of a chance meeting. I traveled from Indiana in the U.S.A. to a conference in Scotland and there I met my future employer from Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.
The North American experience I had gained was the key reason I was hired by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. I still maintain a professional international connection in the United States as associate editor of a prestigious publication called The Journal of Environmental Quality. In Canada, government research scientists can advance through five levels of promotion. Each level is based on education and productivity assessed through performance appraisals. I am currently classified as a Level Three Research Scientist by this federal government classification. One of the better ways to keep up to date on new things happening in agriculture is to talk to farmers. Farmers are often trying innovative ideas and learning from each other. They can see if things work or don’t work and get quick feedback on their efforts.
Other sources of current information include scientific journals, workshops, professional societies, meetings and communication with colleagues. There is always work in the environmental science area. New projects and new ideas keep the role of a research scientist dynamic and challenging. During my career, I have collected quite a bit of research data. The next phase of my career will involve writing and publishing this information so others can benefit from it. Decisions made early in life have long term effects on your career. If possible, stay in school and finish your education before taking time off to pursue work or travel. If you are considering transferring your skills into Canadian agricultural research from another country you will need the required education and experience.
I have proven it can be done. If the first job you find is not providing the satisfaction you are looking for, strive for something better. If you are open to new ideas and new ways of doing things you will succeed. I spend most days in my office and generally work more than the thirty-seven and one half-hours per week I get paid for. During the growing season, I work at field sites. Fieldwork is challenging due to changing weather patterns that can destroy your data or make the results of your research uncertain. Balancing the conflicting demands of science and budgetary constraint can also be difficult. There is satisfaction though, at the end of a long process of research when your work is accepted and published by the scientific community and your efforts to help the environment are recognized.
One of the benefits of working as a Federal Research Scientist is also a unique way for me to contribute to the global environment. Agriculture and Agri-food Canada makes it possible for a scientist to take a sabbatical work transfer every seven years. This allows me to travel anywhere in the world and work for one year while still being paid by my employer. Not only is this an excellent professional development opportunity, but it is also a valuable way to share environmental expertise around the world.