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Towards Broad Horizons

By the mid-1920s with the prairie and parkland areas of Alberta largely settled, agriculture began to extend into the wooded areas of the province. Settlers, many with no previous agricultural experience, cleared thousands of hectares of bush, tediously falling trees, pulling stumps and picking rocks to get at the soil. However, that soil was unlike anything that even the experienced settlers had dealt with before. After as few as three or four crops it would become barren and crusted, offering little or no return for the hard labor and precious seed invested in it. As their crops diminished, so did the dreams of those who had hoped to make a new life on the land.

Help was to come from the province's fledgling university — more particularly from the College of Agriculture and its soil science department. At that time the department comprised two professors, Frank Wyatt and John Newton, and in 1926 they had collaborated on a soil survey to appraise the land in the forested areas of the Province. It was undoubtedly at this time that they became fully aware of the problems farmers were having with the grey wooded soils (which soil scientists now refer to as "luvisolic" soils).

In 1929 under Wyatt's direction some early soil treatment experiments were made on a farm near Breton, Alberta, and the following year the long-term Breton Plots were more formally established to find a system of soil management for the luvisolic soils.

In recent years growing public awareness and concern about the environment has led to much discussion about sustainable agriculture. This reawakened interest is making itself felt at the University of Alberta Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry — as it is at schools of agriculture throughout North America and the world. But sustainable agriculture is a concept the Faculty has never deserted. For 60 years now the Breton plots, which have chronicled the long-term benefits of a grain-forage rotation and moderate fertilizer application, have shown farmers who work Alberta's luvisolic soils how to sustain agriculture on their land.

Over the years hundreds of farmers have learned how to manage their land at the annual Breton field days initiated shortly after the Plots were established. For many it has literally meant economic survival on the farm.

Countless other Alberta agriculturists have benefitted from similar events organized by departments within the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry. Among these are the annual Feeders' Day, held at the University Farm and now in its 69th year, and the Kinsella Ranch Days, which attract farmers and ranchers to the University Ranch located on leased pasture land near Kinsella, Alberta.

Events such as these are a vital part of the Faculty's continuing commitment to the dissemination of research findings and technical information. This commitment is one of the three major thrusts within the Faculty; the others being teaching, both of undergraduate and graduate students, and research, basic and applied.

According to its dean, the Faculty is very much aware of the special responsibilities it has as the only University faculty serving the advanced educational needs for agriculture in Alberta and the only university school of forestry in the Prairie Provinces.

Dean Ed Tyrchniewicz says that his Faculty, which is unique in Canada in combining both agriculture and forestry in the same faculty, has a strong tradition of community service. "Perhaps more than any other faculty at the U of A, we have a steady commitment to and involvement in extension, public service, and outreach to agriculture, forestry, and society in general."

It was 75 years ago that the College of Agriculture at the University of Alberta first opened its doors. At that time there were 16 students and two professors — the professorial staff consisting of the first dean, Ernest Albert Howes, and his assistant, George Harcourt.

Even with such a modest beginning, the opening of the agricultural school had to have been an event of great satisfaction to the University's founding president, Dr Henry Marshall Tory, for it represented a significant victory in his struggle to maintain the unity of the University.

The question of the establishment of a school for advanced studies in agriculture had arisen soon after the University's founding in 1908. As most of the agricultural graduates in Alberta at that time were from the Ontario Agriculture College at Guelph, there was a strong tradition pointing to a faculty of agriculture removed from the University. Then, too, there was a faction in Calgary (led by the future Canadian prime minister R.B. Bennett) who had never been reconciled to the location of the provincial university in the north and wanted a school of agriculture to serve as the foundation for a Calgary university.

The issue came to a head when President Tory was invited to give his views about the best location for a provincial faculty of agriculture to the United Farmers of Alberta at their 1910 annual meeting held in Calgary. After surviving a great deal of early hostility, the University president made such a strong case for the integration of a faculty of agriculture into the provincial university that he carried the day handily.

In his 1954 book Henry Marshall Tory E.A. Corbett gives the following account of the case Tory made to the United Farmers:

Dr. Tory spoke for an hour. He pointed out what educationists had long since realized, that the universities must forsake their ivory towers and concern themselves with the practical problems of everyday life. He went on to say that where agricultural colleges had grown up apart from the university the tax-payers were compelled to support two institutions instead of one. This was not only very costly but created bitter rivalry in the legislature for public support and a resulting suspicion of the soundness of the work being done. By having a single institution, he pointed out, there is an opportunity to break down existing prejudices between rural and urban people through the mingling of students from the farm and the city in common classrooms, and students who were training to become schoolteachers would have an opportunity to take work in agriculture before proceeding to teach in a farm community. He quoted opinions from leading agriculturalists in Great Britain and America, all of whom agreed that the plan of consolidation being worked out in Alberta was by far the most practical and economical. In conclusion, Dr. Tory outlined plans by which the University intended to relate its research to practical production problems as well as the social and economic problems of farm people. The University existed, he said, to lighten the burden of their toil and to assist them in obtaining the maximum reward for their labour. The President's obvious sincerity and his convincing arguments carried the day, and at the conclusion of the conference the vote was 243 to 7 for consolidation.

With Tory's advice the Province established three diploma schools of agriculture — at Vermilion, Olds and Claresholm — which would, among other things, prepare students for university study in agriculture. The University faculty was opened in 1915, once graduates began to emerge in sufficient numbers from the two-year courses at the diploma schools. (This was the normal route into the Faculty in its earlier years.)

From the Faculty's very beginning the Aggies were a colorful addition to life on campus. By the opening of the 1916-17 term land south and west of the University Hospital had been cleared and a combined beef and dairy barn laid out close to the main University buildings. On the campus south of Saskatchewan Drive, field husbandry plots were established.

Writing some years later, Robert Sinclair, who was a member of the University's first graduating class in agriculture and the first graduate of the Faculty to serve as its dean, recalled that in the fall of 1917 the presence of agriculture was made very evident on campus through an experiment which consisted of pasturing a considerable flock of sheep on the campus in front of the three residence buildings. "It may be recorded," he wrote, "that the venture did nothing to enhance the popularity of the Faculty in its initial stages."

In 1930 the University purchased the "West 240," and that summer five farm buildings were put on wheels and "rolled" from their previous campus locations to the new University farm outside the city limits. (Today, of course, that farm is an island of green well inside the sprawling City of Edmonton.)

The move to the Farm ended the annual herding of 400 to 500 pigs of all ages along 114 Street across the old "Toonerville Trolley" tracks on 76 Avenue and then through the Belgravia bush to the summer quarters — a yearly event about which many stories were related.

While crops no longer grow or cattle graze on campus, the Aggies still manage to make their presence known, particularly during the Agriculture Club's week of celebration in November, at which time horses and wagons make a return to campus, square dancers appear in University buildings, and students from all faculties line up for tickets to Bar None, the annual dance and general letting-loose which is now more than 40 years old and is arguably the most popular social event on campus.

The forestry students — the Faculty added a forestry program in 1971 — have their own week of celebration during the course of the year. Among the activities sponsored by the Forestry Society at that time are logger sports and various social events.

The Faculty made good on Tory's promise to relate its research to the practical problems of farm people, and in its first years it turned its attention to the immediate needs of Alberta farmers, who virtually had nowhere else to go for assistance. The earliest studies involved experiments in plant and animal breeding, animal nutrition, soil management and the like. The entomology department was formed in 1921, and the next year the staff had to organize the first government grasshopper control campaign. This $248,000 program was estimated to have resulted in savings of more than $18 million.

When the Faculty celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1965 a list was made of some of the significant research that had directly benefitted Alberta agriculture. The list included research on grade of Alberta pigs, increase in beef production from sire progeny testing work, improved swine rations and management, savings to feedlot operators from information on cattle feeding and management, and savings of chemicals and labor by immersion cleaning of milking equipment. Highlighted was the fact that the usefulness of synthetic riboflavin in poultry rations — it results in feed savings and improves the hatchability of eggs — was an original University of Alberta discovery. The ten items on the list were estimated to result in income or savings of more than $6.5 million annually to Alberta farmers. And this didn't include the benefits resulting from the many cereal forage crops either introduced or developed by Faculty researchers, which were listed separately but for which dollar values couldn't be easily estimated. (This list included Renfrew wheat, Victory oats, Gateway barley, Altaswede red clover, Ferax alfalfa and 11 other varieties.)

While the Faculty continues to respond to the pressing needs of Alberta's farmers and, since the introduction of the forestry program, its foresters — its program of research has become much broader and much more sophisticated in recent years. An indication of the latter is the fact that Agriculture and Forestry is the University's second largest user of radioactive isotopes on campus. In addition, the Faculty's scanning electron microscope facility was the first of its kind on campus, and with updated equipment continues to serve users from across campus and across Canada.

An incredibly wide range of research takes place in the eight departments-Agricultural Engineering, Animal Science, Entomology, Food Science, Forest Science, Plant Science, Soil Science and Rural Economy — which today constitute the Faculty. There are the expected studies in animal health and nutrition, plant and animal genetics, insect control, and farm buildings and machinery, but there are also those with wider implications than the day-to-day concerns of agriculture and forestry.

Among these are basic research initiatives with potential implications for human health. These initiatives include a study by an animal science researcher showing that moderate amounts of exercise will restrict tumor growth in rats, and work being done by a food science professor which could lead to a simple enzyme assay capable of providing important information relative to a number of human diseases. Another animal science researcher is using pigs for studies of basic reproductive physiology — work which could well have human application.

The Forest Science Department in the Faculty is only 20 pears old and the department's current chair, Bruce Dancik believes that its relative youth gives it a different character from those of some of the longer established schools where the emphasis is overwhelmingly on fibre production, reflecting their close ties to the forest industry.

"We don't see the forest as being just there to feed the mill," says Dancik, explaining that because of the era in which the department was established it was able to begin with a fresh outlook, one which focused on multiple uses for the forest. Among his colleagues are professors with expertise in wildland recreation, wildlife habitat and protected area management.

Issues which have come to the forefront in recent years are also being addressed in the Department of Rural Economy, the only social science department in the Faculty. Its recent research initiatives include investigations into the economics of the environment and the childcare concerns of rural Albertans.

Another sign of the times is a study recently conducted by researchers from the Department of Agricultural Engineering. They monitored the power supply to 23 Alberta farms to determine what sorts of disturbances were occurring and then assess the implications for the computerized equipment that is showing up on more and more farms.

Dr Tyrchniewicz, who assumed office as the Faculty's ninth dean in September 1988 describes himself as the Faculty's first dean who wasn't homegrown and its first-ever dean from a social science background. He came to the University from a position as director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba, where he headed a team of engineers, lawyers and economists studying the transportation of grain.

Tyrchniewicz is a strong advocate of a broad approach to agriculture research; broad in both the base from which the research is conducted and in the scope of the research. He says that one thing that attracted him to the University of Alberta was its focus on interdisciplinary team research. He sees this approach as being important in agriculture and forestry, helping to overcome the specialist's narrow focus. "We are seeing a marked shift away from the individual scientist working in a corner by himself," he says.

Tvrchniewicz believes that it is important for the Faculty's survival in its next 75 years that it broaden its outlook, building on its proven strengths to address the wider concerns of agriculture, forestry and society.

"I would characterize this Faculty as historically having focused on providing technical information to primary commercial production — and it has done it very well in terms of teaching, in terms of research, in terms of extension," says the Dean.

"What this implies is that as a Faculty we haven't spent as much time being concerned with the broader issues of agriculture and forestry and the broader issues of society where agriculture and forestry interface with it," he says, stressing that he doesn't make that observation in a negative way. But he believes that the time has now come to expand the Faculty's outlook. "Our clientele isn't just rural Alberta, rural commercial farming Alberta," he says.

Since coming to the U of A Tyrchniewicz, has launched a strategic planning exercise within his Faculty. Among the issues he is hoping to see addressed are the international and societal contexts within which agriculture and forestry find themselves.

He points out that both agriculture and forestry are "very dependent" on export markets, and these markets, which are by their very nature volatile, are becoming increasingly so as governments wage subsidy wars. "This volatility," he says, "can literally swamp any of the good things we do internally."

A question that he wants his Faculty to address is "Can we do more to agricultural and forestry products in Alberta to create the employment and income here rather than literally exporting the employment and additional income to our customers in the U.S. or offshore?" As an example, the dean points with satisfaction to some "absolutely critical" work being done in the Food Science department to find niche markets for agricultural products — a Japanese-style soy sauce from canola, for instance.

He also wants his Faculty to broaden its perspective to encompass interaction with the rural non-farm and with the urban non-farm community. "As citizens, we are all concerned that our environment not be destroyed and that our food supply be safe. At the same time we can readily become confused by the myriad of viewpoints, often expressed eloquently and emotionally. The Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry has a key role to play in developing and disseminating objective information on these issues.

"Where we as a Faculty can also be more helpful is in the education of our students to be aware that we live in an increasingly interdependent world — that we are not islands onto ourselves."

Published Summer 1990.

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