When Don Flaten looks back over his career, one of the standout memories was a doubt-ridden walk across the parking lot at the University of Manitoba in 1995 as he transitioned from administrative duties to teaching.
“I didn’t cross that parking lot with a lot of confidence that day. I really wondered if it would be a good move,” recalls Flaten, who worried whether he’d be able to refocus his career on teaching, research and extension after years in the faculty’s administration.
“But I have never regretted it.
“I would say overall in my career the greatest fulfilment comes from teaching because of the success I’ve seen in the students that I have had the privilege to teach,” Flaten said during a recent conversation about his long career.
Flaten’s love of sharing knowledge in the classroom and field is appreciated by his students; his 2020 graduating students bestowed on him the ‘Second Year Teacher of the Year Award’ last June.
Over the years Flaten has won more than a dozen teaching and public education awards.
Now 65, he retired Dec. 31 after 33 years as a member of the department of soil science in the faculty of agricultural and food sciences, leaving a long legacy of important research and outreach related to agronomic and environmental management of commercial fertilizer, livestock manures, and soil, water and nutrient management for reducing nutrient loss.
Flaten has written, or co-authored, 80 peer-reviewed papers, plus many more to help farmers get the most from their fertilizer and manure in an environmentally friendly way.
But those accomplishments aren’t what define the success of his career — at least not in his eyes.
“Last winter, one of the finest moments I had was visiting a young graduate and his father… to see how he was evaluating a decision about a land purchase,” Flaten said.
“When I left the yard and I saw he and his father walking together… and saw how happy both of them were to be working together on their family farm, that to me was just wonderful. So whatever path the students have selected, it’s wonderful to see them succeed. If teaching can help that happen, that’s super rewarding.”
All for the students
Since 1987, Flaten has taught hundreds of agriculture students and supervised 22 graduate students since 1987, many of which followed his pioneering lead into the field of agronomy.
“Don is one of these people who is all for the students. He knows his students and he remembers his students,” says his longtime research collaborator and friend Cynthia Grant.
“He works so hard so that students get as much as possible from their educational experience. He is very good at seeing where the kids are having problems and helping the brilliant ones to achieve their brilliance and helping the ones struggling a little bit to meet their potential and to grow.”
John Heard, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development’s soil fertility specialist, who along with Grant and Flaten are known as the “three amigos,” shares Grant’s deep respect for Flaten.
In a letter recommending Flaten for an award, Heard wrote that Flaten’s students say his courses are among the hardest, but also where they learn the most.
A first for agronomy
Flaten, who graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 1978, was among the first crop of agronomy majors trained at a Prairie university. Until then, agriculture students chose between soil or plant science.
Creating the agronomy program was recognition of how soil and plant science, along with economics, are critical to improving crop production, he said.
Flaten, who grew up on a farm near Weyburn, is known by his friends to have a ‘goofy’ sense of humour. He’s self-deprecating, usually smiling and insatiably curious.
“He is such a compulsive learner,” Grant said. “He is not a guy who is going to sit around and become stale dated.”
Flaten’s career-long interest in delving into the mysteries of soil fertility doesn’t mean he’s found it easy.
“(I)t should be noted that my poorest grade in university was in soil fertility,” Flaten said laughing. “It is something that has challenged me and I really needed to learn more about. To this day I feel I should learn more. One of the fortunate things about my career is that I have always had more to learn about soil fertility.”
Flaten’s first job after graduation was as a district agriculturist with Alberta Agriculture from 1978 to 1980.
“While I was working… in southern Alberta I noticed there were some really challenging decisions farmers and agronomists had to make about fertilizer and manure management,” he said. “So I developed an interest and a plan to do a graduate program.”
Flaten says he picked the University of Manitoba because of its great staff, including renowned soil scientist Geza Racz, who supervised Flaten. What began as a master’s degree looking into the interactions between banded fertilizers became a PhD.
He was appointed as the director of the University of Manitoba’s School of Agriculture from 1987 to 1990 and then its associate dean until he turned to teaching in 1995.
Teaching, research and outreach have been rewarding, but required collaboration.
“I would really like to highlight that as one of the most important things in my career — the delightful collaborations across the industry,” Flaten stressed. “We’re fortunate to have a very collaborative, collegial agricultural community in Manitoba… and I have learned at least as much from my students, farmers and agronomists and the ag community as I might have been able to share with them.”
Collaborations and controversy
Those collaborations paid off immeasurably when the research involved controversial issues such as nutrient loading in Manitoba’s waterways.
Flaten was one of the researchers behind a multidisciplinary effort to better understand how phosphorus was getting into waterways and became the face of “phosphorus tea.”
Some dubbed them “heretics” after their findings challenged conventional wisdom that considered zero tillage the answer to controlling nutrient run-off. But the science was solid.
It was widely believed, based on U.S. research, that phosphorus entered waterways attached to soil particles. So it stood to reason that controlling soil erosion was synonymous with preserving water quality.
However, that research was conducted in regions that aren’t covered with snow for several months of the year.
Twenty years of research on the South Tobacco Creek Watershed of southern Manitoba showed phosphorus loading was higher from zero till or forage riparian zones than from fields under conventional tillage.
Plant residues subject to freezing and thawing break down during snowmelt releasing dissolved phosphorus that became to be known as “phosphorus tea.”
“It once again shows you need to consider the local conditions you’re working in whether it’s agronomic or environmental concerns that you are dealing with,” he said. “You have to be very, very careful about imported science.”
Flaten also inadvertently became a controversial figure in the heated and highly politicized debate surrounding hog industry expansion in rural Manitoba. Many blamed hog barns for the rising levels of nutrient contamination in Lake Winnipeg.
“Remember the largest confined feeding operation in Manitoba is the City of Winnipeg,” Flaten said then as he says now. “And we’re the only major city in the Lake Winnipeg Watershed that doesn’t have phosphorus removal in our sewage treatment system — so that’s another challenge.”
Flaten has also repeatedly underscored the need for phosphorus stewardship because it is a finite resource necessary for food production.
“I think most people are talking about no severe shortages for several more decades. Beyond that I think it’s anybody’s guess. Regardless, it’s a very, very important resource that supports our entire food system. So long-term phosphorus stewardship is a very important issue.”
He may be retiring, but Flaten hopes to continue some affiliation with the university.
“But I want to make sure I have the flexibility to have more time, not only for myself, but my family,” Flaten said. “Retirement is an important step towards doing some other things.”
“Nothing specific, but I am looking forward to having weekends off.”
Lessons learned over a long career
- Invest in continuing education: The learning never stops when studying the interactions between soil, plants, water, nutrients, pests, and economic management.
- Learning is a two-way street: Some of your best teachers will be the students and farmers you serve.
- Balance principles with practices and technique with technology: Never lose sight of agronomic fundamentals. Balance principles with practices; technique with technology.
- Mistakes are a great learning opportunity.
- Agronomy is a team sport: Build and maintain your network.
- Embrace mentorship from others and invest in mentorship for others.
- Practising agronomy is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the ride.