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From convincing teachers agriculture was a real career to international honours

This retired AAFC soil researcher earned a long list of awards and honours while living on a farm and raising a family near Minnedosa

Cynthia Grant became a research scientist, just as she dreamed about while growing up on a farm near Minnedosa, but along the way she was also a pioneer.

Her soil and agronomy research at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Brandon Research Centre has been recognized with numerous Canadian and international awards and honours. The most recent was being selected to join the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame — only the 10th woman named to the hall since it was created in 1960. The induction ceremony is Nov. 28 at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City.

“I don’t get it,” an incredulous Grant, who retired from AAFC Jan. 24, 2015, said in an interview from her home, a farm not far from where she grew up and where she and husband Greg raised two daughters.

“With me it’s pretty hard to point to any particular thing and say, ‘hey this is a big deal.’”

Her colleagues around the province and across the country disagree.

“Cynthia is a world-renowned soil fertility and crop nutrition researcher who is highly respected across Canada and around the world, by farmers, industry and public agencies, alike,” University of Manitoba soil science professor, Don Flaten wrote in an April 22 letter to the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame nominating Grant.

“As a result, she has received a wide variety of local, national, and international awards for her achievements in agricultural research and it would be great to recognize her with this national award for her overall contributions to Canada’s agricultural industry, as well.”

Cindy Grant (r) and University of Manitoba soil science professor Don Flaten give a presentation on 4R nutrient stewardship at a field day.
photo: File/Allan Dawson

One of those prestigious international awards came in January when Grant received the Leo Walsh Soil Fertility Distinguished Lectureship, which she delivered at the Soil Science Society of America’s annual meeting in Santiago, Calif.

Much to Grant’s surprise she was the first woman to receive the honour.

Grant got an even bigger shock a few years ago, when she found out she was the first woman to earn a doctorate in soil science at the University of Manitoba, in 1986.

“It was literally 30-some years after I graduated before I realized it,” she said. “It never came up. Nobody discussed it. It just wasn’t a thing.”

However, in high school Grant said her decision to study agriculture was questioned. The principal asked if she really wanted to be a farmer or an ag rep.

Grant’s brother-in-law, who had a PhD in wildlife biology, told her there were lots of jobs for people with agriculture degrees.

“My dad always wanted me to be a plant breeder and my mom wanted me to be a home economist,” Grant said. “My family is very proud of being farmers and being involved in agriculture.

“I really did go into agriculture wanting to be a scientist, which I think is a little bit unusual.

“The school still didn’t even really recognize it (agriculture) as a real degree.”

Breaking ground

Scientists of any gender aren’t common in small, rural communities. That led to some teachable moments for Grant. For example, when picking up her daughter from a birthday party at the home of some newcomers to Minnedosa, the child’s mother chuckled when Grant came by.

“‘Your daughter just said the funniest thing. She said you were a scientist.’”

“I said, ‘yeah.’ Then there was a four-second pause and she said, ‘I thought they only had those in the States.’”

A Grade 5 teacher, enthusiastic about science, asked the class if they knew a scientist.

Everybody put up their hand because they knew Grant.

In Grade 1 a teacher asked one of Grant’s daughters what her parents did. Her daughter said dad was a farmer and farmers grow crops.

She said her mom was a scientist, “‘but what she does I haven’t the foggiest.’”

Grant knows she was lucky to be a scientist and be able to live on a farm in her home community and raise a family.

“I think there are a lot of pluses to that,” she said. “It really couldn’t have worked out better that way.”

A good student, self-described bookworm and introvert, Grant was attracted to research because she thought it would be a career where she could work alone in a laboratory, but it was the exact opposite.

“One thing that I learned through the years is networking and collaboration and working co-operatively and closely with other people is really the key to science,” she said. “To be a successful scientist you have to be able to work with other groups and other people and I have been so extremely fortunate to have been involved in a career and field of research where there are so many fantastic people willing to work collaboratively. We ended up with a great team of people and organizations… ”

Beyond soil

Although much of her work focused on soil it was broader, including the path nutrients take through plants.

“I did a lot of work with food quality as well because it’s a continuum… right from the soil environment, economics (and) the functional quality of the food… ” she said. “I… did a lot of work to try and reduce the cadmium (a toxic metal) concentration in food. I also looked at trace elements and oil profiles.”

Grant has also done a lot of work on 4R nutrient management, which is about using the right source of nutrients, applying the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.

Nutrient management is part of a holistic approach to growing crops, Grant added.

“It’s so important to work effectively with all the people in the different fields and be able to look at it as a cohesive package that integrates and has all of these parts that make the system run.”

Humans have been on earth a short time. Just 12,000 years ago Manitoba was covered in two kilometres of ice, Grant said.

“The soil was still rebounding from glaciation,” she said. “If you look around the topography of Manitoba you can see the footprints of the glaciers and soil formation. What’s happened the last 10,000 years is written in the soil — the vegetation, the type of environment that was there.”

All life on earth depends on converting sunshine into energy.

“We have to make sure our systems keep going in a healthy way to support those 10 billion people… by 2040,” Grant said. “And doing it without ruining the environment, the land and water and providing some fairness and equity and social contract with people around the world.”

The cycle

Crops need nutrients. That means retaining organic matter, preventing soil erosion and recycling nutrients in fields and in the cities.

“Our cities are a sink for nutrients and those nutrients need to be recycled effectively otherwise if you have them going into Lake Winnipeg, or sitting at a dump site, they are gone,” Grant said. “At best they are lost resources, at worst they are pollution… The long-term view is we just need to do things better at getting the nutrients that are taken away from the soil back to the soil after they have been through the people, or livestock, or whatever harvests the energy from them… and not accumulating the excess in spots where it’s not doing any good.”

Grant is still working on some pet research projects, but is enjoying retirement spending time in her farm garden in summer and golfing and hiking down south in winter.

“I had plans for staying the full 35 years but I just got tired of the cold,” Grant said.

She made the decision one cold December night after flying to Winnipeg after a conference and her car wouldn’t start without a boost.

“I was dressed in my Florida clothes and just about freezing to death and drove home 2-1/2 hours to Minnedosa into the cold, lonely dark and thought, I’m not going to do this anymore. I am so sick of winter.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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