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Les Henry: Peanut scrambles or problem solving?

We need agricultural research, but we also need to fund the right agricultural research

The need for ongoing programs of agricultural research to keep our industry functioning and profitable is without question. But how it is organized, how the money is spent and on what basis the money is allocated needs some discussion.

Recently I have spent some time perusing the websites of various agricultural research funding organizations — commodity commissions and others. When a pot of money is available a request for proposals goes out to potential recipients. Many are for small amounts over short terms.

Eons ago, when I was new at the game the Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan had a small fund to use as seed money to get new faculty started. He sent out a request for proposals and I chose to look at subsoil nitrate levels. We found out that excessive long-term summerfallow resulted in significant accumulation of nitrate to depths of at least 18 feet. It was new information to us and very satisfying as a start.

A very-well established soil microbiologist in our department (Eldor Paul) called such fund disbursements as peanut scrambles. Readers can Google “Eldor Paul” to find out more about his lifetime contributions.

Peanut scrambles do serve a useful purpose but should be a small part of the pie.

Research Stations

For many decades the federal research stations had specific local mandates and an assured budget that provided long-term funding for local agronomic problem solving. The work included long-term field plot experiments.

To be honest, for many years I was critical of long-term plots and did not appreciate their value. Much of that opinion was based on soil fertility work. Early in the game I looked at doing soil fertility research on the University of Saskatchewan land right on campus. Soil tests of the crop variety test areas showed soil-available phosphorus to be very high despite no commercial fertilizer use. But, many years before my tests, those fields had received boatloads of manure from animal enterprises on campus. Manure has a long memory.

So, for soil fertility work, my very definite opinion was, and still is, “go where the problems are.” To make any headway with agricultural use of good Saskatchewan potash, we had to go to the very potassium-deficient Carrot River soils of the Carrot River area 200 miles northeast of Saskatoon.

It should be emphasized that the severe potassium-deficient nature of Carrot River soils was not know by the research community until the Saskatchewan Soil Testing Lab opened in 1966. Credit for that goes to the first soil test director, Nokomis farm boy Ed Halstead. He insisted potassium tests should be run on all samples. Lesser lights like me questioned why we would bother when we had files of field data showing we did not need potassium.

Truth be known, the local fertilizer dealer knew that potash was needed and he was selling it to customers that needed it. That drives home the point that fertility work must go where the problems are.

It was my opinion that the federal stations suffered from the same problem as University of Sask. lands. But, I was wrong. With regard to phosphorus fertilization the long-term fertility plots at Swift Current and elsewhere have shown us that proper phosphorus fertilization must be looked at as a long-term proposition. Only a small percentage of annual phosphorus applications are taken up by the current crop but over time it is all recovered by crop removal.

In the soil test calibration work of the 1960/70s of the Sask. Soil Testing Lab, Agriculture Canada stations provided valuable off-station work to provide sufficient data over sufficient soils and climates to make it work.

In the meantime, secure long-term funding for local research has been mostly eliminated from the federal government’s research stations and they are forced to compete with universities and others for peanut scrambles.

Which brings me to the other category of research work.

Problem solving

To make headway, much agricultural research must be based on actual problem solving. Success requires clear thinking to identify the problems and plan a strategy to solve those problems.

A prime example is the situation of summer algae blooms in the beach areas of central Lake Winnipeg. It is current consensus that excessive phosphorus levels is the culprit. To their great credit Manitoba Water Stewardship and Environment Canada have done extensive long-term monitoring to determine which of the rivers draining into the lake bring in the most phosphorus. They also monitor atmospheric deposition.

The Saskatchewan River runs all the way from the Rockies, through much of Alberta and Saskatchewan and dumps into the northwest corner of Lake Winnipeg at Grand Rapids. The Saskatchewan River system contributes a whopping five per cent of the phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg. Atmospheric deposition of phosphorus is more, at seven per cent.

Despite that knowledge, the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has recently awarded over two-thirds of $1M to folks to research sloughs (they say wetlands) with the idea that we should be replacing drained sloughs to save Lake Winnipeg. They specifically target Saskatchewan as lagging in wetland restoration.

The problem has been identified but a shotgun is being used to shoot it down when a rifle is needed. The very good monitoring at point of entry to Lake Winnipeg should be used to target the major sources and work on fixing the problem where it exists.

The problem is not money. Almost monthly, the atrium of our fine Agriculture Building at the U. of S. is the scene of a special assembly where the federal government hands out boatloads of money for research that is not related to the farmers’ bottom lines.

The February 9, 2019, issue of our local Saskatchewan Star Phoenix featured a special interview with a federal minister talking about the current buzzword: superclusters. When the interviewer posed the question: “Can you give me one example of a problem you expect to actually solve?” The answer: bafflegab. That bafflegab talked about superclusters doing things differently by getting people to work together.

I have never been a big fan of committees. Let me end this little piece with a note:

A COMMITTEE:

A collection of the unfit,
Chosen from the unwilling,
By the incompetent,
To do the unnecessary.

About the author

Columnist

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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