Caden Noonkester: Agriculture Inside the 20

Caden Noonkester punts at an NC State football game

Photo by Jed Gammons for NC State Athletics

NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is home to over 350 students pursuing two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees in agricultural and environmental sciences. Our mission is to connect them with the opportunities and careers that solve growing challenges.

Our students are on the move between classes, homework, and hands-on experiences that equip them for meaningful careers. 

Recently, we caught up with Caden Noonkester, an agronomy and agricultural business double major and NC State football starting punter, to hear how this NFL-possible suburban Charlotte native is starting to feel equally at home on football and cotton fields.

Hi Caden, where are you from?

I’m from Waxhaw in Union County, North Carolina.

What led you to NC State?

I graduated high school in the COVID-19 year of 2021, which made it tough to find a place to play football because everyone got an extra year to play. In the fall of 2021, I walked on to NC State’s football team but didn’t play any games that year. I’ve worked really hard athletically, and I got my moment in the back half of last season. I finished 2022 and am continuing as the starting punter.

How did you find your way to CSSC?

Caden Noonkester stands in a pasture with cowsI started off interested in environmental science because I wanted to work in the field, not in an office. But the two career pathways I saw were being an engineer or working in some regulatory capacity, finding violations or levying fines. I realized that I didn’t want to be the guy that people didn’t want to see on the job site.

In agronomy, I saw that I could work with farmers, helping them pick varieties and improve yield and soil health. It feels more collaborative.

I met agronomy majors and became friends with people who had farms. I started hanging out with them on the farm, enjoyed that lifestyle and wanted to learn more. I took Soils 200 with David Crouse, and that sealed it. His energy for the material and the students is great and really makes you want to be there.

Producing food is obviously essential to life. I became interested in the science behind it and enjoyed helping friends on their farm. It was interesting to hear the numbers and science behind how their farms produce meat and have to manage the input and outputs of feed, rotational grazing and manure management.

I enjoy getting out to the field or hauling feed around and just being outside. You know they say that you become the sum of your five closest friends. So, I guess I became more of a country kid. 

What interests you about agronomy?

I’m an agronomy major and also working on an agricultural business management second major. There’s a lot of overlap.

The crop genetics and bioengineering side is fascinating. It’s a challenge to make crops more productive and resilient, but we have to maximize efficiency to feed the needs of our growing population. We have to focus on growing the right crops at the right time, given the land and environmental challenges we have.

I added the agricultural business major because I wanted to learn more about sales and marketing to complement a foundation in agronomy. 

Are any other football players in an agricultural degree program?

I think I may be the only football player (in recent memory) to study crop and soil sciences. A previous kicker started in ag business management but switched to communications, so I think I’m the only one now. 

It has been a struggle to manage the agriculture morning classes, like weed science. That class is only offered in the fall at 8:30 a.m., which I physically cannot attend with my practice schedule. But my Crop and Soil Sciences’ advisors have been great and worked with me on alternatives so I can keep this major.

How do you manage a full-time football and academic schedule? What’s a day like?

It is a big commitment. During the season, weigh-ins start at 6:30 a.m. Most days, we practice until 12:30 p.m., plus weight lifting, meetings and meals. It’s very structured Monday through Friday. In spring, we scrimmage and watch film almost daily. So, it’s year-round. 

I have to plan my class schedule and assignments around that. It takes a lot of discipline, but it also shows how much you can actually do. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, so I think, “How can I maximize my time?”. We all get the same 24 hours. A lot can be accomplished in it.

What experiences have you had outside the classroom?

I’ve taken the Soils 201 lab, which was helpful to physically see and apply what we were studying in theory. You can’t just read about everything in a book all the time.

I also worked for Keith Edmisten’s cotton extension program last fall and winter during harvest and ginning. We’d go to the research sites for the Official Variety Trials, where I helped bag different varieties for weight, tensile strength, absorbency and quality measurements. It was a great opportunity to see agriculture up close and behind the scenes.

A lot of agronomy majors grew up farming. I sometimes felt left behind in conversations when they talked about farm things like what kind of tractor they had. So, field experience was enormously helpful for me to experience crop research and really see how things work.  

All crop and soil sciences students have to complete an internship. Where did you do yours?

I did my internship with Southern States and Growmark. Growmark produces the crop varieties that Southern States sells. I made a few trips to Bloomington, Illinois, to learn about their varieties and how to educate customers about them, and I also spent time shadowing at Southern States in Tarboro, North Carolina. 

The experience really helped me understand what I want for my future career. It allowed me to see different career paths that have been mentioned in the classroom in action. I was also able to gain lots of valuable knowledge by seeing things hands-on in the field. My favorite part of the internship was getting to know the local growers in the area and helping them with their operations. 

Rumor has it that you were offered a job!

[Laughing] The people at Southern States were amazing to learn from. My experience there will definitely help me in my future career, but for now, I have work left to do here.

What is your career goal?

I’d like to pursue the NFL. But as a punter or kicker specialist, there are only 32 of those team spots in the entire world. The last two kickers from NC State were drafted, so there is a path but nothing is guaranteed. 

The NFL is an interesting, chaotic lifestyle with a lot of turnover. Teams often make cuts and trades based on dynamics and performance. It can be rough if you don’t have a permanent position. So I have to think long term for my career and personal life too.

I like the idea of working with farmers. So I’m thinking of a future as an agronomist or in agricultural sales. 

Crop and Soil Sciences has been a great fit for me. The teachers are passionate, the advisors’ doors are always open, and there’s a good mix of students – whether you’re intent on farming or just interested, we’re all here to learn.

What have you learned on the football field that helps you in life?

  1. On the field, everything is earned, not given. I worked my way from third string to starter; it took a lot of sacrifices. It taught me the value of hard work. I have to sell myself to coaches and tell them why I’m a good fit. I was always selling or promoting myself to earn a spot.
  2. There is power in teamwork. Football is like the game of life. We’re all specialists working to achieve a common goal.
  3. Overcoming adversity. When one thing goes bad, you can’t get down. There’s a team counting on you. I’ve learned not to keep a short-term memory and be confident in my ability to handle adverse situations. I had to learn to be calm in chaotic situations.

    Caden Noonkester punts at an NC State vs UNC football game
    Photo by Gregg Forwerck for NC State Athletics

What do you wish you’d known sooner in college?

I definitely wish I’d asked for help earlier. It can be intimidating to talk to professors but don’t be afraid of it. I’ve found that they are happy to talk with students and answer emails with questions. 

What’s your football prediction this season?

We have a great team. [Smiling] We might surprise some people.

Picture yourself in crop and soil sciences. 

If you are looking for an academic path that leads to a career of impact, consider crop and soil sciences. Our students learn from expert professors and experience hands-on adventures every day.  

Learn more about our student degree pathways, including deep dives into our agronomy, soil science and turfgrass programs. Then, join us for a guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with fruitful careers is just part of how we are growing the future.