Western Canadian farmers aren’t losing a valuable resource, but a long-time soil fertility specialists and agronomist will be heading off in a new direction this fall, as Ray Dowbenko wraps up a 30-year career with a major fertilizer company.
Dowbenko, who spent more than 20 years often recognized as the frontline man who figured out where ESN controlled release nitrogen fit into Canadian farm fertilizer programs, packed up his Calgary office August 20 to step out into unknown territory.
With the completion of a recent merger between Agrium and PotashCorp creating a new company, Nutrien, Dowbenko says retirement in 2018 wasn’t his idea “I was a bit disappointed, I had another few years in mind.” But at 57, he says he has no regrets, no hard feelings, and every intention to still be playing a role in the Western Canadian agriculture industry for a few more years to come.
“The past 30 years [he started out with Sherritt Fertilizer] has been a tremendous experience,” says Dowbenko. “I have had opportunity to work with so many excellent people, not only here in Canada but around the world. I’ve had more opportunities in my lifetime, than might normally fill three or four lifetimes. I have learned a lot of the over the years and hope to continue to share that experience with others. As long as I feel current and relevant I want to be part of the agriculture industry, but I don’t want to hanging on as some old guy sitting in the back of a room who has lost touch with current trends. I will retire before that happens.”
Dowbenko plans to take a few weeks off before seeing what opportunities are available.
From here to there
Born and raised on the east side of Winnipeg, Dowbenko didn’t come from a grain and oilseed farming background. At the University of Manitoba, a girlfriend taking agriculture led Dowbenko to the soil science program. He studied under the now (mostly) retired Geza Racz, head of the department of soil science. At university he met his wife Janice, a farm girl from Grandview, Manitoba, who was working at the university. They have a daughter Ellen.
After graduation it was right into the fertilizer business. Dowbenko started with Sherritt Fertilizer in Saskatoon in the late 1980s, moved with Sherritt to Edmonton in 1990. Following a merger with Esso Chemical that company became Veridian in 1994, and another merger later he moved to Calgary in 1997 as an agronomist with Agrium.
He was with Agrium as a new controlled-release nitrogen fertilizer product, ESN was being introduced on the market. He was involved with the early field trails, then continued helping farmers, retailers and new hires at Agrium not only understand the role and fit for ESN, but overall crop fertility programs. When the company hired good people with a business background, Dowbenko was the guy who increased their awareness and understanding of agriculture with “101 agronomy courses.”
Over the years, Dowbenko traveled the world through work.
On the Canadian front, Dowbenko talks about working with and learning from leaders in the agriculture industry such as Geza Racz, the late John Harapiak, Rigas Karamanos, Les Henry and Norm Flore, to name a few.
“One of things you learn from guys like this is to be honest and straightforward,” says Dowbenko. “You’re helping people with soil fertility recommendations, well don’t sell them a bill of goods. Be honest. And if you don’t know yourself, then you point them toward other specialists such as Don Flaten, Mario Tenuta and Jeff Schoeneau, for example, who hopefully have the answers.”
Dowbenko gets a bit emotional as he packs up his office and reflects on his career. “You really don’t think you do much, but I have been overwhelmed by the responses I’ve received from people who have appreciated my help and say they learned something from me over the years,” he says. “I have always tried to do this job with honesty and integrity and I hope I can still contribute in the years to come.”