Farming a drawcard for science talent

Photo of Sarah Noack

Farming systems groups are attracting high-calibre employees to rural Australia

Photo of Ruth Sommerville

Ruth Sommerville, Upper North Farming Systems project officer.

Stepping into the role of project officer for the Upper North Farming Systems (UNFS), South Australia, just four weeks before their spring field day would have been a baptism of fire for many, but not for Ruth Sommerville.

Having grown up on the sheep and cropping research station at Cowra, New South Wales, she is well accustomed to field days. Indeed it was here that her passion for sustainable agriculture was nurtured.

“I have always been interested in how agricultural systems can work in harmony with the environment and have taken on roles that aim to help growers become more viable and sustainable,” Ruth says.

This interest took her on a 10-year journey of study, cumulating in a Masters in Applied Science and research positions in a diverse range of industry sectors including cotton, viticulture, broadacre cropping and cattle.

Having worked in three states and the Northern Territory with private and public organisations, Ruth has accumulated a broad base of experience in trials management and extension. She also has a large network of contacts.

“I hope I can bring a broader perspective to the group, although I am on a steep learning curve with low-rainfall mixed-cropping systems.”

As with many highly qualified rural women, marrying a local grower has anchored Ruth to this region.

However, this also enthused Ruth to start her own business to provide agricultural and scientific support.

It is the first time that the UNFS has had a direct employee, so being able to employ Ruth as a contractor with considerable experience is a benefit for newer, less structured farming systems groups. 

Photo of Sarah Noack

Sarah Noack, Hart Field Site Group research and extension manager.

PHOTOS: Emma Leonard

At the other end of the spectrum Hart Field Site Group has a long history and some experience of employing staff. Its initial field day was run in 1982, six years before Sarah Noack, Hart’s first full-time employee, was even born.

Sarah joined Hart Field Site Group in a part-time capacity while completing her PhD at the University of Adelaide. With her thesis now completed she is working full-time as research and extension manager and is delighted to have previous trials manager Peter Hooper as her mentor.

“Being able to tap into Peter’s experience and knowledge has been invaluable; this is my first role outside the university and now the real learning has started,” she says.

Sarah’s PhD on phosphorus cycling under different stubble management was laboratory and glasshouse-based. Now she is responsible for Hart’s 40-hectare trial site.

While no two days are the same, much of her work is about trial planning, execution and extension. This includes liaison with members, researchers and the South Australian Research and Development Institute team that manages the trials.

Sarah says her enthusiasm for extension was galvanised by the opportunity to present her PhD research at the GRDC Adviser Updates.

“My PhD was supported by the GRDC and this gave me the opportunity to share my research with growers and agronomists. It was the highlight of my study.

“Having a PhD is not a prerequisite for this role, but I believe it will help me to be more analytical and try to ensure that our research projects are designed to answer appropriate questions.”

It is hard to capture the enthusiasm and passion for agriculture expressed by these two highly competent women. However, they clearly illustrate the important conduit that farming systems provide in harnessing bright young talent in rural communities.

More information:

Ruth Sommerville,
0401 042 223,;

Sarah Noack,
0420 218 420,


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