Scott Chalmers works as an Applied Research Specialist with the Province of Manitoba under the Department of Agriculture.
Among other exciting work, Scott and the applied research team test ways to grow food in the province on small plots of land before research gets to farmers, ensuring to consider the environment as well as how new innovations can make farmers more money, keep more dollars in rural communities, and ensure we have enough food to feed the world.
As our Special Crops Week expert, we asked Scott about his job, what excites him about where agriculture is going in the future, and the importance of educating students about where their food comes from.
Tell us what you do!
I’m an Applied Research Specialist and I’ve been in this role for over ten years. What I do is basically applied crop research — instead of private research, we do research for the public, which is looking at concepts that are more in the public interest.
Generally, private research are product-based and they’re looking for something innovative to sell a farmer, whereas for us, we’re looking for an innovative practice that the farmer can use while paying as little as possible.
On the personal side, I have an interest in no-till gardening and that keeps me quite busy. It’s a large garden and the goal is not to till the earth, which can damage some of the benefits that I’m trying to achieve. I also do a lot of home brewing and I do long-distance running, just things to keep my health and mental health.
Would students already know something about your work from how it impacts their everyday lives?
The best way I can describe how what I do trickles down is, for example, if you’ve used margarine in the morning to cook your eggs or you’re eating fries for lunch, that oil has been extensively researched by people like me.
On my end, I’m trying to find the best variety for farmers to grow that has the highest oil content and how that affects the farm in general.
How are you contributing to a more sustainable future?
I hope students realize there’s a triangle of sustainability which has to do with environmental, economic and social pillars. So, all three of those pillars have something to do with our research.
We’re constantly looking at the environmental side because the environment and climate affect how we feed crops, including fertilizer use, which can not only pollute our air with greenhouse gases but also the water through fertilizer runoff. That runoff can turn our lakes into blue-green algae lakes and it’s not environmentally sound.
There’s other things too. We’re looking into concepts like regenerative agriculture which take an assortment of ideas in agroecology. This can include integrating livestock, keeping the ground covered, creating crop diversity — those sorts of things are helping not only our environmental footprint but our bottom line, because some of those practices give us more money if they’re followed.
We also have fibre trials, where we’re trying to find cotton alternatives, things that are more durable. In the past year, we’ve been looking at flax fibre as an alternative to cotton. Also, foods that are more nutritious are of interest as well.
What role does technology play in your work?
Within my lifetime, I’m 43 years old, and within that lifetime, farming has undergone quite a knowledge change. In my generation, I think of the genetically modified crops that have integrated themselves into pesticides.
Moving into the future, GPS navigation has taken over in the last 15 years and currently I see integration of GPS — which helps steer the tractors in a straight line, or in circles, or whichever way the farmer wants — into robotics. This is to reduce manpower or people sitting in tractors for days on end going round and round in the field. If you can just have a robot do that, they’ll be a huge savings and people can do other, more important jobs around the farm.
How does your work benefit the lives of Manitobans?
As researchers, we fit into the value chain of agriculture. If there’s an idea on the farm or from industry that needs to be looked into, we are the next step beyond basic research.
Basic research means that there’s a new concept that’s just come out that needs to be tested, and that’s maybe done in the greenhouse, or on a very small scale. Once that concept hits us in applied research, though, we go out and see if it works in the field.
Farmers and their community learn from us about how we can help them grow their crops better and then they adopt them on to the farm. They make a small change on the farm that makes a huge impact on not only their economics but also the environment.
Then socially, for the entire community, this will be a boost — as those farmers are making more money, they may drop that money into their community at local businesses, and everybody wins that way.
One thing with our small research association here, we’re providing professional jobs to the local area, and have insights with education mindfulness behind it. We can take those ideas that we investigate to the next level and test it, we can grow new crops and find out if they grow in this area without the farmer taking that risk on the entire farm. For example, we’ll do a small plot the size of a lunch table and see if it works, study it, and take notes, and we also have field days during the summer where people can come out and visit our research and see first-hand something specific they’re looking for in the way the plants grow.
How does your job let you give back to your community?
Community in general pay taxes and they expect something back with that investment, so it’s my job to spend those government tax dollars to the best of my ability to find the results in the field and in our research and give those results back to the community who have paid taxes for them.
We also have a board of directors that manage the organization and its priorities, so the farmers who are board members direct what kind of research they want locally. So, it’s homegrown ideas and research that apply to the local community and how we may fit in as a regional area with the rest of the province.
What excites you most about the future of agriculture?
This may be a pessimistic view, but what gets me going is how are we going to feed the world beyond 8 billion people as well as manage our farms through peak oil and peak fertilizer, specifically phosphorous and potash. I’ve heard of peak phosphorous maybe being in 2050 and potash peaking in 2070, and so the generations after that, I question how they are going to sustain the amount of food production as we maybe take that for granted today.
There’s alternative fuel sources like hydrogen that can be used on the farm or even generated on the farm — so imagine generating your own fuel on the farm!
Robotics like I mentioned, is pretty interesting stuff. I’m mindful of how that will affect communities and people are not in tractors anymore, what are they going to do now? That’s a compelling question.
Answers have been shortened for clarity.