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Editor’s Take: The last mile

Every year around the world, billions of dollars, euros, yen and yuan are spent on agriculture research.

In Canada alone, public funding of “research in support of agriculture,” to quote the federal government, topped $557 million in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

That figure may wax and wane with the budgetary vagaries of government, but it’s always been there and it’s always significant.

It’s also yielded a lot of benefit for Canadian farmers. Take the canola industry, as just one example.

Basic research and plant breeding by the universities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba and federal agriculture researchers took a machine lubricant and converted it into a heart-healthy oilseed.

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That then grew into an industry worth close to $27 billion annually to the Canadian economy, according to the Canola Council of Canada.

There’s little doubt agriculture research not only pays its own way but pays dividends for the entire sector. Agriculture economists quibble a bit over just how large the return on investment is, but they do agree it’s significant, with most saying each dollar spent returns somewhere around $10 and some say even as much as $20.

Clearly there have been some real success stories. Canola is just one. Gains in disease resistance, quality and yields are too many to mention.

The growth of an export-oriented equipment-manufacturing sector has also been a real added bonus, shipping air seeders and openers around the globe.

But some argue this impact could be even greater, were it not for a lot of promising agriculture research that gets sidelined somewhere between the test plot and the farmer’s field.

In our main FarmIt story in this issue, Glacier FarmMedia’s Jennifer Blair looks at three such pieces of research that can be applied to farms — but aren’t necessarily being applied.

They include night spraying, better aphanomyces identification for pulse growers and variety- (rather than crop-) specific management.

All appear to share one key trait and lack another. They’re knowledge-based techniques that count on an informed grower, and they don’t necessarily revolve around a product or piece of equipment that can be purchased.

One of the people Blair spoke to for the story — Ken Coles of Farming Smarter, a non-profit farmer-led agriculture research association in southern Alberta — tagged this last mile to the farmer as a major shortfall in the research system in Canada.

He says that too often great knowledge that could help farmers is left “sitting on the shelf.”

That’s led Alberta to try a new tack by forming a new provincial agriculture research funding body dubbed Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR). Its brief is to pick the projects that can have the greatest impact for farmers, and a farmer-dominated board is ensuring that focus is maintained. RDAR was announced earlier this year, is in the interim organizing phase now and expects to be fully operational by year-end.

Back home in Manitoba, the issue has been recognized here as well, and one commodity association is working hard to bridge this gap.

The Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers (MPSG) has spent over a decade building its on-farm research network.

The aim here is to build and foster closer ties between farmers and agriculture researchers. It does this by taking research to farms and performing field-scale trials. In addition, there’s a farmer-driven component that encourages farmers to suggest their own trial topics.

While the models differ, both represent an effort to bridge the farmer-researcher gap. Doing that has become more important as extension efforts have been scaled back over the years due to budgetary constraints.

The too-few remaining extension staff do their very best, but the truth is they’re small boats, bobbing along on a sea of information that could potentially aid growers.

Years ago now I worked for the national agriculture business magazine Country Guide as a contributing editor and I had the chance to sit down and interview noted agriculture economist Murray Fulton on the topic of ‘innovation.’

During our conversation he mounted a spirited argument that a too-often overlooked facet of that word was innovative ways to organize sectors, value chains, and farmers themselves. Getting that organization right, he said, was a key building block to ensuring better results for those organizing themselves.

When it comes to agricultural research, it’s clear farmers themselves are recognizing they could benefit from a more focused effort to bring farmer and researcher together.

And while some may feel it’s a philosophical question of control of the direction of research, others see a practical reality.

If promising research never comes to the field, dollars are being left on the table.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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