Western Grains Research Foundation | New chair wants to bring industry together to ‘think western Canadian, to think collaborative’
The pulse industry wouldn’t be where it is today without the contributions of the first full-time employee of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, says a former chair of the organization.
That is a sentiment shared by many in the industry, who credit former SPG executive director Garth Patterson for playing a key role in important initiatives such as designing and implementing an innovative crop breeding arrangement with the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, paving the way for Clearfield lentils and establishing Pulse Canada.
“Garth was behind all of those initiatives, and I think he was very effective,” said Jim Moen, former SPG chair and current director of the organization.
“Garth’s contribution was substantial and very meaningful.”
Patterson was born in Melfort, Sask., in 1958 and lived in Melfort, Naicam, Sask., Prince Albert, Sask., and Saskatoon, where he got his master’s degree in agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan.
He wasn’t a farm boy, but he spent his summers working on his uncle’s farm in Milestone, Sask.
“That is where I got my love of agriculture,” he said.
Patterson’s career included stints as a research agronomist at Agdevco and Cyanamid and a regional soil conservationist at the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association before he started at SPG in 1995.
“I was their first formal full-time official employee. I did it all initially, and then we grew from there,” he said.
By the time Patterson left the organization in 2011, SPG had 14 employees and an annual budget of $13 million, up from $500,000 when he started.
Patterson refuses to take credit for any of SPG’s achievements, insisting it was a team effort involving staff, researchers, private industry and visionary board members.
However, a former co-worker said Patterson was the grease that made everything run smoothly and provided the sustained energy and enthusiasm that drove projects to completion.
“It’s his ability to listen. Garth listens,” said Kofi Agblor, managing director of the U of S’s Crop Development Centre and former research director at SPG.
“If he hears an idea and he likes it, he’ll run off with it and he will pursue it. He will be relentless.”
One of those ideas was an innovative long-term breeding agreement with the CDC, a five-year $6.2 million deal signed in 2006.
Agblor said the proposal came from pea breeders Bert Vandenberg and Pierre Hucl. Patterson credited former SPG chair Garry Meier for championing the idea.
However, Agblor said Patterson was instrumental in creating and implementing an agreement that has resulted in Saskatchewan producers adopting more than 80 new royalty-free pulse crop varieties.
He credits Patterson with forging a great working relationship between SPG and CDC. The same approach was used with SPG employees.
“Probably his greatest asset is understanding that what he knows is limited and letting those who know what they know do what they do,” said Agblor.
Patterson acknowledged the importance of building the relationship with the CDC.
“Paper is only good if you have good relationships. There was hardly a week go by when there wasn’t some kind of interaction between staff and CDC.”
Agblor said Patterson defended the agreement against critics who thought it squeezed private investment out of the pulse industry, and he was “unflinching” in pursuing renewal of the agreement. In 2010, the two parties signed another five-year deal worth $9.2 million.
Patterson also played a key role in a partnership with CDC and BASF that led to the introduction of the world’s first herbicide tolerant lentil varieties.
It was a complex agreement that resulted in a unique royalty-free Clearfield lentil with no technology fee.
“It took seven years for that (negotiation) to get to the point that it came out commercial,” said Patterson.
CDC Maxim, the first Clearfield variety released in 2006, now makes up 50 percent of red lentil acres. Twelve Clearfield varieties have been released, with at least one option in each lentil class.
Patterson is proud of his role in establishing Pulse Canada in 1997. It was an initiative led by former SPG chair Lyle Minogue, but Patterson provided support and drafted the agreements that led to the formation of the national organization.
He also highlights SPG’s communication program as an accomplishment.
“It has generally been recognized as one of the stronger producer communication programs in Western Canada,” said Patterson.
The program included international market and consumer communication, but the real focus was getting information to farmers and receiving their feedback.
Under Patterson’s leadership, SPG launched its quarterly PulsePoint magazine and held up to 20 winter meetings every year, including Pulse Days in Saskatoon.
“(It was) staying in touch with the grassroots, that were really the shareholders that are paying the checkoff,” he said.
Moen said Patterson did a lot to build the pulse industry into what it is today, occupying five million acres of prairie soil annually.
“There has been just tremendous growth during the period that Garth was (executive director) of the pulse board,” he said.
Patterson acknowledged that one of his strengths is embracing challenges.
“I think of myself as an agent of change,” he said. “I’m not threatened by change. I like to look for the opportunity in change. In fact, I feel a bit stale if there isn’t opportunity and growth and change.”
Patterson was becoming restless at SPG when he was headhunted by the Western Grains Research Foundation. He decided the time was right to take on a new challenge as executive director of the foundation.
He liked the idea of “stepping into the big crop.” Wheat is planted on more acres than any crop in the world and Patterson wants to take it to the next level.
He is excited about expanding the scope of his work to all of Western Canada, working with a $90 million endowment fund and devising a new role for the foundation in the changing landscape for wheat and barley.
“There is a real opportunity for the Western Grains Research Foundation to bring people together, to think western Canadian, to think collaborative,” said Patterson.
The WGRF will stop directly receiving wheat and barley check-off funds within the next five years.
Patterson hopes the foundation can convince the newly forming provincial wheat and barley commissions and the councils that they may decide to create to work with the foundation.
“We want to make WGRF almost the forum where producer organizations can come together to talk about and direct research on a western Canadian basis. I think that’s really what we can offer,” he said.
“We see ourselves as being an organization that could execute and implement the directions set by the councils.”