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Agricultural/​Horticultural Scientist

Kaipūtaiao Ahuwhenua

Alternative titles for this job

Agricultural/horticultural scientists study farm animals, soils, pastures and crops to improve their yield, health and quality, and to prevent pests and disease.

Pay

Agricultural/horticultural scientists usually start on

$55K-$67K per year

Agricultural/horticultural scientists with several years' experience usually earn

$70K-$100K per year

Source: Massey University, 2016

Job opportunities

Chances of getting a job as an agricultural/horticultural scientist are good for scientists working on increasing agricultural productivity and sustainability, and average for those without this experience.

Pay

Pay for agricultural/horticultural scientists varies depending on qualifications, experience and the type of work they do. 

Agricultural/horticultural scientists in research positions usually apply for a postdoctoral fellowship after getting a PhD. You may need to do two or three postdoctoral fellowships (usually lasting two or three years each) before getting a permanent scientist position.

  • PhD graduates can earn $55,000 to $67,000 a year. Postdoctoral fellows usually start on $67,000. 
  • After three to five years' experience you can earn between $70,000 to $85,000.  
  • With 10 years' experience or more, and with increased performance and responsibility, you can earn $85,000 to $100,000 or more.

Source: Massey University, 2016. 

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)

What you will do

Agricultural/horticultural scientists may do some or all of the following:

  • find ways to improve the quality and value of animal or crop production
  • develop farming methods to protect animal welfare and the environment
  • develop vaccines and other products to improve animal health and productivity
  • run experiments and analyse the results
  • advise farmers, vets, and horticultural and agricultural companies
  • write about their work for scientific and farming magazines
  • present reports at conferences
  • write applications for funding grants for agricultural/horticultural research
  • manage research budgets.

Skills and knowledge

Agricultural/horticultural scientists need to have:

  • knowledge of crops, pastures, soil types and farm animals
  • understanding of physiology and biology
  • knowledge of agricultural and horticultural chemicals, pests and diseases
  • research skills
  • practical skills for performing experiments and operating scientific equipment.

Working conditions

Agricultural/horticultural scientists:

  • usually work regular business hours. They may have to work overtime at weekends or on statutory holidays when doing trial work
  • work in offices, laboratories and glasshouses, and on farms and nurseries
  • may travel locally to talk to farmers and growers, and overseas to attend conferences or work on international research projects.

What's the job really like?

Mike Morley-Bunker

Mike Morley-Bunker

Horticultural Scientist

Prescribing aspirin for pears

Horticultural scientist Mike Morley-Bunker made the headlines when he experimented with dipping pears in an aspirin solution (salicylic acid) to keep them fresher for longer.

"I worked with a scientist who did a similar experiment in China. We found that the dipped pears stayed firm for twice as long, which means sellers can have less wastage. This is quite exciting as the process can be used with a range of fruit, although no further research has been done yet."

Chasing flowering kiwifruit trees from north to south

Mike also developed an equation that predicts the best time to harvest kiwifruit. "Although New Zealand covers a wide range of climates, our courses have always taught horticulture as if it was one scenario for all of the country."

So, working with MetService, Mike looked at connections between the climate and when kiwifruit vines flower and produce fruit.

"We did observations all over the country, kept climate records, and analysed these to see if we could find factors in the climate that made them grow more quickly or slowly."

As a result, farmers in different parts of New Zealand can plan ahead for their harvests. "When I see my research directly benefiting people, it's just great!"

Lisa talks about her role as an entomologist at Plant & Food Research - 3.20 mins.

My name is Lisa Jamieson and I’m an applied entomologist at Plant & Food Research.

We’re trying to control pests on fruit that we export overseas and to reduce the number of pests on fruit after they’ve been harvested.

I was actually at university studying marine biology, thinking I would get a job counting dolphins in a Zodiac, cruising around the coast. And then reality hit, I guess, and I started going for related jobs. You take a crayfish and an insect, they’re similar concepts. So I applied for an entomological position working with bugs and insects.

There’s a lot of challenges, especially working with bugs. For example, if you’re trying to find out what effect a post-harvest treatment has on a midge, there’s different types of effects. It could kill the midge or it could make the midge sterile so it can’t reproduce. So you have to know how to rear that midge, or breed it so you can follow it through its lifecycle for a few generations and find out what effect a treatment has on that midge. We have a lot of challenges in babysitting insects, and rearing them and trying to nurture them, and build up colonies of them.

I got interested in science because I was always looking at creatures on the beach or in rock pools. Never really one to sit on the beach and sunbathe; more, looking in holes and grooves and rocks, and what’s in the water.

The coolest thing about our work is trying to find other ways to reduce chemical pesticides. So we’re looking at things like high-pressure washing to remove the pests and pesticides from the fruit. Some pretty cool UV light technology that controls pests and diseases, and we’re looking for low toxicity fumigants, things that are naturally found on fruit anyway.

The most important skills are the willingness to try new ideas, patience so that when things go wrong you can repeat them until you get things right, and thinking outside of the square.

Some of the exciting findings are trying to work out what causes particular damage on fruit. For example, in lemons we had a rind spotting problem and tried to find out whether that was caused by a pest or a disease or climate. We did a range of trials and found out that a little moth lays its eggs on the rind. And then the larva bores straight in, ruptures an oil gland, causes the spot and the larvae essentially die. That was a good finding. Quirky! Some of the insect behaviour is really quirky!

Entry requirements

To become an agricultural/horticultural scientist, you generally need a PhD in science in an area such as agricultural science, microbiology or biochemistry.

Secondary education

A tertiary entrance qualification is required to enter further training.

NCEA Level 3 biology, chemistry, maths, computer studies and English are preferred.

Personal requirements

Agricultural/horticultural scientists need to be:

  • accurate
  • objective
  • enquiring and observant, especially when recording results
  • good at problem-solving
  • good communicators
  • skilled at writing
  • good at maths
  • patient and motivated, as many projects are long-term.

Useful experience

Useful experience for agricultural/horticultural scientists includes any work in the science or agricultural fields, such as:

  • experience in a laboratory
  • sales work with a fertiliser or crop and seed company.

Physical requirements

Agricultural/horticultural scientists need to be fit and healthy, as a lot of research is field-based and may involve walking long distances over farms, and some heavy lifting. They also need to have good hand-eye co-ordination for laboratory work.

Check out related courses

What are the chances of getting a job?

Opportunities likely to increase 

Opportunities for agricultural/horticultural scientists have been steady in recent years, despite some restructuring at Crown research institutes like AgResearch. However, opportunities for postdoctoral fellows are likely to increase as scientists with sought-after skills are needed to increase the international competitiveness of New Zealand's primary industries. 

The $107 million extra funding announced in the 2016 Budget for science and innovation will likely create new opportunities for agricultural/horticultural scientists. 

Scientists with New Zealand research experience are in demand

Experience in New Zealand agriculture and horticulture increases your chances of employment as farmers increasingly need independent advice to maintain productive farms. A strong track record of obtaining research grants and publishing your research also increases your chances. 

Scientists in demand to increase crop production 

Farmers are increasingly having to work towards sustainable and efficient crop production, and this has led to a higher demand for scientists with a research focus on:

  • reducing environmental problems caused by agriculture 
  • increasing crop and farm efficiency (precision agriculture).

Types of employers varied

Agricultural/horticultural scientists mainly work for research organisations and universities. However, there has been an increase in agribusiness companies employing scientists with PhDs to do commercial research based on scientific research. 

Agricultural/horticultural scientists may work for:

  • Crown research institutes (CRIs) such as AgResearch and Plant and Food Research
  • industry-owned companies such as Dairy NZ and the Livestock Improvement Corporation
  • large, privately owned agricultural or horticultural companies such as Fonterra or Zespri
  • companies producing agriculture-related products such as seeds and fertilisers
  • private agricultural/horticultural consultancies
  • banks providing rural banking advice
  • universities
  • regional councils
  • government ministries (doing policy work).

Sources

  • Kemp, P, professor of pasture science, Massey University, Careers New Zealand interview, May 2016. 
  • Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 'Agricultural and Forestry Scientist Occupational Outlook', 2016, (www.mbie.govt.nz).
  • Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, '2006-2014 Occupation Data' (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2015.
  • Piddock, G and Henson, N, NZ farmer, 'New Zealand Agriculture Sector Hit by Job Losses', September 2015, (www.stuff.co.nz). 
  • Science Media Centre, 'Budget 2016: Science and Research', 26 May 2016, (www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz). 

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)

Progression and specialisations

Agricultural/horticultural scientists in research positions usually apply for a postdoctoral fellowship after getting a PhD. You may need to do two or three postdoctoral fellowships (usually lasting two or three years each) before getting a permanent scientist position.

After about 15 years' experience, agricultural/horticultural scientists can progress into senior research scientist, team leader or management roles.

Scientists working in agriculture and horticulture may specialise in various branches of science. These include:

  • agronomy (science of soil management and the production of field crops)
  • farm systems such as irrigation
  • microbiology
  • plant and animal physiology, including entomology
  • genetics
  • animal nutrition
  • animal reproduction.
A scientist in a greenhouse, measuring the growth of a potted clover plant

Agricultural/horticultural scientists may specialise in plant research (Photo: AgResearch)

Last updated 29 January 2019