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The future of agronomic research

A new WGRF report sees urgent threats to the West’s research system

About five years ago, before she joined the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), Pat Flaten was thinking about the state of agronomic research in Western Canada.

At the time, she and her colleagues were thinking about bug researchers in Saskatoon. “We knew we had this great group of highly productive and experienced entomologists who were all about the same age and we began to ask ourselves, what if they all retired tomorrow?”

It turns out they weren’t the only people thinking along these lines. Since becoming a research program manager at WGRF, Flaten has heard from members as well as from other industry groups, all concerned about the future of agronomic research in Western Canada.

Pat Flaten
We are heading down a path that could be damaging to crop research in Canada.” — Pat Flaten, WGRF photo: Supplied

“Commissions came to us and said, ‘We want WGRF to fund more agronomic research,’” Flaten recalls. “People felt that research capacity was declining, but before we could increase funding, we thought we should first get a clear fix on what capacity there was in the public research system. Essentially, we wanted to know if and where the holes were so that we could make the best use of our funding.”

Next, the WGRF commissioned its own research project to find out what was actually going on in the research community. The result is Fertile Ground: Agronomic Research Capacity in Western Canada, an exhaustive report that reveals the current state of the region’s research capacity (in terms of both capital and human resources) and its projected capacity to 2020.

“Now that we know what the situation actually is, we can start to do something about it,” says Flaten.

Gaps and deficits

The report surveyed public research organizations (universities, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the Ag Departments of provincial governments) as well as farmer-directed applied research associations, colleges and private research companies.

Anyone working in agriculture today should find the results extremely interesting.

For example, AAFC (which the report identifies as the strongest and most integrated public research organization) expects about 16 senior scientists to retire (potentially) within the next three years. As Flaten points out, agriculture is not alone when it comes to this issue. “Baby boomer retirements are happening in all industries, but the natural question to arise for us is, will we, as an industry, have enough people to replace those who are leaving?”

Are the universities preparing the next generation of scientists? Well, yes and no. The report found that of all students pursuing graduate degrees in agriculture, not enough of them are taking up agronomy, entomology and weed science (soil science is the big winner here, and many of these graduates are likely aiming for careers in the environmental field). Applied research organizations, like farmer-funded groups and ag colleges, are also facing challenges maintaining adequate staff and funding, putting much-needed localized projects in jeopardy.

Throughout the western Canadian research system, the report also identified significant deficits in equipment, land and buildings, core operating funding, and more — basically, the tools needed to get the work done. It also identified some deficiencies in some of the softer areas, such as priority setting, communication and leadership.

“Less of this surprised me than I thought it would,” says Flaten. “But the depth and breadth of the need… often we see the need for equipment and infrastructure, but it’s the HR side of things that was a bit of a surprise — the immediacy of it, the extent of it.”

A primary concern, she points out, is that the HR losses are happening at senior scientist levels — these are people with a career’s worth of knowledge and expertise to share and who play a major role in mentoring younger scientists entering the system. “It’s not just about people being in chairs,” says Flaten. “How are you going to pass on that knowledge? And if we don’t signal to the bachelor-level students that there are opportunities in research, then how do we fill those positions? We were heading down a path that could be damaging to crop research in Canada.”

Planning the fix

The Fertile Ground report has done a very important thing that no one has done before. It has created a single, all-encompassing picture of the state of agronomic research in Western Canada. “We often relate to the institution we’re closest to, and don’t necessarily recognize there is a larger problem,” says Flaten. “We needed a broader look at the situation, and now we have it.”

The challenges identified in the report are significant, and some of the necessary fixes — such as to hire and train more people, and to increase operating funds — are beyond the WGRF’s purview. So what can it do?

“Our membership is comprised of many farmer organizations, and we work directly with other provincial funding organizations,” says Flaten. “We’re in a unique position because we’re the only organization to see research proposals from all across Western Canada, so it’s a natural for us to bring these voices together and talk about agronomic research capacity.”

But what does that mean in practical terms? After all, this is a big ship to turn about. Agronomic research is a hugely complex system that begins at the bench and ends up in a field, with hundreds of incremental steps in between. Farmers need researchers staring down microscopes and filling test tubes just as much as they need researchers pacing out field plots and driving combines. Without the bench work, there can be no applied work — they need each other to succeed.

“We want to facilitate an integrated approach to agronomic research across all institutions,” says Flaten. “We plan to bring the parties together in the spring to work out a common vision as to what we need in the future and then work toward that. We may not have all the answers right away, but we’ll know what we want to achieve.”

Flaten admits that the journey ahead is a difficult one, but at least the destination is clear. “It’s easier to see the urgency now than even a year ago,” she says. “Knowing what we know now, it may have been better to start this process earlier. But it’s not too late.”

The following links below provide more information

Final Report: Fertile Ground: Agronomic Research Capacity in Western Canada
Executive Summary: Fertile Ground: Agronomic Research Capacity in Western Canada

WGRF is a farmer-funded and -directed non-profit organization investing in agricultural research that benefits western Canadian producers. For over 30 years the WGRF board has given producers a voice in agricultural research funding decisions. WGRF manages an Endowment Fund and the wheat and barley variety development checkoff funds, investing over $14 million annually into variety development and field crop research. WGRF brings the research spending power of all farmers in Western Canada together, maximizing the returns they see in crop research.

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