September 10, 2010
Les Henry was raised on Brunswick farm near Milden SK, a mixed grain and livestock farm that taught one how to work, to love the land and to be frugal. Born in 1940, I never experienced the depression but might as well have. Father reminded me of it on a regular basis. His advice “ If you go along half as canny before you get in trouble as you have to do after- you will never get in financial trouble in the first place”. Good advice I still use.
After high school, two years on the farm left me restless for the outside world. The bank boys were our companions drinking beer out behind the elevators – they had been around. Their advice was that a degree in agriculture was a recipe for success. A visit to Dougie Barr, a former Milden farm boy and then Ag Rep at Biggar, provided the comfort level to try the grand experiment at U of S with many unknowns and much fear and apprehension. Could I hack the pace at University?
My message is for U of S recruitment types – people come when they have reached a comfort level. For each population you must find out what the triggers are for comfort level.
So, in early September 1960, I left the farm to enter the College of Agriculture, U of S- the straw still sticking out my ears and dirt under my fingernails. There was no grand plan – just a desire to succeed and a work ethic to make it happen.
In 1960 the Animal Science Building (now Parking Office) was brand new and Biology, Murray Library and Arts Tower (7 floors) were recent. Traffic moved freely and we could drive our cars straight up Cumberland Avenue and park at Admin, John Mitchell and many other buildings now accessible only by foot.
My first memory is the long line up waiting for our pep talk from Dean Graham and then it was off to the gym for a general assembly. President John W T Spinks addressed the assembly in the old gym, which no longer exists.
Spinks’ message was clear - those who use unorthodox methods- like partying all term and cramming the night before an exam – usually fail. As a parting shot he said “Say hello to the student on each side of you – come spring only one of you will still be here. It is up to you to determine which one”. Fifty years later the memory of that message is clear in my mind.
We started out with about 100 first year Ag students. Four years later, 56 of us graduated.
The message is this – U of S should quit fretting over first year attrition rate. University is all about separating the serious from the pretenders.
In 1960, full classes continued for the entire academic year- September – April. Chemistry, Biology, English, Mathematics and Agricultural Mechanics was our first year roster. Our section of Math 118 was taught by Miss Stein who was also a secretary to President Spinks. How she got saddled with the unruly agros is unknown – but she was a grand teacher. One day she entered the classroom to witness a fist fight in progress. A few agros separated the combatants and the class went ahead. I can imagine the chuckles in the coffee room in the admin building after that.
Dr Eager was our very able Chem prof. When he handed back our first mid term exams I was devastated to see a 49% - the first exam I had ever failed. What a wake up call. Chemistry became my major challenge and much work and determination resulted in a final Grade of B.
Oh yes, let us not forget about Phys Ed- it was compulsory in those days and I think should still be. There are entirely too many well-fed couch potatoes that would benefit greatly from some physical exertion.
Oh yes again, let us not forget about Public Speaking- also compulsory. Doug Gibson (Dairy Science) was the instructor and I still remember Gibson’s rules of public speaking. After dinner speeches – don’t forget the shortening.
In the big theatres a seating plan was arranged in alphabetic order of surnames – and an assistant made an appearance before each class to take note of the empty seats. I suspect too many skipped classes brought a reprimand, but I was here for a purpose and no class was missed.
The Agro lounge was in the attic of the Field Husbandry Building- later Crop Science and now Archaeology. I was too involved with the challenge of classes to spend much time in Agro pranks but did spend most noon hours at the lounge with the lunch provided by our landlady. Boarding houses were the norm in those days and one month board and room cost about $60 ($450 in 2010 $$$) – complete with 3 meals a day – seven days a week. I was fortunate to have only good boarding houses.
At the end of first year I went back to the Milden farm and helped Dad seed the crop. 1961 was the worst drought year since the dirty thirties and Dad could smell it coming. He said if I wanted to return to U of S I had best go out and get a job for the summer.
So, off I went – digging ditches – literally – putting in sewer and water services in small towns- Dinsmore, Kindersley and Cupar. I started at $1.15 per hour but in a couple of weeks was promoted to “ pipelayer” and received $1.35 ($10.04 in 2010 $$$) per hour – good coin in those days and I came back with a small nest egg to help with winter expenses.
The summer of 1961 was a summer to remember forever. I met my future wife and we worked hard and played hard and learned. My work was in a 2.5 foot wide trench, 10 to 15 feet (several meters) deep. Summer ’61 was a scorcher – so the cool conditions in the trench were conducive to hard work. Pick and shovel for 10 hours a day melted 40 pounds from my flabby frame.
The most meaningful result of life in the trenches was the curiosity about the changing soil conditions from the surface to the final depth. Sometimes smooth and silty, sometimes with a few small stones and occasionally large rocks – we called pay stones. The engineer measured them and the contractor (Construction Services Ltd of Kindersley) got paid extra for them.
When I crawled out of the trench for the last time in early September I knew why I was going back to University. While I enjoyed the physical work as a very fit 21 year old – I could see those old 40 something guys dragging their sorry butt home every night and hating every minute of it. I had something different in mind when I was 40.
A second vivid memory of the last crawl out of the trenches was saying to myself “ someday I will understand all the things I saw in those trenches”. That was part of my motivation for Soil Science but oddly enough the realization of my dream – to know about the layers of Mother Earth – did not come until the 1980s and the research program on Soil Salinity – but more about that later.
At the end of second year we had to declare a major – or a general BSA with no specialization was also an option. My choices went back and forth between Ag Economics and Soil Science but the cincher came when I was offered a summer job with Soil Science.
After second year I was hired by Eldor Paul- Professor of Soil Microbiolgy – to assist MSc student Bob Gardiner with lab and growth chamber work for his project on soil nitrogen. Many days were spent at the bubble machine – micro Kjeldahl – doing soil and plant total N determinations.
Lab work was not my cup of tea so each evening I went driving for Yellow Cabs. About 6 pm they gave me a car and off I went. I got to keep 35% of anything I took in that night. The night usually ended after the pickups from the 11pm train at the CN station - now Midtown Plaza. If lucky, the train business would lead to some bar clearing trips and work might extend to 2am. Those bar trips were an eye opener for a stubble jumper from Milden! Not much money was made- but at least I was not spending any.
Third and Fourth years were the serious years where we started to see how the science and practice of agriculture would meet. After third year I landed one of the coveted jobs on Soil Survey – all over the place mapping soils with an experienced soil scientist. Exciting times – something different every day- much to learn- and to enjoy the great outdoors and to learn about Mother Earth. What more could an old farm boy ask.
I could still drive to the exact location where the first soil pit was dug. Bernie Stonehouse was the mapper – we were driving a 1969 green Ford car – and the location was southwest of Biggar in Asquith sandy loam soils with Class 3 (Slightly Rolling) topography. That summer took us to North Battleford, Cochin, Blaine Lake and Hafford – to name a few. The ‘ fire escape’ in the Hafford Hotel was a stout rope tied to a secure ring in the wall.
Fourth year was a blur- the classes were heavy and a 4th year thesis was required for Honors Soils students. In 1964, there were 3 of us in the Soil Science Major. I fail to see the fuss about options like Soil Science that have few students – it has been that way since 1964 and always made a large contribution to the ag industry as Soil Science is taught to all Ag students and in today’s world is a large part of Environmental studies. People well trained in soils are an important part of environmental work.
The Graduation Banquet and dance in January 1964 was held at the Bessborough Hotel. It was still THE place to hold such an event. There was no bar in the ballroom so each agro grad took whatever booze they wanted and lodged it at a room on another floor. Third year students managed the stash and let us have our bottle whenever we dropped down for a nip.
As fourth year drew to a close, job interviews were a stressful time- but Ag was buoyant then so offers were numerous. I was favored with 4 offers and was about to accept a District Agriculturist job with the Alberta Government at Barrhead Alberta when fate intervened.
Les Hutcheon – farm boy from Rosetown was Head of the Soil Science Department. He called me into his office one day and said, “ I hear you are off to Alberta to be a DA. I think you are capable of Grad School so here is my offer. I will give you an annual salary of $5000 ($35,394 in 2010 $$$) the going wage for the time. You will spend summers on Soil Survey, herd Voc Ag students in the labs in the winter and will be given time off to do classes and can fit in your research as best you can. It will take 3 or 4 years instead of the usual two – but you will end up with an MSc in Soil Science. The MSc will open some doors for you in the future”. It took very little thinking to accept and so in September 1964 it was off to grad school.
What an incredible opportunity. On May 1, it was off again on Soil Survey. We were on the road from Monday to Friday all summer- with a wife and young son the job required sacrifice that was willingly accepted. We dug holes in all parts of Saskatchewan from the Cypress Hills to the peat bogs of the Cumberland Delta, north and east of Carrot River.
The Cumberland Delta survey was done by helicopter- another racy experience for a stubble jumper from Milden. The survey was to determine the feasibility of draining the swamp to make it into farmland. When that survey was complete it was my conclusion that the peat bogs made better moose pasture than farmland and more experienced eyes agreed – so it remains moose pasture to this day.
By 1965, Don Rennie was Head of Soils and Les Hutcheon was now Dean of Ag. Les Hutcheon died in harness, in the John Mitchell Building, in January 1965- a grand career cut short at age 48 when he was just starting his term as Dean.
The summer of 1965, Don Rennie assigned me to be the soil survey person to assist the fertilizer trial work by identifying soil types at each experiment. Another incredible opportunity that led to my main life work in Soil Fertility and Soil Management. In those days decisions about hiring and work assignments were made fast and efficiently by Department Heads who ran the place with military precision but with a respect for academic freedom that could not be equaled anywhere. There was much collegial consultation – but we all knew where the decision would be made and all respected the system as efficient but benevolent.
The summer of 1967 was special. In the original soil surveys all Indian Reserves (now First Nations Lands) were left alone and appeared as blank white spots on the maps. In 1965 one soil surveyor was assigned to complete soil surveys on all Saskatchewan Reserves. By 1967 it was realized that more resources would be needed so I was assigned to help. Under the supervision of Bernie Stonehouse (yes, the same Bernie that gave my first lessons in soil survey) I was able to complete soil surveys on the Big Head ( Pierceland) , Flying Dust ( Meadow Lake) , Chitek Lake ( Chitek Lake), Witchekan (Spiritwood) , Red Earth and Shoal Lake ( Carrot River) Reserves.
Once again – what an incredible opportunity. To complete the task one had to first spend time learning the soil types surrounding the reserves using the published soil maps. Then it was possible to map what was in the reserve. The widely scattered nature of the assignments meant that great learning was possible about many soil conditions. No master plan – just take each task that came along and give it all that a Milden stubble jumper could muster. Only at a University like the good old U of S could such opportunities abound.
In 1966, Don Rennie convinced the provincial Government that a Saskatchewan Soil Testing Laboratory was essential to provide farmers with soil tests to assist with objective decisions on fertilizer use. He hired Ed Halstead to manage the lab. Ed was a Nokomis farm boy who did his BSA and MSc at U of S and had a freshly minted PhD from Purdue University. When Ed set up the tests he included a test for soil available Potassium. I questioned the wisdom of that when we all knew Saskatchewan soils were well supplied with K.
The very first year revealed that Carrot River very fine sandy loam soils were severely K [potassium] deficient by available tests. So, field strip fertilizers using good Saskatchewan Potash were set out on those soils identified by the very low soil test. I was supervising the field fertilizer experiments but Ed did all the experimental design work and he was the one who included the K test in routine farmers samples. I will never forget an early July day in 1968 when the summer student and I drove up to the K test on the Eugene Kozun farm southeast of Carrot River. Driving by on the road it was obvious that all the nitrogen and phosphorus we applied was of no value unless the K was supplied as well. I shreiked “ Liebig’s Law of the Minimum here for all to see in real field conditions”. It was a moment never to be forgotten.
I was often given credit for the K work as I was the mouthpiece that told the rest of the Ag community about it – but it was the scientific rigour of Ed Halstead that made it all possible. Most of my soil fertility training came from Ed Halstead.
By the spring of 1968 – it took 4 years – I had my MSc in hand and Don Rennie hired me to continue co-ordination of the field fertility experiments and lab instructing in both Voc Ag and degree programs. It was a soft money job but a U of S appointment that quickly led to a tenure track academic appointment. The duties included helping with extension tasks and whatever else was needed.
In the late sixties, the U of S pioneered Joint Appointments between the then Extension Division and Academic Departments. Farming was becoming increasingly complex and extension workers were having difficulty dealing with some of the questions. And, the research professors who were generating the new information had little time or inclination for boiling the data down to useable form and delivering it to the farm gate.
It was the job of the Joint Appointee to gather the relevant data from research of colleagues, condense it to useable form and deliver it to the farm by town hall meetings, extension bulletins, provincial recommendations, the media – and whatever else worked.
C.M. ( Red) Williams was the first Joint Appointment (Animal Science and Extension) and was a fine role model for me and others to follow. Red still makes significant contributions to the U of S and the Ag industry at age 85!
My job was 50% Extension and 50% Research and Teaching. The teaching was supposed to be limited to one class per term – but it was flexible. I will never forget my first lecture in front of a large class in the Biology Theatre. Professor Roland St. Arnaud was teaching Soil Science 102B in the winter term and was afflicted with a back ailment that confined him to home. Rennie called me in and said “How would you like to relieve for Roly for a few lectures”. With much apprehension and fear I gladly accepted. I can still remember standing outside the Biology theatre waiting for the previous lecture to end in a cold sweat wondering how I would handle 150 rowdy agros.
But, the law was laid down from the get go and there was never any trouble. The rules were simple – I am here to do business and if you are not – PLEASE LEAVE. In those days there was no formal or informal preparation for teaching – it was baptism under fire. Most of us had the advantage of lab demonstrating, which involved a brief lab lecture so it was not all strange. And we all had the benefit of public speaking from the grand master – Doug Gibson. But, in today’s world the Gwenna Moss Center for Teaching Effectiveness and related initiatives for new faculty are a great improvement over our initiation.
Large first year classes were what I enjoyed the most from a teaching perspective but the fourth year capstone course in later years was a grand opportunity for personal interaction with a small group who were soon ready to enter professional life.
In the introductory lecture of the first year course it was my practice to peruse the class list and see how many hometowns I could name based on the surname. It usually worked for 15-20% of the students. A Flaten was from Regina or Weyburn, a Wiens from Midale or Herschel , a Gadd from Moose Jaw , a LaForge from Arborfield– and on and on. The most fun was identifying Shane Janke as being from Gouldtown – Shane stood bolt upright and said “ How on earth did you know that”. I casually retorted that it was my job – but in fact his father Neil Janke was famous in the cattle industry so it was easy. Anyway- it got their attention and they realized that ag profs did not spend all their time in labs and lectures.
The large first year classes always involved some one on one contact. The lectures were 90 minutes so a short break was taken about half time and after the break was “ Question Period” which I joked was patterned after parliament. After the break 3 students were randomly picked to come next day equipped with a question related to Soils or Agronomy. It did not have to relate directly to the course curriculum. Many phoned home to Dad for help with the question so many were not easy- but the interaction on a personal basis made a large impersonal class immediately personal.
To make sure no one pretended they were not there to avoid a question any no shows for question period were immediately docked one percentage point on their FINAL grade for the class. Some colleagues suggested that was not legal – but I did it anyway.
And the years rolled on and on. The 1980s brought a major research program on Soil Salinity. In the extension work the problem of soil salinity often came up and we had very poor answers to most questions. That was how I set research priorities. I called it the “ sputter index”. If we sputtered to answer a question the topic required some homework in the literature to come up with a better answer next time. If there was no better answer in the literature- then it was time for some research on the topic.
In the 1980s, it was the opinion of many that soil salinity was taking over farms and would cripple much of our industry if we could not learn how to deal with it. After much negotiation, I was awarded money from the provincial government to take on the task. My offer was simple – I will find answers or die trying – but you have to give me the money and bureaucrats and politicians must keep out of my hair. And they did.
We set up an auger rig and crew with capability to drill 45 feet (15 meters). The first job at Prudhomme was easy – the soil salinity was caused by a nearby gravel pit and not much was going to be done about it and more land would not be affected in the future.
The second job was at Shaunavon. We drilled our 15-meter hole and learned nothing. It was our great good fortunate that renowned geologist Earl Christiansen and renowned hydrogeologist Bill Meneley had become disgusted with bureaucracy at the Sask Research Council and were then private consultants. We engaged Earl to review our Shaunavon situation – and he said we had the wrong equipment and the wrong approach. Geology was a “bottom up” science whereas soil science is a “ top down” affair. We listened and he commissioned the correct private driller and the answer to our question was at 16 meters. The Shaunavon aquifer came in at 16 meters and was under artesian pressure to near soil surface. It was maintaining the high water table to cause the soil salinity.
When I was hiring the private consultants some wondered why – there were perfectly good geologists in the public sector. My answer was simple “because when I ask Earl and Bill a question- I get an answer”
The message in this story is that most significant gains in practical knowledge come from interdisciplinary effort. We could have stumbled around drilling shallow holes forever and not made any significant advance. Without Earl and Bill we would have been dead in the water.
By the way - the realization of my dream from 1961 – to understand the layers of Mother Earth- did not come about until I started to learn from Earl Christiansen. Soil Science taught me the upper meter but geology was necessary to understand the things I observed in the 5 meter trenches at Cupar Sk in the hot summer of 1961.
The epilogue has yet to be written. I retired form Soil Science and Extension in 1996 but maintain contact with the department and college and try to keep up with at least some of the new developments.
The message of this and countless other stories at the University of Saskatchewan is OPPORTUNITY. Where else could one get such incredible opportunities and have complete freedom to make something of those opportunities. It has been a grand ride for 50 years and I hope for a few more.
Office of Communications, University of Saskatchewan