Agronomy – What is it? and Importance

What is Agronomy?

Agronomy in Agriculture shown as vast cultivated land with Wind Turbines in the background
Agronomy in Agriculture shown as vast cultivated land with Wind Turbines in the distance

Definition

The study of agronomy in agriculture can be defined as; the application of science and technology; to producing, modifying for improvement, and increased yield, enhancing and using plants in agriculture; for food; fuel; fiber; recreation; and land restoration.

Agronomy should not be confused with agronomics, which is another term for agricultural economics. Agronomics as the name suggests is the branch of economics that deals with the distribution, management, and productivity of the land.

The study of agronomy has developed and expanded significantly since its infancy. That was the period, roughly one hundred and twenty years ago, that the study and application of agronomy became recognized as a distinct branch of agriculture. It has grown to encompass scientific work in soil science, plant physiology, plant genetics, and even meteorology. Agronomy is the application of a combination of several sciences that include; chemistry, ecology, biology, economics, soil science, water science, pest management, earth science, and genetics for increased productivity.

The History of Agriculture and Agronomy

Agronomy in Agriculture illustrated with combined harvester loading harvested grain into articulated vehicle with grain fields in the background
Agronomy in Agriculture illustrated with a combined harvester shown loading grain into an articulated vehicle with grain field in the background

Agronomy is the main focus of this overview; however, it is not possible to closely examine agronomy without touching on agriculture. Agronomy and agriculture are fundamentally intertwined, and the history of agronomics can not be explored without looking at the history of agriculture. The reason is evident in a simplified definition of agronomy which is; innovative agriculture.

From Scavengers to Hunter-Gatherers

Early humans (hominids), of the late Pliocene period, have been suggested, by recent archaeological evidence, research, and postulated theories; to have been carrying out more scavenging activities than hunting. This is contrary to the earlier theory and belief that early man was an effective hunter. Early 20th century finds by archeologists of animal bones along with early human tools; were thought to be as a result of successful hunting by early hominids; however, more recent scholars theorize that since the tools did not seem suitable for hunting, in terms of attacking and bringing down the large game; but rather cutting up carcasses after they were already dead; then that suggests evidence of them scavenging.

Ancient hominids would have not even known, at the earliest stages, that a lot of plants and animals were potential sources of nutrition. Then, even when they discerned this, being able to subdue and kill the animal and knowing what plant was good; where to find such plants; would have been challenging and this took generations to gain sufficient intelligence, experience, and knowledge to surmount. The early man at this stage had a much smaller brain, and is thought not to have been capable of solving complex problems; by modifying his environment to his benefit; but would likely be acting based more on instinct and impulse than higher cognitive reasoning.

Agricultural Origins

Tea plantation landscape
Tea plantation landscape

Agriculture is derived from the Latin words, “ager” and “cultura” which translate to ‘field’ and ‘cultivate’ respectively. The literal translation is the action of cultivating the field or land.

Based on current archeological evidence, anatomically modern humans have existed for roughly 200,000 to 300,000 thousand years. However, there is no evidence that any form of agriculture was practiced at any time before the last 20,000 years. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that this timeframe of the origins of agriculture coincides; with an extreme increase in the size of the human brain and intelligence; and the quality/efficiency of the stone tools and weapons.

Agriculture has been shown to have started independently in several different regions across the globe. This early agricultural activity most likely began during the Neolithic Era around the time when the last ice age had ended and polished stone tools were developed; before 9000 BCE.

Around 9500 BC, the earliest signs of crops began to turn up along the coastline of the Mediterranean. The first crops that were made available include; einkorn, emmer, and wheat. Later, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and flax were also cultivated and harvested.

Research and archeological evidence show that the Middle East is most likely the area where the earliest planned nurture and harvest of plants took place.

The earliest farmers lived mostly within the area known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’ which is a region in the Middle East that includes; modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, South-Eastern Turkey, Lebanon, and Western Iran.

Agronomy in Agriculture: Ancient Egyptians

The word agronomy is derived from the two Greek words “Argos” and “nomos” which means ‘field‘ and ‘manage‘, literally translated to mean managing the field or field management. Technically it means the science and economics of crop production by management of farmland.

Egyptians were among the earliest societal group that first established and sustained forms of agriculture and agronomy. From tilling soil into manageable rows for propagating, to designing and implementing ingenious ways and contraptions for irrigation. Egyptians are also known to have developed early forms of silos. They consisted of separate storage buildings that housed large rooms containing masonry structures. These structures with vaulted roofs were filled through a hole at the top. Then when needed, the grain could be removed through a door at the base of the structure.

Many early civilizations were dependant on their agriculture to grow, thrive, and become successful empires. The Mayan empire, for instance, used diverse and independently developed systems of agriculture and agronomy to cultivate nurture, and harvest crops for the sustenance of their closed society.

Agronomy in Agriculture: The Sumerians

The people who available evidence shows that were most likely the earliest pioneers of agriculture and agronomy are the Sumerians; starting around 5500BC. The Sumerians were from the earliest known civilization in the historical region of Southern Mesopotamia (now Southern Iraq), called Sumer. They emerged during the Chalcolthic and early Bronze ages. This was between the sixth and fifth millennium B.C.

It is also one of the first civilizations in the world, among other ancient civilizations such as; Ancient Egypt, Norte Chico Ancient China, the Minoan civilization, and the Indus Valley Civilization.

Benefitting from their location along the valleys and banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Sumerian early farmers grew an abundance of grain and other crops. The surplus from these sources enabled them to successfully form thriving urban settlements. These accomplishments would not have been possible without fundamental understanding, innovation and creativity.

Around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago humans began to manipulate nature to better suit their needs. Agriculture emerged in several different places. Subsequently, the increased cognitive ability enabled improvements and innovation to be added to the basic measures to acquire nutrition and utility from crops and animals that were being learned. This improvement and innovation are what is now known to be the application of agronomy.

Agronomy: Origins

Green field of wheat
greenfield of wheat

Research has shown that six million years ago the human brain grew by three hundred percent. During this same period, human intestines reduced in size; thereby reducing the amount of energy needed to digest food. More calories were obtained from meat than from larger quantities of fruit and vegetation.

Eventually, early man was able to step up from being random foragers and opportunist scavengers to active, premeditative consumers of meat to actively seeking out the wild game for food. They also began to live in groups with the better organization; women stayed around the settlement with the children; while the men went out to forage and hunt. The early man began to recognize beneficial plants and seeds and nurture them in the forests for repeated use. Women learned the viability of seeds and how to gather and plant them. These modifications improved the availability, quantity, and quality of yield of food crops used by them; and can be described as the first innovations in agriculture and therefore the earliest form of agronomy.

Agronomy was developed not long after agriculture gradually became the favored method of sustenance after a shift to a hunter-gathering lifestyle. Even though it was not even near being conceived as a concept, agronomy in agriculture was already being applied at the early stages of agricultural development.

Ruralia commoda: A Journal of Agronomy

The Ruralia commoda is an agricultural treatise on agronomy written by Pietro de Crescenzi that is based largely on medieval and classical sources (mainly Albertus Magnus) as well as his personal experience from his own land.

The Ruralia commoda is sometimes referred to as the Liber ruralium commodorum (book of rural benefits). It was completed sometime between 1304 and 1309 and was dedicated to Charles II of Naples. A French translation was ordered by King Charles V of France in 1373. In 1471 it was printed in Latin in Augsburg and Strasbourg. Crescenzi’s writings circulated in numerous manuscript copies before it became the first printed modern text on agronomy in agriculture after being published in Augsburg by Johann Schüssler in 1471. During the following century, a further 57 editions were published in Latin, Italian, French, German, and Polish.

De re rustica and the Ruralia commoda

The content and general structure of the Ruralia commoda is significantly based on an earlier work by Lucius Junius Moderatus Cormella, usually referred to as simply Cormella. The body of work which is called De re rustica was written in the first century A.D. Although that work as a whole might not have been available to Crescenzi, it was available in fragments until a complete version was found in a monastery library by Peggio Bracciolini during the Council of Constance between 1414 and 1418. Although Crescenzi cited Cormella up to twelve times, all the citations were indirect and taken from the ‘Opus agriculturae’ of Rutilius Taurus Aemitianus Palladius. Just as with De re rustica by Cormella, the Ruralia commoda is divided into twelve parts that cover all agronomy factors.

Ruralia commoda: chapters in applied agronomy

  1.  The siting and layout of a manor, villa, or farm; considering the climate, winds, water supply, and the duties of the person in charge of the estate.
  2. Botanical properties of plants and horticultural techniques.
  3. Agricultural cereals and building granaries.
  4. Vines and winemaking
  5. Arboriculture trees are useful for food and medicine.
  6. Horticulture plants are useful for food and medicine.
  7. Management of meadows and woodland.
  8. Pleasure gardens.
  9. Animal Husbandry and beekeeping.
  10. Hunting and fishing.
  11. General summary
  12. Monthly calendar of tasks.

Modern Agronomy

Applied agronomy: row covers and hydroponics for crops in greenhouse
Applied agronomy: row covers with hydroponics for crops in a greenhouse

Gregor Johann Mendel (20th July 1822-6th January 1884); was a meteorologist, mathematician, biologist, Augustinian Friar, and abbot of St Thomas’ Abbey in Brno, Margraviate of Moravia.

He pioneered the studies in genetics. His genetic study of agriculture uses statistical methods he developed the model of Mendelian inheritance which accurately describes the inheritance of dominant and recessive genes. His work and results were controversial and not widely accepted at the time.

Hugo Marie de Vries (16th February 1848-21st May 1935) a Dutch botanist and one of the first geneticists, rediscovered Mendel’s work during his research. He published his findings in 1900.

In 1905 a British biologist named William Bateson (8th August 1861-8th February 1926) coined the term “genetics” in a letter he wrote to Adam Sedgwick (22nd March 1785-27th January 1873). The study of genetics progressed to experiments isolating DNA.

John Bennet Lawes (28th December 1814-31st August 1900) English entrepreneur and agricultural scientist, and Joseph Henry Gilbert (1st August 1817- 23rd December 1901) an English chemist, began a set of long-term field experiments in agronomy at Rothamsted Research Station in England in 1843. Some of those experiments are still running presently.

In 1905 further studies in agronomy were carried out by Albert Howard (8th December 1873-20th October 1947) an English botanist, who focused on organic agricultural processes. He published a book in 1943 called ‘An Agricultural Testament’

In 1904, a Division of Experimental Agronomy was established at the College of Agriculture of the University of California Berkely.

The Father of Agronomy

An important figure in the study of agronomy is someone who many believe to be the father of modern agronomy due to his immense contribution to the discipline. A Bolognese jurist by the name Pietro de Crescenzi (1230/35-c 1320) was educated at the University of Bologna in the disciplines of medicine, the natural sciences, logic, and law. He served as a jurist and a judge but is mainly remembered for his writings on horticulture and agriculture; material that is now known to be early work in agronomy.

Norman Borlaug: The Father of Modern Agriculture and Agronomy

Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25th 1914-September 12 2009) was an American agronomist. He pioneered initiatives all over the world that contributed greatly to the extensive increases in agricultural production. This period is termed the Green Revolution. He was awarded many honors for his work including, the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. Borlaug graduated with a B.S. (Bachelor of Science) in Forestry in 1937 and P.h.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position with CIMMYT(Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo) in Mexico. The center is known, even in English by its Spanish acronym which means; (The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center)

The Green Revolution

Vast field of corn
Vast cornfield

The Green Revolution also called the Third Agricultural Revolution is an important milestone in agronomy and agriculture. It is the set of research technology transfer initiatives; occurring between 1950 and the late 1960s that greatly increased agricultural production in parts of the world. It began most notably in the late 1960s. These revolutionary initiatives resulted in the adoption of new technologies. High-yielding varieties (HYVs) of cereals especially dwarf wheat and rice.

The revolution had a huge impact with contributions in providing chemical fertilizers, agrochemicals, and controlled water supply (most involving one form of irrigation or the other). The application of agricultural agronomy also leads to newer methods of cultivation including mechanization.

These measures that caused such a dramatic improvement were seen as being more effective if executed collectively. This way they could complement each other and replace the traditional methods which were much less effective.

Key elements of the Third Agricultural (Green) Revolution are:

  1. The use of the latest technological and capital input.
  2. Adoption of modern scientific methods of farming.
  3. Use of high yield variety of seeds.
  4. Proper use of chemical fertilizers.
  5. Consolidation of landholdings.

The fundamental approach was the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal; grains; modernization of management techniques; expansion of irrigation infrastructure; distribution of hybridized seeds; synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers.

The Green Revolution though significantly beneficial, had mixed results. Norman Borlaug blamed its failures on politics.

When the development of new cereal varieties through selective breeding reached its limit; some agronomists/agricultural scientists put their efforts into the creation of new strains that did not occur naturally. These are the genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) A modification that is sometimes termed the Gene Revolution.

Food Security through Agronomy

Agricultural storage silos for grain
Agricultural storage silos for grain

CIMMT is a nonprofit research-for-development organization that developed improved varieties of wheat and maize; intending to contribute to food security and innovative agricultural practices; to help boost production, prevent crop diseases, and improve smallholder farmers’ livelihood. CIMMYT is one of the 15 centers operated by (CGIAR) previously; Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research; now known as; Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers; (a global partnership that unites international organizations that are engaged in research for food security)

CGIAR research is geared toward reducing rural poverty, increase food security, improve human health, nutrition, and sustainable management of natural resources. This is where Norman Borlaug developed semi-dwarf, high yield, disease resistant, wheat varieties.

Borlaug took the lead in introducing these high yield varieties; which were combined with modern agricultural production techniques; to countries like Mexico, Pakistan, and India. This resulted in Mexico becoming a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Also by 1970 wheat yield had nearly doubled in Pakistan and India thereby dramatically improving the food security of those nations.

Borlaug was often referred to as the father of the Green Revolution and is believed to have possibly saved over one billion lives worldwide from starvation through his work in agricultural agronomy. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace by increasing the food supply. He later helped extend the application of agronomy for increased food production to Africa and Asia.

The Fundamental Principles of Agronomy

The principles of agronomy refer to the ways and means for the better management of soil, plants, and environment for maximum economical returns using the least quantity of land.

Principles of crop management depend largely on the system of farming that is being carried out. Be it specialized, diversified, integrated, irrigated, dry, rain-fed, or mixed farming. It also depends on the physical and technological facilities available.

The fundamental principles of agronomy are as follows:

  1. Planning, programming, and carrying out measures for maximum utilization of land, labor, capital, sunshine, rainwater, temperature, humidity, transport, and marketing facilities.
  2. Choice of crop verities that can adapt to the specific agro-climate, land status, soil fertility, method and season of cultivation, and suitability to the crop system.
  3. Adequate field management of tilling the soil, readying field channels and bunds for irrigation and drainage; checking soil erosion, leveling out the land; adopting relevant land improvement practices.
  4. Adoption of multiple cropping and mixed cropping to ensure a reasonably good harvest even under unfavorable environmental conditions
  5. Application of the correct and balanced nutrients to the crops in the right sequence. Improvement of soil fertility and productivity.Correction of bad effects of soil reactions and conditions. Increasing soil organic matter through the application of green manner. FYM (farmyard manure), organic wastes, biofertilizer, and profitable recycling of organic waste.
  6. Use of quality seed or seed material and maintenance of requisite plant density per unit area with healthy and uniform seedlings.
  7. Proper water management with respect to the crop, soil, and the environment through conservation and utilization of soil moisture.
  8. Adoption of adequate need-based, timely, and proper plant protection against weeds; insect/animal pests, pathogens, as well as climatic and other hazards; addressing deficiencies and disorders.
  9. Application of suitable management practices to get maximum benefits.
  10. Adoption of suitable method and time of harvesting crops to reduce field damage and to release land for thriving crops. Efficient utilization of residual moisture, plant nutrients among other agronomical management practices.
  11. Applying proper post-harvest techniques and technologies that are suited to the types of crops being harvested.

Selective Breeding: an application of agronomy

Selective breeding also called artificial selection, is the process through which man uses animal and plant breeding to selectively develop particular phenotype traits. This is achieved by choosing which animal or plant males and females will sexually reproduce. Domesticated animals are known as breeds while domesticated plants are called varieties, cultigens, cultivars, or breeds. Two purebred animals of different breeds produce a crossbreed. Crossbred plants are called hybrids. Flowers, vegetables, fruit plants, and trees may be bred by amateurs and commercial and non-commercial professionals; while major crops are bred by professionals.

In agronomy, selective breeding and yield optimization are applied.

Plant Breeding

This part of agronomy involves the selective breeding of plants for the best yield of crops under certain conditions. Plant breeding has not only greatly increased agricultural output but also the nutritional value of many crops. These include wheat, soybeans, and corn. Additionally, it has also lead to the development of new plant types like a hybrid grain called triticale was created by using rye and wheat. Tritica contains more usable protein than rye or meat.

Agronomy has been instrumental in fruit and vegetable production research. Furthermore, the use of plant breeding has lead to reductions in the need for fertilizers and water and more resistance to disease.

Biotechnology

Agronomists use biotechnologies to develop and customize the required traits of seeds and crops. Varieties are created according to improvements to previous results. It is generally carried out in a laboratory but field tests and observations are done as needed.

Agronomic biotechnology is also increasingly being applied for other economic uses other than improving the quality and volume of food and livestock. The oilseed is an example of an agricultural product that is used in many foods and oils but can be modified to produce fatty acids for petrochemicals, substitute fuels, and detergents.

Soil Science

Agronomists study sustainable methods to make the soil more profitable and productive. They test, analyze, classify and determine the fertility of the soil. Common macronutrients that are usually analyzed include; nitrogen, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and calcium. The presence of micronutrients like zinc and boron are also checked. The amount of organic matter, soil pH, and nutrient holding capacity are tested in a regional laboratory. These lab reports are interpreted by agronomists who make recommendations to bring the soil nutrients to a balance for optimal output.

Soil Conservation

Agronomists also develop methods to preserve the soil and decrease erosion. Researchers in agronomy try to find ways to solve other problems while using the soil more effectively. Such problems may include; disposal of human and animal waste as manure, pesticide build-up, and water pollution.

Agroecology

Agricultural agroecology is the management of agricultural systems with more focus on ecological and environmental considerations. It is connected to work in the areas of sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and alternative food systems. It is also associated with the development of alternative cropping systems.

Theoretical Modeling

Theoretical Production Ecology aims to quantitatively study the growth of crops. The plant is taken as a sort of biological producer which processes light, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and water into harvestable products. The main areas considered are temperature, sunlight, plant production distribution, standing crop biomass, nutrients, and water supply.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is agribusiness?

Agribusiness is the corporate transactions carried out between industries that engage in farming and those that manufacture or sell material used in farming. It usually refers to large scale commerce of agricultural nature

  • What are examples of agribusiness?

Examples of merchandise used in agribusiness include; farmyard machinery, seed supply, agrichemicals, and general agricultural products and services.

  • Who is an agronomist?

An agronomist or crop scientist studies plants and how they can be grown, modified and used to benefit society. They use science to carry out experiments that create new techniques for improved agricultural production.

  • What is horticulture?

Horticulture is the art of cultivating plants in a garden to produce food and medicinal ingredients, or for comfort and ornamental purposes. Horticulturists are agriculturists who grow flowers, fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, and ornamental trees and lawns.

  • What is the meaning of agronomic?

Agronomic refers to a branch of agriculture that deals with field-crop production and soil management.

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