Agronomist and Certified Crop Advisor, Soil Health Services, PBC

Patrick O'Neill

Career Sector



MS in Soil Science from Washington State University, Pullman; BS in Crop Science from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

Briefly describe your career path from college until today.

During college I did internships with input sales and crop consulting companies. I studied abroad at Lincoln University in New Zealand for a year. I learned about grazing cropland, which is well researched in New Zealand. Then I came back to the United States and did an internship for three summers with a consulting company based here in Colorado. That’s when I fell in love with the San Luis Valley.

After I completed my Bachelors degree I served as a lay missionary for three years with the Franciscan Mission Service in Brazil. I worked as an agronomist with small-scale farmers. After that, for a year and a half I worked as a coordinator for a community supported agriculture program in Madera, California, on an organic agriculture vegetable farm. Then I came back to Colorado in 2005, and I was living and working in the San Luis Valley doing crop consulting with the same organization I had interned with previously. I worked there until 2015, became a partner and owner in the company, and in 2016 I started my own agronomic consulting business focused on soil health.

Describe the best choices that you’ve made along your career path.

One of the biggest pivot points – and it was a life choice, but it had a massive impact on my career – was choosing to get married and have a family. It wasn’t necessarily the best career decision I’ve made, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

What have you done to continue your education and professional development following college graduation?

Each year I attend seminars, conferences, and workshops in the hopes of learning something new. They’re mostly focused on technical topics. I don’t tend to gravitate toward the latest and greatest technology conferences, because usually the conferences are incredibly focused and there’s an inherently high price tag for farmers and ranchers to adopt that technology being highlighted. If the only technology that we avail ourselves to comes at an incredibly high cost, then there’s an inherent limitation on how much technology will be adopted, and that impacts what funds may be available to make long-term conservation investments. A good example of a conference that offers pragmatic conservation solutions is the Quivira Coalition Annual Conference. That is an organization that has done an excellent job, over time, of blending useful technical content with conservation, and doing it in a way that is accessible to the broad public – from incredibly technical people to practitioners – and be able to address them all at the same time.

How has SWCS impacted your career, or contributed to your continued education and/or professional development?

I came to know the Society because of its members like Mike Collins, and my wife, Cathy O’Neill, both of whom were active in my region, and doing work in the realm of soil health. Through their activity and passion for conservation I became involved. The work of the Society in our region has become more diverse in recent years – we’ve become more engaged in soil health. Because the Soil and Water Conservation Society has taken up the mantra of soil health, that’s really increased my engagement. I attend local chapter events, and am the President Elect for the Colorado Chapter. Our chapter covers the entire state, and it takes seven hours to drive from one side of the state to the other – so sometimes it’s hard to meet at the same location. However, we do have monthly calls to talk about the events we’re planning for our membership.

What is the job outlook for your current position in the future (is there growing demand, no change, or less demand)? Also, what changes in required skillsets do you anticipate?

I think the opportunities are increasing. It may not look the same as the model I followed and worked under, but certainly the knowledge on soil health, and how to develop healthier soils, is needed. If students are aware of those principles, no matter what they bounce into, it will serve them well and be a good grounding for whatever job they land.

In terms of skillsets, we tend to talk about crops, soils, and water in silos without understanding that they are inherently linked. Most of the formal training that I’ve been exposed to has glossed over or ignored entirely the very real connection between how we manage the land and how that effects the functioning of our water cycle. Much of our soil and crops training doesn’t touch on resiliency. If you’re being trained in traditional agronomy, soil or crop science, the ecological component, how things fit together, the idea of resilience, really doesn’t surface very often. And that is a shortfall.

An example here in Colorado, in my region we have to think intensely about aquifer recharge because over time we’ve depleted our aquifer resources. So we have a mandate by state law to recover our aquifer to what is deemed a sustainable level. To do that we need to change the way we farm and treat livestock to accommodate a lesser demand on our aquifer system. But adapting to this we’ve had a lot of growing pains in trying to figure out the best way to be financial viable in the new system, and our way of thinking, where we specialize in one topic, has made it harder to adjust to a more inclusive interconnected thought process.

What advice do you have for college students or early career professionals who might want to work in a job similar to the one you have right now?

Find a place that captures your imagination, someplace where you feel like you can do good and work on something bigger than yourself. If you’re not grounded in some place, in some landscape, in some community, then it’s really easy to make recommendations to farmers and ranchers, and not be mindful of the long-term impacts down the road. It’s easy to make recommendations that maybe have some short-term expediency, but in the longer term are not useful. We’ve got a lot of people who tend to float around indefinitely, and don’t get integrated into a community, and that’s to the detriment of agriculture and soil because it takes time for a person to learn how the land functions.

The mission of SWCS is to “foster the art and science of natural resources conservation.” Describe what impacts you have on fostering the art and science of natural resource conservation in your current job.

With conservation, the idea of having something that is a gift from God, taking care of it, and passing it on from one generation to the next. It’s a gift that is meant to be shared. We each carry the responsibility to make this place as functional or more so than when we found it for whoever comes next.

What do you like most about your job?

The people I get to work with who are really invested in their land, in it being productive and healthy so they have something for their community and something to pass on. I like that a whole lot. But equally, the landscape in the San Luis Valley where I get to work. It’s a beautiful place to live in and work, and I am constantly impressed and in awe of the majesty all around.