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Extending information to farmers

For 40 years, Grainews and Les Henry have shared ag research with farmers

Looking back on Les Henry’s 40 years of Grainews columns causes me to reflect on how most things have improved in Prairie agriculture, though a few haven’t. I got my start as first field editor of Grainews in 1976, around the same time as Les started writing his columns. One of my first stories was on the proper incorporation of Avadex — twice at 90 degrees, with harrows. Avadex has had a second life recently, but the method of application has certainly improved.

What hasn’t improved? The list is much shorter, but when Leeann said she wanted to have a page celebrating the value of extension, it reminded me that one item on my list is that the word seems to have almost disappeared lately. The Canadian Society of Extension, once an active forum for extending academic theory into farm practice, disbanded a few years ago. That decline in the use of the word coincided with — or was due to — a decline in public research, particularly at the federal level.

One of the reasons I became interested in agriculture was reading James Gray’s Men Against the Desert, which described the origin of the PFRA and how government scientists literally saved western Canadian agriculture by teaching farmers new techniques to save and reclaim their soil. That was extension — extending theory to practice — at its best.

It’s not that there aren’t some wonderful public and private agronomists out there today. But it seems that so much of the discussion these days focuses on yield. It’s important, but there are other goals in farming, such as ensuring it’s sustainable for the long term, especially by protecting the soil.

Les understands that very well. I searched through all his columns so far this year, and the word “yield” appears only three times. The words “soil” and “water” occur too many times to count. You often hear farmers say “There would be no food without farmers,” but it’s equally true that there would be no farmers without soil.

Grainews was an immediate hit in its early days, mainly because of founding publisher John Clark’s insistence of the theme of being “written for farmers by farmers” — in other words, in language they can understand. With all due respect to academics, and again, there are many doing wonderful work today, I find that they are almost always great speakers at meetings. But when it comes to putting the same clear language on paper, they often revert to academic-ese.

Not Les, no doubt because he wears two hats — academic and farmer. So much of what he writes is about what happens on his own farm, and that he understands the relationship between theory and practice.

Les doesn’t just help us understand anions and cations — he sometimes veers into other farm-related topics, including the book he wrote on catalogue houses. Those columns reassure me that there’s still some life in the notion of “extension” and all it implies for the health of farms and farm families.

And not only are his columns clear and understandable, they’re delivered on time — and have been for 40 years, which must be some kind of record. Editors have certainly appreciated that, I’m sure that readers have as well.


Praise for Les

Tells it like it is

I would guess that Les Henry knows more farmers, has visited more farms and has spoken at more community halls in Saskatchewan than any other U of S professor… and no one else has written more columns in Grainews.

Les understands and appreciates the science of agriculture as well as the art and business of farming… and he knows how to connect all of these together in a timely, entertaining, understandable and memorable way.

Les’s style is to tell it the way it is, as directly and simply as possible. For example, in a recent Grainews article on soil health, Les explained that a soil’s water content at its “permanent wilt point” was when “the plants suck the water until the soil sucks back so hard the plants croak.” Compare Les’s definition to the official definition, which is”the largest water content of a soil at which indicator plants, growing in that soil, wilt and fail to recover when placed in a humid chamber. Often estimated by the water content at -1.5 MPa soil matric potential.”

Which of these definitions will most people understand and remember?

Les is a great soil scientist and educator; he’s also a wonderful person. I always look forward to reading his columns and meeting with him. Let’s hope he never retires!

Don Flaten, Professor, Dept. of Soil Science, University of Manitoba

Inspiring students

I wrote my fourth year thesis under Les. Les instilled that developments have to work in the field for farmers. He ran a small farm and that’s what made him think that way.

When I took over my mom and dad’s farm in 1986, I wanted to zero till. The research was telling us what to do, but nothing was really available to do it with. So we ended up building our own. Background information from university, from guys like Les and Don Rennie was really influential.

Any time I saw Les he’d come and compliment us on it. He even sent me a letter. It was quite nice to get a letter from your prof.

Pat Beaujot, founder and director strategic market development, Seed Hawk, Inc.

Inspiration to researchers

Les was and is an inspiration for me, and a mentor. I do a lot of extension, communication of my research results. One way is scientific papers, but it was my opinion rather early on, and Les helped instill this in me, that’s it’s really important to get out there and spread your research work directly to the farmers and the people of Saskatchewan. Really, what that means is the rubber hitting the road. Les really showed me the ropes in what was involved in getting out there and talking to people. Les instilled in me a desire to get out there and spread the word.

Jeff Schoenau, professor of soil science, University of Saskatchewan.

Extension inspiration

Les was always an excellent example of how to be effective at conducting extension. Three-quarters of it is being entertaining, but also, and just as important, is to be accurate and correct in your information, and he is certainly both.

Curtis Cavers, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada agronomist.

Flexible nurturer

Over the 37 years that I’ve known Les, he always was a rock solid farmer and professional soil scientist, but he was flexible, not like hard pan.

Many of today’s successful farmers had the benefit of his fertile mind in class, at meetings, and through seminars and research. Les nurtured young minds which have bloomed into today’s top grain and forage producers. Thanks for your generous contribution to Western Canada’s farming industry.

Andy Sirski, former Grainews editor, Grainews columnist.

Extension training

Les has been a very prominent figure in prairie agriculture. Les was on my advisory committee and examination committee when I did my PhD at the U of S many years ago. Les made sure to constantly grill me on the practical applications my research would have. That has always stuck with me.

Ross McKenzie, retired research scientist, Grainews columnist.

Working with fellow scientists

Les is very quick to compliment his fellow scientists, and his own work was always very, very practical. He’s the kind of person that is always learning, looking and learning.

Plant pathologist Ieuan Evans, senior agri-Coach with AgriTrend, a division of Trimble.

Plain language

Les’s “tell it like it is” or “tell it as I see it” approach to column writing suits Grainews perfectly. Even after leaving Grainews, I still contact Les if I need advice on an idea. He gives straight answers, including, “You are spinning your wheels. Farmers pay no attention to such things,” which is verbatim from a recent email.

I share links to Les’s column through my @CanolaWatch Twitter handle. I remember one from a couple years ago on the connection between combine speed and canola harvest losses. Harvest was moving along well that fall so Les had some time on the combine to run a speed test. He slowed right down and compared the yield for ultra slow combining (something like one m.p.h.) versus normal speed. The difference shocked him. So he wrote about it. Fantastic! His blend of on-farm experience and hunger to keep testing new ideas is priceless. Thanks Les! Prairie agriculture needs a few more writers like you.

Jay Whetter, communication manager, Canola Council of Canada, former Grainews editor.

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