Dr Russ Tillman is a city boy, soil scientist and presenter of our free course, Agriculture and the World We Live In. We spoke to him about teaching agriculture to non-farmers, and how to apply the lessons at home.
How did you first become interested in agriculture?
I did not come from an agricultural background – I was a city boy when young. I studied chemistry at the University of Canterbury and after graduating I went to Lincoln University to help teach chemistry and physics to first year agriculture students. I was based in the Department of Soil Science at Lincoln University and I became interested in soils. I then moved to the Department of Soil Science at Massey University and over the following 40 years I have gradually branched out into agriculture more widely.
What made you decide to teach this free online course?
I was asked by Massey University if I would be interested in teaching the course. I think I was asked because over the past few years I have been developing and teaching professional development courses for people who do not have any background in agriculture, but find themselves working in areas related to agriculture. These people might be working for government departments or large corporates such as banks or insurance companies. These professional development courses are taught face-to-face and I thought it would be an interesting experience to present the online course
Is there anything interesting you’d like to share about your experience preparing for or recording this course?
The biggest challenge was to condense each subject down to a six or seven minute presentation. After 40 years of lecturing in 50-minute slots, this seemed strange. It was however, a good discipline to sort out what were the most important aspects of each topic.
Why do you think it’s important to have an understanding of agriculture?
At a global level I think it is important to be aware of growth in the world’s population and the enormous challenge that this poses in providing enough feed. Because the numbers are so large, it is often difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of the challenge, and I hope this course will help in a small way to raise awareness.
At a local level, agriculture can impact on us individually. This might be through its impact on the rivers and lakes that we swim or fish in, or it might be through the choice of products we buy at the local supermarket. By being more aware of some of the issues, we can then make more informed choices.
How is agriculture applicable in day-to-day life?
In developed countries, most of the population is not involved directly in the business of agriculture. But we are all consumers of agricultural products and as I noted in the previous question, we often have a choice of which products we buy. Whatever choice we make sends a market signal. By being more aware of where and how our food is produced we can have an influence on how agriculture is practiced.
Every day there are articles about agriculture in our newspapers or on the internet. The feedback from my face-to-face professional development courses is that the headlines of these articles often now “ring a bell” with the participants and they are motivated to read articles that they would previously not even have registered.
Who should enrol in this course?
Many people who do not know very much about agriculture, but are interested in the world around them, may find the course useful. I think it could be particularly useful for young people who are wondering what to study or what they would like to do for a job. People often think of agriculture as solely “farming”, but I hope the course shows that there are a wide variety of rewarding careers in agriculture. These range from IT to international business.
Are there any simple experiments with agriculture that people can do safely in their own homes?
If people have access to a garden then there are lots of things they can experiment with. The first thing they could do is dig a hole about 60 cm deep and really study the soil. Are there different layers? How deep is the dark fertile layer on the top of the soil? Does the soil feel sandier (grittier) at the top than at the bottom. Does your soil differ in different places in your garden?
When you fertilise your lawn, deliberately miss a couple of areas and see if there is a difference. How long does the effect of fertiliser last?
Buy a cheap rain gauge and keep a daily record of how much rain is falling at your place. Think about how this will be impacting on farms in your local region.
When you next go to the supermarket look at all the different brands of eggs that you can buy and see if you can work out what the differences are in the way they are produced. What are the differences in prices?
What’s the most exciting thing students will learn in this course?
That agriculture is the most exciting career in the world – but I may be a little bit biased!