February 02, 2023

Careers in Agriculture: Curiosity led to research, teaching

U of I plant physiologist and principal investigator

URBANA, Ill. — Fred Below’s interest in plants was sparked at a young age by his grandfather and his curiosity grew exponentially when he looked at the University of Illinois’ agronomy course offerings.

“It was my grandfather that started my interest in agriculture. He had a green thumb in the family and then I got to get back into it. He grew mostly tomatoes and flowers, but he could grow anything,” said Below, U of I plant physiologist and principal investigator.

“I used to follow my grandfather around and my grandfather said, ‘this plant needs this, this plant needs that,’ and I thought he was the smartest person in the whole world. He was an agronomist by observation and not training.”

Below, a leading researcher in corn and soybean production, was born just outside Cleveland and grew up in a Chicago suburb.

“I was studying biology as an undergrad at another college. I was thinking about veterinary science. Who doesn’t like animals, right? And I thought there’re a lot of vets and I realized this doesn’t pay all that well and there’s a lot of corn here and somebody has to really understand this stuff,” he said.

His curiosity on corn production led to him looking at a U of I agronomy course catalogue.

“I read all of the course outlines and I just had a passion. I said, jeez, I like this stuff. So, I transfer to the University of Illinois and pursued a job in agronomy,” Below explained.

“Once I got an undergrad degree, I started to realize there was a lot of stuff I don’t know and I discovered graduate school. At graduate school I got to really dive deeper into things that affected plant growth and I got bitten by it. Just being able to do something to a crop and observe and measure what happened, that was enlightening.

“I also started to think about when we’re producing food, this is something everybody needs. It’s not like we’re making bombs or doing something people don’t like. I started to see that I could make a real impact here.”

Teaching

Below earned his doctorate degree in agronomy in 1983 and remained at U of I in a post-doctoral position so he could manage the research at a higher level.

“I was fortunate that a position opened up here at the University of Illinois. I applied for it and received it in 1985 and in a blink of an eye here we are today 37 years later,” he said.

Below is a dynamic speaker who wears his passion for agriculture production on his sleeve. He has shared his research-based knowledge with farmers and others at countless events hosted by the university, commodity organizations and ag businesses.

“Just being able to do something to a crop and observe and measure what happened, that was enlightening.”

—  Fred Below, plant physiologist and principal investigator, University of Illinois

Always a teacher, his favorite part of his career has been working with the students.

“The students stay the same age and it keeps you thinking from a younger mindset. So, by far what I’m most proud about is the student output. At this event here, there are some of my former students who are now working in the industry, and to see them succeed in their jobs and make an impact, I’m beyond proud about that,” he said at a recent U of I/Mosaic field day.

Farmers have also taken home Below’s lessons to help their own farming operations.

“On more than one occasion, a grower will come to me and he’ll say, ‘I sat at a meeting that you did a few years ago. I listened to you and you taught me this and I did it and a made a big difference on my farm.’ And then my heart swells three times and all of that hard work is worth it,” Below said.

Decades Of Change

The plant physiologist has been on the ground literally for what were once incomprehensible advancements in agricultural production that have taken place over a career that spans nearly four decades.

“Oddly enough, in 1985 there was no such thing as a personal computer, or it was very expensive. We didn’t have cell phones and when you took a picture you had to go and get it developed,” Below chuckled.

“In ag, we still need nitrogen, but we actually used a lot more nitrogen in 1985 per bushel than we do now. In 1985, if we saw 200 bushels per acres, it was like a major celebration. We were growing 24,000 or 25,000 plants per acres.

“Some of the things that I saw that really changed agriculture was the identification and insertion of the glyphosate trait. Oh, boy, did that make weed control easy for a while until resistance was developed.

“Then I saw autosteer and that meant we could know exactly where we put it in and go right back to the same spot.

“I saw rootworm trait, which to me, was a game-changer, almost like short corn. All of a sudden that rootworm trait allowed us to see the value of everything that roots do and it was way more than just nodes protected.

“Even 10 years ago I barely saw 300 bushels and now I see it almost routinely. Who would have thought we’d have a drone that could apply a chemical to a crop?”

One of the most frustrating parts during his career is the fairly slow adaptation in agriculture of new ideas and new ways.

“A lot of farmers get in a comfort level, ‘we’ve done it this way and we always do it that way.’ So, sometimes when I see something I think makes a difference I have to have patience. I’m not a patient guy by nature, but I recognize that change is slow,” Below said.

Career Advice

For those considering a career in crop physiology and research, Below offered his recommendations.

“There’s a huge opportunity in agriculture. First of all, get an undergraduate degree in agronomy or crop science, and while they’re getting that degree, also do internships within the industry,” he noted.

“Most of my students have done multiple internships or during the year they have worked in laboratories. If you work in a laboratory, and there’s a widespread interest, if you’re in crop science it ranges from biotechnology to weed control to alternative crops to high yield management like we do to plant breeding.

“So, sample the buffet, if you will. See what your passion is. Work in a laboratory. See what those students go through. That’s how I got started and it’s how every one of these kids gets started.

“When you see the passion that some of these students bring to what they do, and then you see where they end up, and you see the attention that their research gets, I think that opens a lot of kids’ eyes.

“We used to have the idea that agriculture was dumb farmers, but it is as scientific and as technological as you can imagine.

“The other thing that I didn’t realize when I was a student is that agriculture is important to every country in the world. I’ve been to most of the major corn-producing areas in the world and somebody else has paid for it. So, if you want to travel and see the world, I mean the real world, you become an ag expert because it’s important everywhere in the world.”

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor