Bright and bubbly Stephanie Sloan has her fingers in many pies and enjoys the variety that the agricultural industry gives her. Her full-time role is North Island soil science technical specialist for PGG Wrightson and she’s also an avid multi-sport competitor. Sam Tennent reports.
Stephanie (Steph) Sloan grew up on a station in northern Hawke’s Bay until her parents bought a sheep and beef farm in Eketehuna, Wairarapa, nearly 20 years ago.
After completing secondary schooling at St Matthew’s Collegiate in Masterton she headed straight to the University of Otago in 2008 to complete a Bachelor of Science with a major in geography.
While completing her degree Steph gained a summer studentship in 2009 with Plant & Food Research in Palmerston North. The programme was developed as a career experience for high-calibre undergraduates.
Steph’s research focused on willow and poplar trees and their effect on soil properties, which sparked her passion for soils and the role they play in farm systems. Steph completed two further summer studentships with Plant & Food, expanding on her initial research.
In her final year at Otago she began distance-study through Massey University before heading to complete a post-graduate Diploma in Agri Science there in 2012.
Her research project for the diploma, which built on her previous summer studentships, focused on the effect of space-planted Veronese poplars on pasture production in hill country.
I chose the Manawatu as I wanted to be close to home, to be able to help on the farm on weekends but not close enough to help out daily and I like Palmerston North, it’s got a great ag-hub!
She received numerous scholarships towards her diploma that helped immensely with her study.
Steph’s published research work and passion for willow and poplar trees lead her to become the youngest – and only female – trustee for the New Zealand Willow and Poplar Research Trust.
The trust ensures financial funding for research in breeding and applied science for willows and poplars, which are important throughout the country for erosion control, river bank stabilisation, shade and stock shelter.
After spending so many years in study and research, Steph did her OE travelling through Europe before returning to NZ to start work with Ravensdown as their nutrient management administrator.
The role involved working within the pilot catchment for Horizons (Manawatu-Wanganui) Regional Council’s One Plan, completing nutrient budgets and assisting farmers as they worked on their environmental management plans.
After several years with Ravensdown she applied for a position with PGG Wrightson where she’s been for three years.
In this role Steph spends half her time onfarm with local technical field representatives (TFR) talking to farmers about their farm systems and management practices, as well as effective nutrient use and managing environmental risks. The rest of her time is spent on internal training and research and development.
She also attends a variety of industry events to ensure she’s at the forefront of the latest science information and technological innovations.
She recently judged the Ballance Environmental Awards in Wairarapa, presented to a group of final-year students at Massey regarding career paths in the agricultural industry and championed a land production conference for farmers in the lower North Island.
She could be based anywhere in her role, since it covers the entire North Island but elected to live in Palmerston North.
“I chose the Manawatu as I wanted to be close to home, to be able to help on the farm on weekends but not close enough to help out daily and I like Palmerston North, it’s got a great ag-hub!”
While she lives in Palmerston North, Steph works out of the Feilding PGG Wrightson office one day each week.
She also has the flexibility to work from home and spends two to three days a week on the road. A lot of her work is done on the phone, particularly while driving around the North Island.
“Most of my time is onfarm. TFRs will have a farmer client who requires specialist advice in soils and fertiliser.
“I then attend a meeting with the farmer and the TFR to offer some advice and hopefully solutions.
“Witnessing the success of this advice within the farmer’s business is the most rewarding part of my role. It’s a pretty cool job.”
Steph is heavily involved in Young Farmers in Manawatu and is chairwoman of the Marton club.
She loves all aspects of Young Farmers particularly the diversity of members, all of whom have similar interests. The FMG Young Farmers Contest grand final is in Manawatu next year and Steph is co-convening with another local, Paul Olsen.
“We put a proposal together to get the grand final to the district with a lot of help and advice from experienced people and we were successful. It’s very exciting.”
In March Steph competed in Ironman New Zealand, the multi-sport event around Lake Taupo that has competitors swim 3.8km, cycle 180km then run a 42.2km marathon.
She says she had to justify the expense of buying a trek trial bike so started training – so far, she has completed two half-ironmans and plans to compete in the Taupo Half Ironman this December.
She trains on average 15 hours a week leading up to the various events – the most she did during her nine-month training programme before the full Ironman NZ event was 33 hours, which she took time off work for. During that week she biked more than 400km.
Ironically, before starting training for her first half-ironman, Steph couldn’t swim and hadn’t been on a bike since school. She’d watched a previous Ironman NZ event on TV and decided to throw herself in at the deep end and give it a go. Her family were incredibly supportive and she had plenty of advice from her coach, Aimee Perrett.
“You’re not by yourself during the Ironman – people line the sidelines and are all cheering you on. My coach and my family are what got me to the finish line. It was a huge sense of achievement.”
Where to now? Steph has many options on her career path – her skill set and personality have equipped her well for a brilliant future in the NZ agricultural industry.
Steph’s top crop tips
- Identify your paddock and end-goal – Knowing what your end-goal is for your crop is essential to achieving a good result. Everyone has different goals – yours may be a 10-tonne crop of barley, a pasture renewal process or a winter forage crop critical to your farming system. Make sure the soil type fits with your crop choice and if applicable, feeding regime.
- Get a soil test done – This should be step one in your paddock plan. Aspects such as pH take time to adjust, and nutrient levels can’t be altered overnight.
- Know what your soil test is telling you – Being able to align crop requirements with what you can manipulate and what you can’t is critical to overall crop yield. Based on paddock results, altering paddock fertility can take some time and can also have a large effect on the financial outcome of a crop. Impartial expert advice in this area is invaluable.
- Initial paddock spray-out – This is one of the most common areas where farmers try to cut costs. The initial paddock spray-out has an overarching effect on the future weed spectrum and overall yield. Glyphosphate doesn’t kill everything.
- Paddock work and planting – Identify the correct soil cultivation method in line with soil properties and climate.
- Pest and weed monitoring – There is no such thing as being in an emerging paddock too often. Normally, the best offence against pests and weeds is a good defence. Treat the weeds when they are small, and control insect populations when they are at a manageable level before any crop damage occurs.