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While farmers and ranchers once relied on generations of advice and the Farmer’s Almanac, this slowly evolved into the scientific side of agriculture. Agronomy refers to the application of scientific theories — biological, ecological, economic, and technological — on the practice of farming. It is specifically focused on field crops that are produced on a large scale, such as wheat, corn, and soybeans. It also refers to crops that are the food staples for livestock or that provide fibers for basic fabric. Agronomics, or agricultural economics, is a subsection of agronomy that refers to the application of economic methods and models to the decisions made by farmers.
Farms and individuals who use agronomics research apply basic economics and business techniques to both small and large-scale farms. These techniques include farm financial management; market research; pricing, supply, and demand; and market structures and development. Historically, farms grew and raised a variety of crops and livestock with one main agronomic crop to sell for a stable income. Now, agronomics is focused around getting the most economic value out of the least amount of seed, land, and labor.
Environmentalists, scientists, and entrepreneurs have all focused their attention on agronomy and agronomics. As more plants are being used in bio-fuels for vehicles and heavy machinery, agronomists will need to increase crop production to meet the increased demand from the industrial and food sectors. In the meantime, these scientists have to ensure that the increased crop output does not destroy the soil chemistry or exhaust natural resources. Agronomists are working towards responsible, sustainable agronomic growth, and working to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of agriculture on natural ecosystems.
Other notable areas of agronomy include crop rotation, soil chemistry, and irrigation and drainage. By rotating different crop species on the same fields, agronomists and farmers can control the buildup of parasites and insects that are attracted to or survive on one type of plant. Plants absorb the majority of their nutrients directly from the soil. As different plants need different nutrients, crop rotation also ensures that the soil remains fertile with balanced minerals, nutrients, and micro-organisms in the soil.
It is also necessary to study chemical reactions in the agricultural soil that relate to crop growth and output. This includes mineral composition and the mobility and toxicity of soil contaminants. While agronomists track this to ensure that crops are not contaminated, it is also important for any organization working to clean up or remediate contaminated land.
The amount and consistency of rainfall is a highly variable aspect of farming. Crops need the appropriate amount of water — and water drainage — in order to thrive. Agronomists study and innovate irrigation systems, including overhead sprinklers, furrow irrigation, drip irrigation, and subsurface irrigation.
Agronomists work to get as many crops out of each seed and each centimeter of land as possible, which does not stop at germination. It is necessary for agronomists to study and protect the plants from sprouts through harvest. A large part of weed, insect, and pest control involves crop rotation and plant breeding; however, it also includes keeping weeds out of the crop space, companion planting, and both synthetic and natural insecticides.
In addition to studying to improving the environment in which the plants grow, agronomy focuses on improving the plants as well. Agronomists selectively breed plants with larger crop yields and higher nutritional values. They also work toward stronger resistances to parasites, viruses, and fungi.