Graduate agronomist makes once-in-a-lifetime and daily discoveries
The graduate agronomist who found the first fall armyworm in Australia infected with a deadly fungus says it shows how exciting agronomy can be, despite admitting earlier reservations about the job.
At university, Georgia Rodgers says, she was a bit “iffy” about agronomy but a placement at Elders during her first year of studies changed everything.
“Doing a placement with Brendan, the agronomist here in Beaudesert, really made me see it’s not just a boring job where you do science all the time, it’s always something different,” she said.
That’s certainly been borne out. Just months after a newly graduated Ms Rogers joined Elders, she discovered an unusual caterpillar that excited scientists and growers right around the country.
Since arriving in Australia last year, the fall armyworm has devastated large swathes of crop and while inspecting a paddock near Beaudesert, Ms Rodgers came across something nobody had expected: a natural predator in the form of a fungus.
“Brendan was talking to the grower, and I was just further off in the paddock just scouting when came across this white caterpillar that caught my eye,” she said.
“It was sort of glued onto the leaf, so I had to peel it off, gently, and I took it over to Brendan to show him and he’d never seen one like this before, either.
“I did a bit of research and found a paper from Africa that showed a picture of an armyworm infected with the Nomuraea Rileyi fungus.”
That careful scouting and Ms Rodgers’ curiosity paid off handsomely. A laboratory later confirmed that this was indeed a fungus that eats fall armyworms from the inside out, leaving a tell-tale white coating.
News travelled fast and, soon, Ms Rodgers quickly found her story broadcast across Australia.
But, while such discoveries are rare, she said the daily routine of an Elders agronomist brought plenty of interesting finds and discussions.
“You’ve always got to be on your toes to see what’s different or new, and you get to help the farmers out as well,” she said.
“Here in Beaudesert, we have corn, sorghum, coffee, lucerne, avocados, pumpkins and watermelon, which is great.
“We do a lot of regenerative pastures and biodiversity with mixed species specific to what best suits farmers’ needs, whether they want weight gain or more milk production.”
The network of Elders agronomists also provided invaluable back up for the myriad questions about weeds, crops, fungi, soil health and chemistry.
“With Elders, if you don’t know the answer to a problem, there’s always someone you can just ring,” Ms Rodgers said.
“As a graduate, it’s important to have that network so we can put into practice what we’ve learnt at uni while learning from the guys who do it every day. It’s like being an apprentice in a trade but learning from everyone in in the industry.”
Ms Rodgers is part of the Elders agronomy program, managed by the Thomas Elder Institute, which puts young agronomists through a two-year program of on-the-job learning. Graduates work in rotations across the branch network, covering horticulture and broadacre industries.
Learn more about the Graduate Agronomy Program.