By participating in Leadership Idaho Agriculture, I had the opportunity to meet a group of wonderful people working in a variety of agriculture-related fields, including conservation, research, education, irrigation, and production. The agricultural industry in the United States employs millions of people, the vast majority of whom are not out actually growing the crops. We are highlighting an agribusiness professional, to show you just how far-reaching the world of agriculture is!
As a side note – agriculture is facing a deficit of educated professionals, especially in technology, and research and development. If you’re deciding on your college education path, or are looking to make a career change, consider agriculture. Food will never be outdated!
This month, you will meet Collyn Larson, a production research scientist for MONSANTO. I really enjoyed talking with Collyn about the work that he does, and wish that each of you could have the opportunity to hear all of the interesting things that go on in his lab. I captured as much as I could to share with you all.
Collyn Larson is a production research scientist with Monsanto, and works in Nampa, Idaho. He has worked with the company for a total of 8 years, including an internship he did with them during college.
Scientist Collyn Larson showing some carrot seed he is working on.
Collyn grew up on a farm, and while he wanted to work in the agriculture industry, he also liked the idea of having a steady paycheck. His college internship in this field helped him to narrow his focus, and gave him a better understanding of what Monsanto is all about.
Collyn went to the University of Idaho, graduating with his B.S. in Biology in 2006. He went to work for a couple years before going back to the University of Idaho for his Masters in Plant Science, which he received in 2012.
As a production research scientist, Collyn works with the parent plants used to make hybrids. He works specifically with onions, carrots, sweet corn and garden beans. His job is to study the parent plants and see if they are cost-effective to grow. The production research division examines a number of variables, including seed size and weight, production rates, water usage, etc. 70% of Collyn’s time is spent on this side of his job, which also includes being in the field during the spring and summer, making presentations, and working with a lot of statistics.
The other 30% Collyn gets to spend on the really fun stuff – feasibility trials. In feasibility trials, Collyn and his colleagues get to try new things that might increase production, like changing up the planting spacing, row spacing, trying new fertilizers, and more. If a plant responds to a new technique, the data is sent along to the crop production division, where the plants are tested on a larger scale. If the production division finds that those plants are indeed viable and cost-effective, they will move along the pipeline and eventually into farmer’s fields.
Planting parent onions in a test plot
Collyn’s division receives the new parent plants from the plant breeding division as early on in the process as possible. Once we have looked at it and compared it to the current crop standard , we give our data to the crop specialist so that they can either stop the hybrid from advancing or advance it. If the hybrid is advanced his division can provide a few years’ worth of data to help the production team better manage the crop.
Collyn is proud to be working for Monsanto. When I asked him to tell me what the company does in one sentence, he responded “We provide high quality seed to the world.”
For example, the Monsanto facility in Nampa is one of the only providers of temperate sweet corn seed in the entire world. It is shipped to farmers in countries on every continent. And no, it’s not all GMO.
And the onion seed almost ready for harvest!
Collyn and I talked about the importance of the work he does. He says, “What we do is really important. The field is interesting and always changing. Innovation is necessary in order to keep up with the increasing demand for plants that will produce more high-quality food.”
Collyn and his team are doing interesting new things like studying different seed treatments, which are applied to seeds before they go in the ground. Seed treatments protect fragile seeds once they’re in the soil from microbes and frost, and provide nutrients in the crucial germinating stage. Again, not all seeds (blue corn, for example) with a seed treatment are GMO. Conventional seeds use treatments as well.
The necessity to reduce inputs like fertilizers and pesticides is also very important, which is why many GMO seeds have been designed. Recently, Monsanto acquired a company that has developed technology that gives very precise data on the water and nutrients in a farmer’s soil, measuring to the inch. When this is combined with precision planting, (which allows farmers to determine the amount of fertilizers planted with the seed), it will increase yields and decrease the amount of water and chemicals necessary to raise a good crop.
Collyn with the mini precision planter used to plant test plots.
While Collyn is not in the public sphere very often, he still is affected by the challenges that Monsanto faces in that area. He feels there is a lack of understanding and resistance to the public truly being open to learning about how GMOs are created and how they work. The anti-GMO movement is frustrating for him and his co-workers, since many arguments are based on fear and a lack of science-based knowledge.
Another challenge that his industry and company face is the “Big-Ag” label, and the idea that they – Monsanto, do not care about farming. While Monsanto is a business, not a charity, and has to turn a profit in order to fund continuing research and development, he and his colleagues care very deeply about the work they do, and about farmers and agriculture. They strive to reduce the cost for farmers by creating products that produce higher yields with reduced inputs. Reducing the cost for farmers reduces the cost for us all!
It was great to talk with Collyn about his job, and to hear about all the interesting things that his company does. Please remember, if you have any questions for Collyn, ask and they shall be answered!