Since the ’90s a lot of new knowledge and agricultural solutions have come out of the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm at Carman. But looking back at his career there, that’s not what Alvin Iverson thinks of.
“It’s exciting to see new research and development and learn new things,” he said. “But in the end it’s the people that you meet along the way (who) are the things that are important.
“Where I am today was a combination of the experience and the relationships I’ve had with many special people along the way.”
Deans, department heads, researchers, people in industry. “The list could go on forever,” Iverson said.
On December 11, Iverson retired from his decades of work as manager of the University of Manitoba research farm.
He was there in 1993 when the farm was built – then two bare fields and a couple of ATCO trailers. So suffice it to say, when he says he’s met many special people along the way, he means ‘many.’
Growing with the farm
Iverson grew up in St. Vital, though his parents had a hobby farm near Hilbre in the Interlake. This is where his interest in agriculture began.
“I was always interested in grain farming,” Iverson said.
This led him to a degree in plant science at the University of Manitoba. In 1980, directly after graduation, he got a job with Elmer Stobbe, then an agronomist and professor of crop science at the school.
“I’ve been there ever since,” Iverson said. “It just speaks to the plant science department and the faculty of agriculture as being a great place to work.”
Iverson saw this as an exciting opportunity to be part of hands-on aspects of agriculture and to participate in research and extension work.
He began as a technician at what was then the U of M’s research farm at Portage la Prairie.
In the early ’90s, the university decided to move the farm to Carman. There was more opportunity to buy land and to build facilities, Iverson said. Manitoba Agriculture had also moved its soils and crops division to Carman and relocating would enable them to work together.
Iverson was sent to Carman to help establish and organize the new farm, said Doug Cattani, Iverson’s colleague and a professor of plant science with the University of Manitoba.
For 17 years, the farm comprised those two ATCO trailers and the ever-evolving fields.
“We spent many days dreaming that we would actually have an actual building to work out of where the air conditioner didn’t die at lunchtime,” said Iverson.
Iverson grew with the farm into the role of manager. “It just became a natural progression,” he said.
These days, farming a research station is like “farming a municipality in miniature,” said Iverson. Complexity comes from a large number of users and a diverse range of projects on the go.
A typical day at work involved managing lands requests — e.g. a researcher needs a plot with low pH, or one that hasn’t had canola planted there for five years. Iverson would also scout fields, answer questions from the public about the farm, and manage students.
His ability to manage students with respect and kindness is one of his key legacies, said Dilantha Fernando, a professor in plant pathology at the University of Manitoba.
He described Iverson as calm, clearly knowledgeable but not pushy. He’d help students (and Fernando) understand equipment and how to do tasks correctly.
“Always there is a smile on his face. All that goes a long way, especially working with young undergraduates who are from other countries who have just landed in this part of the world,” said Fernando.
Fernando explained he often has students come from other countries to work in plant pathology. Iverson helped them get started on the right foot.
Iverson also brought the farm into the age of “big data” before it was a craze, said plant science professor, Martin Entz. He put the research station on geographic information software (GIS) decades ago, said Entz. This system uses detailed maps to record the uses of plots on the farm along with soil type, nutrient status and other parameters.
When the station started, Manitoba Agriculture did a detailed soil survey of the farm, said Iverson. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (now a branch of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) also created a topographical map of the site.
Since 1995, they’ve been using GIS to add layers of data like crop histories and aerial maps. They use these detailed records to inform research and farm management.
Many researchers and ag professionals may also know Iverson from his emailed weather reports.
Environment Canada has a weather station on the Carman site, which delivers important data for the researchers.
However, many of these folks don’t live in Carman and were calling Iverson each morning to ask, “Did it rain there?” Iverson said.
He began starting the day by emailing weather reports to researchers. The list grew to around 160 people as he added agriculture professionals and other people keen to keep tabs.
Iverson was also integral to starting and continuing to deliver Manitoba Crop Diagnostic School, said Entz.
The annual program began in 1996 with a vision to give more training and support to farmers and agronomists, said Iverson.
Since then, the program has seen between 400 and 500 students a year, the U of M’s website says, and provides training in areas of nutrient, pest and crop management.
“Affecting millions of acres of decision-making within the province and outside,” Iverson said.
He said he considered Crop Diagnostic School as one of the joys of his career.
This year, COVID-19 led to an online Crop Diagnostic School and many other changes at the research farm.
“I think the last year has been one of the biggest challenges,” said Iverson when asked about hardships throughout his career.
Distancing and safety measures meant less research could be done, and had to be done differently. On the bright side they learned a lot of new tech, said Iverson, but the learning curve was steep.
The 2021 growing season will also look different for the research farm.
For a lot of people, working at the farm meant working with Iverson, said Cattani, who has worked with him off and on since his own days as a student.
“I think a lot of us equate Carman with Alvin in a lot of ways,” he said.
Iverson said he intends to keep in touch with his former colleagues, to spend more time with his wife, and to enjoy retirement for what it is.