Anastasia Kirilchuk by @kokosiki_babosiki_OneSoil Blog

"An agronomist is a doctor as well, just for plants." An interview with 21-year-old agronomist from Ukraine, Anastasia Kirilchuk

"An agronomist is a doctor as well, just for plants." An interview with 21-year-old agronomist from Ukraine, Anastasia Kirilchuk

Anastasia Kirilchuk graduated from university only a month ago, but she has been responsible for land in one of the Ukrainian farmsteads for a year and a half already. We talked about her job, stereotypes that a female agronomist might face, and, of course, her attitude to precision farming and OneSoil in particular.
Anastasia Kirilchuk graduated from university only a month ago, but she has been responsible for land in one of the Ukrainian farmsteads for a year and a half already. We talked about her job, stereotypes that a female agronomist might face, and, of course, her attitude to precision farming and OneSoil in particular.

How to become an agronomist

− Could you tell us about yourself? How did you end up in agriculture and what made you stay in this field?

− A month ago I graduated from the Odessa State Agrarian University. I was born in Nikolaev and always lived in the city. I only saw the countryside during the summer holidays when staying at my grandparents. There was no connection between me and agronomy. When I had to choose what university to enter, there were two options – medical and agrarian, and I chose the latter. It was a very spontaneous decision as I felt that medicine was not something I would be happy to spend my entire life doing.

During the first three years at university, I couldn't even begin to imagine that I'd work in agronomy. I was just studying, attending lectures, taking notes. I didn't have a real concept of agriculture, only a definition from a textbook. After the third year, we had a summer internship, and I completed mine at the farming collective "Delta" which grows vegetable seeds in the Odessa region.

– How did the first days in the field go for you?

– The first days in the field were very emotional, my eyes sparkled like diamonds. I didn't think I fully understood where I was and what was going on around me. Then something clicked, swoosh – and there appeared an interest and a great desire to know and understand how everything is organized there. The three-month internship was completed and I decided to choose to continue education and to stay working at the farm. A year and a half has passed since then. The directors' adequate and attitude towards employees played a key role in my wish to stay here.
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About the most difficult and the most pleasant part of the job

− What does the life of an agronomist and a farm look like?

− My working day starts at around 7:30 AM with the informing tractor drivers, laborers and those who are involved in irrigation about their tasks. My assistants are involved in the monitoring process, so I explain to them where to go, which of the machine operators or irrigators they'll work with. If this is mechanized fieldwork, I tell them what criteria it should follow. After they leave I start to fill out documents and distribute fertilizers.

There is no nine-to-five schedule, we work until it is necessary. Often till late at night, especially during harvest, like it is currently. The farm grows sugar, fodder and table beetroot, carrots, cabbage and cucumber for seeds. We have 450 hectares of land.

Rainy days are the only days off, although there might be some paperwork to do in the office. I've gotten used to constant activity, so I don't want to rest that much. When there is no need for consulting or deciding on anything, I start looking for something to occupy myself with. I am in charge of 15 workers and during high season there can be more than 20-40 people.
In the beginning, it was hard to get off to a good start with my team members. Their children are my age, why would they listen to me, right?
− What is the most difficult part of your job?

− I am a 21-year-old young girl and I manage adult men. It is not always easy to get along with them. In the beginning, it was hard to get off to a good start with my team members. Their children are my age, why would they listen to me, right?

– How did you handle that situation?

A sense of humor and a desire to communicate, to listen and to get to know them helped a lot. Then, when I got on well with them, it became easier for me to start managing the team. Now we are one united front and can discuss completely different topics. They understand that they have their work to do, that I have mine, and that everyone should respect this.

What else causes difficulties? Sometimes, standing knee-deep in the dirt after the rain I want to feel 'clean'. When going shopping back at home, I leave the car half-dirty with scratches all over, and in the supermarket, there are neat and tidy people in white T-shirts and shorts. At first, it caused severe discomfort, but I'm getting used to it.
– And the most pleasant part of the job?

– My favorite part of my job is field scouting and designing something new. We've recently been faced with the fact that there is very little information about growing crops which are for seeds only. There are riddles we have been trying to solve for years. For example, the latest one is the nutrition process of such crops. There is no scientific literature about that, so we test and calculate on our own. Now everything is in the stage of experiments and we try to find out the nutritional patterns of a plant using different methods.

About stereotypes and OneSoil

− Most of the people associate agronomy only with tractors, sowing and harvesting. What does it mean for you? What stereotypes do you usually hear?

− Probably the main stereotype I face is the way an agronomist should look like. People imagine a big-bellied guy with a mustache smelling like a bottle of alcohol and getting out of a Niva car (Russian brand of cars – OneSoil). But I also notice stereotypical thinking among those who know what agronomy is. For example, sometimes at agro exhibitions while talking to company representatives I see them looking at me incredulously and non-verbally saying: "You are an agronomist? No way."

Many people also don't realize how products hit the shelves. They don't know what it means to stay awake for days and put your soul into growing crops. It is a huge job and every piece of the harvest takes considerable human effort. My mother who is a physician once said: "Looking at you, I understand that an agronomist is the same doctor, just for plants." In my opinion, it is something more: we are together with a crop from planting, its birth, till harvesting, roughly speaking, to death.
Sometimes at agro exhibitions while talking to company representatives I see them looking at me incredulously and non-verbally saying: "You are an agronomist? No way."
Agriculture is the only area in which chemistry, biology, physics, and mechanics are interconnected to almost the same extent. It seems that it's the only occupation that allows using so many interesting creative combinations in your work. Being an agronomist, you need to think about plant biology, pesticide chemistry as well as ways to make your job easier. Every day there are some interesting challenges which develop me a lot.

− Do you use precision farming technologies?

− Yes, I use the OneSoil Scouting app every day. It shows the field borders and current state of the crop. It's quite convenient and just interesting to observe how the field changes during the season when it transitions to different phases. It's cool to realize how far technology has gone: now I can just lie on the couch and check what is going on with the crops via my smartphone.

Besides that, we determine variable rates for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizers. We develop this method to level the field so that each crop will get all the nutrients in equal amounts. To do this, you would usually need precision laboratory soil analysis, digital maps and connection with GPS-coordinates. We've used different platforms for mapping, but the easiest way to do it is via OneSoil web-platform, so I prefer it now. Determining fertilizer rates for differentiated application is a very interesting direction in precision farming.
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− By the way, how did you find out about OneSoil?

− It's an interesting story. My boss once told me: "Look, there is an index called NDVI. Read about it and then use it for analyzing our fields." For two weeks I was reading about satellites and found a special program for calculation. It took another two weeks to download the files from the NASA website with a very slow Internet connection and put layers on top of each other. In the end, when I finally succeeded, my close friend called me and said: "Why are you bothering with all this? Download the OneSoil Scouting app". I spent a month sobbing over my laptop, and when I finally made it and thought that I was a hero, I got told that I can just use a free application!

Simple questions about the pesticides and difficult ones about the future

– Did anything in your attitude towards fruit and vegetables change after you became an agronomist?

− Before coming to agriculture, I had no idea how a carrot blooms. Most of the professors from our university don't know it either. It turned out that its flowering process is indescribably spectacular. It consists of a white field about 1.5 m high full of large inflorescences-balls about 1.5 m high smelling insanely delicious. If bees pollinate the plants, the inflorescences are always brighter and larger. Beetroot also has an intoxicating smell, but its flowers are almost invisible because it is a self-pollinating culture.

When I started working with cucumber, I stopped eating it. It is the most capricious culture ever. It requires a lot of attention to itself, attracts pests and is sensitive to moisture. Talking about stereotypes: there is an opinion that in post-Soviet territories all the veggies are full of pesticides. A plant protection system does exist, it's true. But if the correct drugs are used adequately then in several weeks they will disintegrate without causing any harm to humans.
I use the OneSoil Scouting app every day. It's quite convenient and just interesting to observe how the field changes during the season.
− I've heard that ideal-looking fruits and vegetables are less natural, that they might contain many additives to look attractive. As in, it's better to take an ugly cucumber if there is a choice.

− Not necessarily. Ugly cucumbers can have a lack of potassium inside, it usually curves when it lacks nutrition. Beautiful and smooth fruit is not the result of chemicals, but of a hybrid breeder's invention. It also happens that the way fruits and vegetables look like
depends on sellers. Let's take perfectly looking peaches for example. In my region insects usually gnaw holes in them. So what would a seller do? Even though it is not "natural", he or she will "repair" it somehow before selling.
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– Let's talk about a future of agronomy a bit. What does an agronomist have to do or know to be considered a good specialist? And what is needed to be done to attract more young people to this sphere?

– A professional is a person who is able to think. A good agronomist is recognised by their normous knowledge of different industries. It is not about keeping everything in memory but just knowing where to find information quickly. It is important to keep up with time. Old-school agronomists are more likely to earn much less and be less competitive if they do not follow the new technologies.

It is necessary to tell and show young people that agriculture is not about dirt, drunk tractor drivers and a tough life in the field. Now it is practically an IT-sphere where a tractor driver is like an operator, all the resources are held in a phone and the insides of tractors and combines are cleaner than public transport.

Unfortunately, in the CIS countries there is a very big problem with education. It is completely at odds with the reality. I guess the process of popularizing agronomy should begin by solving this issue.

Now the agronomy is practically an IT-sphere where a tractor driver is like an operator, all the resources are held in a phone and the insides of tractors and combines are cleaner than public transport.
—How do you see agronomy and your role in it in the future?

− It would be great if the agronomist's job would consist of pressing various buttons only, so all the work would be done by itself. I think that mankind is moving towards this and everything will be robotic soon. It would be very cool if it becomes possible to control the entire ins and outs of your economy while being anywhere on earth.


In the meantime, I plan to complete my master's degree. I would like to try working as an HR specialist or manager in the agronomy area. This might be an interesting challenge for me. At the moment there are very few young people in leadership positions in this sphere. For example, none of my groupmates decided to work in agriculture. This is a problem because the older generation does not always keep up with the times and this hinders the progress.
Illustrator Nastya Vishnevskaya_OneSoil Blog
The illustration
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