Seed World

Exposure: The Common Thread

Peruvian born Juan Marroquin, nicknamed “J.J.”, landed a job in California as a melon breeder with international HM. Clause Inc., Group Limagrain. He was simply elated. Truly he had joined in rank with those of the international seed industry. But how do entry-level and early career professionals find their way into this vast arena?

For J.J., it began by leaving home and family. He enrolled in the Honduran Pan-American College of Agriculture, known as Zamorano, located near the capital city of Tegucigalpa. His immediate goal was an undergraduate degree in agriculture. In the pursuit, he gained a wealth of practical experience separate from academic studies in the Agricultural Science and Production curriculum. Each morning of classroom learning was balanced with afternoon opportunities to apply that knowledge and new skills in Zamorano’s diverse commercial enterprises.

Zamorano requires a one-year internship experience, beyond completion of required academic studies. J.J. journeyed to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for internship with the Illinois Natural History Survey. Technically based in Illinois, much of his internship was spent on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico gaining experience at the Illinois Crop Improvement Association’s third-party services farm.

He remained in Illinois following that internship period and attained a M.S. in Plant Breeding and Genetics. Advanced degree in hand, he then secured agronomic employment with a specialty plant grower. Later surfaced the coveted melon breeder opportunity with HM. Clause, Inc.

Megan James made her entry into the international seed industry via more traditional means. East-central Illinois summer jobs with international seed companies (Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Monsanto Company) coupled with a unique undergraduate academic student research opportunity. Her first seed job, in part, entailed making hand pollinations, which later expanded to include providing oversight for others. Her research was conducted in the Corn Functional Genomics Lab within the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Her initial interest in international agriculture intensified as result of a two-week study abroad opportunity with the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss. In seeing the differences between industry and small-operation farming, she saw stark contrast between the quality of materials and resources available to the average smallholder farmer and industry or academia.

“Seeing these differences and the struggles in the current system ignited an interest in me that I did not expect,” says Megan.

Megan was gradually led, post-graduation, to seek a seed industry position and attained that goal when she joined Monsanto Company, Farmer City, IL as a Data Specialist. In that role she would create and manage seed corn Process Orders through closure.

The local community college has provided an entry point into the international seed arena for many former students of Champaign Illinois’ Parkland College, cites retired agricultural professor Don Bergfield. He supervised scores of students enrolled in college classes requiring work-study and internship experiences. In addition, he introduced a highly popular international agricultural travel opportunity into the curriculum.

Over the last 40 years, including transfer students to four-year programs, he estimates the College’s agriculture program has guided hundreds of young men and women into the seed industry. How so?

Many of the companies that provided work-study or internship opportunities for Parkland College students were directly engaged in the vibrant East-Central IL seed industry. Those companies provided rich practical opportunities for supervised community college students. Students gained first-hand experience. Several of the companies provided work-study and internship opportunities to multiple students each year and did so for many years running.

“I was a little nervous about placing him with a multinational seed research facility,” muses Bergfield about one particular lackluster student. Always wanted to do extra credit, but never turned in the required work. “But, I could not believe how he had changed in just the few weeks of the internship. He was taking on leadership roles and getting the job done and his supervisors were praising his performance.”

Illinois Crop Improvement Association hosted Bergfield’s ag production class each year providing his students a field-trip experience. In addition, numerous students ultimately performed required work-study assignments or completed internships at Illinois Crop Improvement. Others obtained part-time student employment in the seed laboratory or greenhouse. The retired professor was recently the recipient of an Honorary Illinois Crop Improvement Association Member Award for his service to students and the seed industry.

Decades of unnamed Parkland students, as well as Megan James and Juan Marroquin all began careers in the global seed industry. Accomplished via different means and by following different routes. However, each was exposed to the seed industry while a student. Work-study, internship, student employment, international study tour, and local field trip experiences can effectively ready students for meaningful careers in, and to make future contributions to, the seed industry.