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By Dean A.G. McCalla
Forty years ago, when the Faculty of Agriculture was organized at the University, farming was considered largely as an art, and experience was a farmer's greatest asset.
Since then, however, the application of science to agriculture has brought about such important changes that today's farming at its best is more a science than an art. Today's farmer must use modern methods and equipment if he is to get the most from his farm and get it efficiently. Understanding must be considered as important as experience, while experience alone is quite inadequate.
The Faculty of Agriculture was organized because it became apparent that, with these changes, agriculture needed trained men. This was true in direct relation to farming and to every phase of business related to the production, handling and processing of agricultural products. If science was to be applied to agriculture then those concerned with its application must understand both science and agriculture. Only a Faculty of Agriculture could give the basic training in science and an understanding of the relationship of the sciences of botany, chemistry, bacteriology, etc., to agricultural problems.
Since our first class was graduated in 1918, the Bachelor of Science degree has been conferred on 856 students. The Master of Science degree has been conferred on 214 graduates, and the first Ph.D. degree was conferred in 1953. More than 100 of our graduates have received the Ph.D. degree for advanced training at other universities. These graduates have served agriculture in many ways and in many places, although a large proportion of them are still in Alberta.
One undergraduate course covers a four-year program. All the students take the same introductory courses in agriculture and the same courses in the sciences, English, and economics during the first two years. During the last two years a student may continue with a general agricultural program, taking advanced courses in several fields, or he may specialize. The fields of specialization include Agricultural Economics, Agricultural Bacteriology, Entomology, and various phases of Animal Science, Dairying, Plant Science, and Soil Science.
Graduates who go farming apply their scientific training directly to the farm. Most of these graduates are leaders in their own districts, and many are leaders in various agricultural organizations. Only 18% of our graduates are farming, however. Most of the other 82% are using their training in other agricultural work. A few have transferred to types of employment quite unrelated to agriculture. During the past fifteen years an increasing number of agriculture graduates have been hired by industry. Today about 27% of all our graduates are working for industries that supply farmers with machinery, fertilizers, chemicals, feed supplements and other essentials, and for those handling the milk, stock, grain, and other products from the farm. In recent years we have not met the demand of these industries for graduates.
The largest single employer of agriculture graduates is the Canada Department of Agriculture. About 20% of all our graduates are engaged in experimental work, research, inspection, control and promotion work for this department. A few are employed by other Federal departments such as Finance, Trade and Commerce, and Immigration and Citizenship. Most of these men are, however, concerned with matters directly related to agriculture.
About 14% of our graduates are with provincial governments — the largest number in Alberta, but some in other provinces, particularly Saskatchewan and British Columbia. A large proportion of them work for Departments of Agriculture, but some are in other departments such as Lands and Forests and Municipal Affairs.
There are Alberta graduates on the staffs at all but one of the major English-speaking Agriculture Faculties in Canada, and at several of the large American universities. A majority of the staff members of our three Provincial Schools of Agriculture received their training here, as did many of the teachers of vocational agriculture in Alberta high schools.
It is obviously impossible to list all the positions held by Agriculture graduates. They are working in fields such as radio, journalism, insurance, and investments and mortgages. Most of these men were originally hired because of their knowledge of agriculture, and many of them still serve largely in this field.
Research has been an important part of the work of the Faculty of Agriculture for over 35 years. Our research serves two very important purposes. First, many of the results have been of major importance to the farmers of Alberta; and second, the research program is intimately associated with the post-graduate training of students. It is impossible for us — or anyone else — to include the training that is necessary for research work in the four-year undergraduate program. Those students who want to do research therefore spend from one to four extra years getting background and training for such work.
The application of science to agriculture is possible only through research. Before there can be any application, however, we must have an understanding of the basic underlying principles. This understanding is obtained through basic or fundamental research. Since it has been clearly demonstrated that such fundamental research offers the best training to students, universities in general tend to carry out studies on fundamental principles. Our faculty is no exception. A few examples of current research projects will illustrate how the fundamental and applied aspects of many problems are related.
It has been known for some time that antibiotics used as feed supplements for livestock result in faster gains from fewer pounds of feed. The Department of Animal Science has carried on a program of testing such antibiotics with livestock and poultry, and the practical results have been of value in arriving at satisfactory recommendations. On the other hand, it has not been at all certain why these results were obtained. Recently the research has been extended to include a study of how the antibiotics act. Knowledge of the mechanism of action will contribute to more effective use of these substances.
The first Canadian continuous butter-making machine was recently installed in Edmonton. The development of this machine resulted from applied research — in this case research designed to simplify and more fully mechanize the process of making butter. It was immediately observed that the texture of the butter made by the new process was distinctly different from that made by conventional methods. It has been found by the Department of Dairying that there are variations in texture resulting from differences in season and in region. Probably the most significant finding is that the crystal structure of the butterfat in the butter made continuously is quite different from that in butter made by the conventional methods. A clear understanding of the fundamental nature of texture differences may be a very important step in the controlling of texture.
The Edmonton area is fortunate is being relatively free from serious insect pests. While cutworms, wireworms, and some other insects occasionally do extensive damage, many insects are distinctly beneficial to agriculture, particularly as pollinators. The Department of Entomology has carried on research with many types of insects. One of the outstanding studies dealt with range, speed, and efficiency of flight of a number of different species. Results from this work are being used to improve the mosquito control program, although the experimental work that was done was largely fundamental in nature.
Alfalfa has long been an important crop in Alberta. Alberta has produced most of the seed grown in Canada and growers have enjoyed a good export market. The varieties grown under our conditions must be very hardy, and many of the importers of our seed want varieties that are more disease-resistant than those grown at present. The production of a new variety is obviously applied research, but before we can produce a new hardy, disease-resistant variety we must know how to obtain and combine these characteristics. It is unfortunately true that, with alfalfa as with many other plants, the varieties that are most resistant to disease are not entirely satisfactory in other respects. Thorough fundamental research is being carried on in the Department of Plant Science to determine where the desired characteristics can be found and how they may be combined to give varieties that will meet all demands.
Exactly the same problem faces the wheat breeder in his fight against such diseases as rust. Behind the practical problem of producing new varieties lies the fundamental problem of finding new sources of resistance and transferring them to varieties of good yield and quality. An extensive program of such fundamental research is in progress in the Department of Plant Science.
Farmers throughout western Canada have generally accepted the advice that straw and stubble should be kept on the land, but have found that this has created problems in cultivation and in some cases has resulted in reduced yields. Practical research was and is needed to show farmers how these problems can be overcome. Before such research will yield results, however, the investigator must determine why the adverse affects occur. The research being carried out by the Department of Soil Science combines both the fundamental and practical aspects of this problem. Progress has been made and farmers have been shown that relatively heavy applications of nitrogen have beneficial results.
It will be obvious to the reader that this account of research touches on only a few of the projects under investigation in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University. It will serve, however, to illustrate the work we are doing, and the importance of basic research.
No one would be foolish enough to suggest that our Faculty of Agriculture is mainly responsible for the various applications of science that have been made to agriculture in Alberta. It has played a part, however, and all the small parts add up to give tremendous effects. In the forty years during which the Faculty has operated, the productivity of one man on a farm has nearly doubled. Whereas in 1910 he could feed eight people, in 1950 he could feed fifteen. In countries where science has not been applied to agriculture it takes nine out of every ten producers to feed the ten and their families. By contrast, in the United States where modern methods are widely employed, less than one out of every six producers is a farmer or a farm laborer. The difference is the result of scientific discovery and application.
In summing up the work in Agriculture at the University it may be said again that the Faculty exists to serve agriculture. It does this by training students, by research, and through its various contacts with farmers and others concerned with farming and farm products. All phases of agriculture, on or off the farm, have been influenced by the developments in science. Since science has brought about the changes, scientists must recognize and accept their responsibilities to agriculture. Our work is aimed at making new developments as useful, profitable, and satisfying to the farmer as is possible.
Published Fall 1955.