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Previous Nuffield Scholarship recipient Coles argues innovation revolution needed for ag industry

Posted on March 5, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman

By Heather Cameron
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The 2024 Farming Smarter Conference, which was held recently at the Sandman Signature Lethbridge  included a presentation from Ken Coles, Executive Director of Farming Smarter about the worldwide travel he did as a recipient of the Nuffield Scholarship. 

The Nuffield Scholarship was awarded to Coles in 2021 and involved being given a grant of $15,000 to do a self-directed research program of international travel and study. Coles said he applied for this because he wanted to focus on the science institution. 

“I started off my career really interested in the sciences because they were more concrete,” said Coles. “Then, when you start to gain a little bit of wisdom, you realize that people are a really important part of that all and they’re not always logical, and we must figure out how do we all work together and create these systems, and this is just a crazy world that we try to survive in as a science purist. My big contention or my big premise right now is that our entire innovation system in agriculture for Canada is broken. I think that it’s important that we address that. It’s our livelihood. I think we’re not investing in it appropriately. This isn’t an area that I feel we can slack off on, so, I applied for the Nuffield Scholarship, which originated in the UK and was supported by the Alberta Grains folks as well as Farming Smarter.” 

During his travels, Coles says, he looked to that on-farm innovation system and turned his attention to how different countries have different approaches to how they support farmers. His 10 weeks of travel, Coles said, involved visits to Innovative Farmers in Scotland, Norwich Research Park in Norwich, Teagasc in Carlow, Ireland, Hometree in Claire County, Ireland, ISA University in Lille, France, Arvalis in France, Groupe Carre in France, Eco-Phyt in France, Plant and Food in New Zealand, FAR in New Zealand, Vineland Research and Innovation Center in Canada, Alan Savory’s ACHM in Zimbabwe, and the Agriculture Research Trust in Zimbabwe.

Coles stated that he started off in Europe, which is highly subsidized and includes lots of environmentalism. In New Zealand, on the other hand, Coles says, they got rid of almost all subsidies in the 80s. The highlight of his adventure, Coles said, was a trip to Zimbabwe, because if they could get their geopolitical issues in order, they could produce two crops a year because they have land and the right climate. Coles also highlighted his trip to the Niagara area, saying that he was able to find a flourishing not-for-profit called Vineland in the horticultural industry there. 

“Throughout those adventures, there were people from a lot of other countries, and I learned just as much visiting with them and having those folks visit me,” said Coles. “I think that was a valuable experience because you get to see your world through the eyes of others, and that’s quite valuable.”

Coles then stated that he came up with his own definition for innovation.

“I believe that innovation is a system that begins with passionate, creative, and fearless people with courage, determination, and persistence within,” said Coles. “This is a culture. Next, a process must be succinctly and efficiently implemented. That includes building a knowledge network, exploring, designing and testing ideas with feedback and iterative adaptation, evaluating, tweaking, or even starting all over, all while considering risk costs and revenue. Success comes with relentless effort and value accrues through adoption. Innovation is about culture, process, adaptation and adoption.”

Coles stated that some important concepts that both the leaders in the industry and the farmers, and everybody involved needs to get a better understanding of and help build that system that functions. An example of this, Coles said, was found when he went to Scotland and met with a young woman who was involved with a soil association, and they were also involved in on-farm research or living lab work. 

“The idea was basically they got a grant and then farmers could apply to do on-farm research through them and they would pair them up with a scientist who would come and collect data and sort of make it a simple process,” said Coles. “I think what’s different than what we have here is the fact that it’s given to them, in a flexible way. And it’s truly on-farm research and not the type that we like to brag about here. So, some of the feedback that they had was that having researchers show up and, and sort of take the guesswork out of data collection was a game changer. They had just celebrated a 10-year anniversary and she was like, ‘People are dying to give us money to support this effort.’ I kind of felt like this was a really good example of a simple program that enabled the true innovators of the ag industry, which is the farmers. We always forget that right now, all of the funds in agriculture are going towards innovative businesses, small and medium enterprises. There’s whole streams of grants and venture capitalism that are supporting businesses trying to fit into agriculture rather than supporting the grassroots innovators like many of you are here in this room, so that was kind of cool.”

Coles said that having lived through the majority of cuts of Alberta Agriculture in Canada, and not even being involved in extension anymore, it was weird for him to see a country doing the exact opposite that Canada is. He also spoke of Teagasc in Carlow, Ireland, saying that it started in about 1989 and has built network of research institutions, colleges, universities, and advisory regions in the country that has 22 per cent of the land base of Alberta. They, Coles said, have crop specialists they built.

“That was kind of an eye opener,” said Coles. “Ireland has a bigger support system for agriculture than we do, and I think there’s different pressures. They’ve got the European Union support, they’ve got all these environmental policy challenges, but that was just a bit of a wakeup call for what’s happening in Europe, as far as investment compared to us.”

Coles said that his visit to France was also interesting in that there was a university where their ag students all must take an internship abroad. Although Farming Smarter has had several exchange students from France, Coles said, to meet with the college professors and understand what’s going on showed him that they really take their agriculture seriously in France, they’re very passionate, and they work hard. In addition to the students, Coles said he also met with a group of farmers at a local club where they were out sharing conservation ideas, but they were talking about cover crops, and we had just visited a massive research center down the road. However, Coles said, not one of them knew anything about what was going on there. 

“I think that’s pretty universal no matter where we go,” said Coles. “Science seems to be separate from the farmers and that’s a big problem, and that’s kind of why we exist as an organization. We’re helping farmers understand soil conservation and they even set up their own farm and they set up their own certification for different levels of conservation adoption.”

Coles stated the best example of a not-for-profit that was doing a great job at serving the industry needs, however, was Vineland in Canada. Vineland, Coles said, used to be and was moved to the University of Guelph, where it failed. From there, it was turned into a not-for-profit and with an approximately 50 per cent grant from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, they have done really well, and have about $11.5 million to run their organization.

“I always say that a not-for-profit can operate with the efficiency of a private industry, but still maintain the public good,” said Coles. “I think that’s what we’re losing now is because honestly, some gatekeepers on the public good, some of the key kind of take homes overall is how important history is in shaping our innovation culture. That culture of rugged independence is also   important to consider that the farmers that are still in business have been selected over the last century or so and they’re independent, and the problem is, is that we can’t do that anymore. We have to figure out how to work together, as the industry is, in many ways, becoming smaller and smaller.”

The trip he took, Coles said, has opened his eyes to the importance of policy and how important the European Farm to Fork policy really is.

“As you put together a national or a continental policy that encourages this, you can see that obviously the efforts are going to be towards reducing production and that can have some pretty serious consequences,” said Coles. 

The evidence to date, Coles says, confirms that Canadian agriculture production is increasingly sustainable, and the government must learn the right lessons from Europe’s mistakes when adopting strategies for reducing emissions from our agricultural sector. Canada should continue to improve sustainability through innovation. 

“Canada should not follow Europe’s failed attempts to reduce emissions by producing less food,” said Coles.

The policies, Coles said, are going to be impacted by major events including Brexit, COVID, the war in Ukraine, natural disasters, etc. 

“We tend to get into these value-based, ideological based movements and even almost somewhat anti-science, and I do think science has got its challenges, but we’ve got this global business now that is focused on climate change, so we have to be cautious with stories and continue to maintain science as a backing, but understand that there’s other forces at play,” said Coles.

Coles then spoke of the system, stating that the ag extension is basically decimated, the education system in agriculture is struggling, as is the research system. 

“We do have good producer groups, but the amount of dollars that they put into it relatively is quite small,” said Coles. “Our input suppliers probably have the best relationships with farmers, and I’m starting to see at least a little bit of effort in putting together some unbiased work, not just selling products that don’t provide value to farmers. And then probably the big wild card is the government policy; be on the lookout for climate change policies. I think we need to be a part of it. We can’t just let these things happen without our input. I do think there’s a bigger role for not-for-profits staying focused on regional areas or in topics that can help fill some of those voids and bridge the gaps. Lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of investment from charitable foundations into agriculture, and it is tied to climate change. I think we need to look at them as partners as well. We need a revamped agricultural innovation system and strategy. I think that is potentially a step in the right direction, but I think we also need to have an innovation system to support it. Basically. I think we need to depoliticize innovation and genuinely collaborate.”

Coles stated that people involved in agriculture also need to reconnect with farmers’ needs through these innovation models, and policies are needed that are science based and regionally specific. Coles also stated that government models that enable effective management need to be modernized.

“We need to modernize governance models that enable effective management,” said Coles. 

Another point Coles touched upon was the essentialness of a human capital strategy.

“We’re seeing fewer and fewer people get interested in agriculture, fewer and fewer people staying, and we want the smartest brains in this industry,” said Coles. “It’s probably the most complex industry out there, but colleges are struggling to attract students and I keep hearing from farmers that they don’t have a workforce that can manage the technology that they’re implementing in their farms, so we have to attract leaders as well.”

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