What’s it like to be a plant breeder?

If you’re passionate about plants and looking to put those green fingers to better use, then maybe a career in plant breeding is for you. Plant breeders are at the forefront of ensuring the survival of plants, crop yielding and essentially food production. In an ever-changing plant landscape, breeders work to turn one seed into new crops, battling plant diseases and conducting the latest research along the way. Clearly, this is a career on the grow.

  • Mark Nightingale, Elsoms Oilseed Rape Specialist Plant Breeder

    Mark Nightingale, Elsoms Oilseed Rape Specialist Plant Breeder

So if you’re thinking of working as a plant breeder, maybe it’s the time to find out more.  Our very own Technical Manager and Oilseed Specialist, Mark Nightingale, sums up his 30-year career as a plant breeder.

“You do something different every week”

Plant breeding can be a hugely satisfying career. If you’re passionate about crops, then seeing a whole crop being cultivated, from just one seed, is very humbling and rewarding. Working as a plant breeder is very diverse to say the least. A typical week doesn’t exist. You combine field and office work, research and development while managing your time across multiple short and long term projects.
Plant breeding is a team activity too. You and the team could be working on a different task every week of the year. There are certain tasks you will only do one or two days a year, which can be challenging, however it’s the diversity of work you learn to embrace and thrive on.

“A career that’s hugely rewarding”

As a plant breeder, you get a real kick out of breeding a potential crop that is quickly and widely sown. Imagine selling literally hundreds of tonnes of seed from just one seed that you nurtured – that’s rewarding. Plant breeders are also the go-to experts on plant varieties. Whole seed merchants will seek your advice on the commercial placement of a finished product. You are quite literally the expert in the field.

“There are some major challenges”

There are of course some major challenges facing plant breeders. A lot of the potential genetic materials generated by breeders won’t contain sufficient beneficial traits or aren’t yielding enough to be commercially viable. This is, of course, disheartening for plant breeders who have to discard large amounts of potential new seed varieties every year.
There’s also the ongoing fight against disease and horticultural requirements to adhere to. Diseases are constantly evolving and plant breeders must evolve with them in order to protect new varieties. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) also set out requirements and certain standards, that plant breeders have to stay on top of and follow.

“To constantly learn on the job is also essential”

Today the role is more technical and requires more in-depth knowledge than ever before. While a basic understanding of genetics and a keen eye for detail is a key requirement for the job, many companies will also require a masters degree as a minimum today. As far as other skills go? A willingness to constantly learn on the job is essential.

“Get your foot in the door for experience”

As with any career, there’s many ways to break into the industry. I started as an assistant at the plant breeding institute in cytology, where I completed a degree part time. A move into plant physiology led to a role with Elsoms Seeds.
Originally, I worked with winter wheat, spring and winter barley before moving into winter oilseed rape. During my 30 years at Elsoms, I have completed my masters degree in plant breeding, specialising in doubled-haploid production.

Looking to work as a plant breeder?

Working as a plant breeder requires flexibility, patience and a passion for plants and crops. Beyond knowledge of plant breeding, it’s also vital to have a good understanding of what farmers want in the real world, the politics associated with the plant breeding sector and how the export markets work. If you have a passion for crops, it’s hugely satisfying to see something you helped create start growing in fields across the UK.

News & Events