Research pioneers of soil science

In the sciences, it is often said that today’s practitioners stand on the shoulders of giants.

This is certainly true of soil science.

Today’s soil scientists benefit from decades of painstaking work conducted by their forebears.

Building on this work, soil scientists have been able to make advancements that have helped today’s farmers increase yields, and more importantly, preserve and renew soils for future generations.

As a relatively young science, one of the first things that early soil scientists had to do was conduct extensive surveys to classify Canadian soils. Systems for identifying, describing and mapping different types of soil had to be effectively invented from scratch.

In addition, the challenges of undertaking such an endeavor in Western Canada in the early 1900s were formidable.

The area to cover was massive. The resources available were limited, and the immediate benefits of the work were not always apparent until several years later.

Many people were involved with the early development of Canadian soil surveys. Three names in Western Canada stand out: Joseph Ellis from the University of Manitoba, F.A. Wyatt from the University of Alberta and Arthur Joel from the University of Saskatchewan.

All three undertook soil surveys in their respective provinces.

In 1927, they presented the first zonal map of Western Canada to the International Soil Congress in Washington D.C.

This was a seminal meeting in the development of soil science. It was here that scientists from around the globe posited that soil was worthy of study as a separate entity and that it was not just dropped from the sky but formed by specific processes.

Ellis, Wyatt, and Joel were the titans of early Canadian soil survey. Each of them covered millions of acres with nowhere near the resources of modern scientists.

James Robertson, professor emeritus of the University of Alberta’s soil science department, remembered his days as a graduate student working on soil surveys.

“We would drive along all the grid roads, stopping about every quarter mile to take samples.”

He said he was “humbled and maybe even embarrassed” by the amount of work these men were able to do in their careers.

“Imagine driving every side road between the 49th parallel and Edmonton,” he said as he tried to explain the size of the task.

Added Darwin Anderson, a professor at the U of S soils department: “I think they certainly laid a very solid foundation for soil science in Canada.”

F.A. Wyatt: Started the Breton plots project

An American who came to the University of Alberta from the University of Illinois, Wyatt became the U of A’s first department head in the newly minted Department of Soils in 1919.

The department was the first of its kind in Canada, and marked the beginning of soil science’s emergence as a distinct field of study in this country, where before it had often been the poor cousin of agriculture or biology.

Wyatt began a soil survey of Alberta in 1921. He and E.A. Howe, the dean of the U of A’s Faculty of Agriculture, were both worried about massive soil erosion afflicting farmland in the province.

Wyatt secured funding for his survey from the university and the provincial agriculture department. He got the federal Department of the Interior to help him with the cartography. This was a funding formula that other universities would employ as they started their own soil surveys.

By 1926, Wyatt’s soil survey had covered seven million acres of Alberta’s farmland, using two Ford Model Ts.

One of Wyatt’s lasting contributions was his key role in starting the University of Alberta’s famed Breton plots in 1929. Located about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, the plots have since provided long-term research into grey luvisolic soils. This soil type occupies 50 million acres in the province.

The experiments conducted at Breton Woods have helped producers learn best practices when farming this type of soil.

Joseph Ellis: Created the soil survey program

An English immigrant, Ellis started his career at Manitoba Agriculture College in 1913.

After getting his Master’s from the University of Minnesota, Ellis came back to Manitoba in 1927 and became the first head of the soils division in the University of Manitoba’s agronomy department.

Ellis started a soil survey program with help from the federal and provincial governments. By the time he retired in 1955, it is believed that he had been involved with surveying 18 million acres of farmland.

Some parts of Ellis’ classification system found their way into the Canadian soil classification system.

James Robertson was Ellis’ last graduate student in 1955. He remembers Ellis as a devoted academic, impassioned about protecting and preserving soil for future generations.

Robertson, a professor emeritus at the U of A, said Ellis was fond of quoting poets and authors, including poet J. Gladden Hutton: “The Lord God gave to man the land, not only to subdue, but also to replenish.”

He said this was the spirit that Ellis brought to his work and instilled in his students.

In a career marked by considerable success and academic achievements, one tragedy stands out.

Ellis had established long-term experimental plots at the University of Manitoba. Many of his experiments had lasted for decades during his tenure as department head.

Unfortunately, the administration of the day did not see the value of the plots, and when Ellis retired, it converted them to “parking lots and playing fields,” according to Robertson.

Ellis worked with the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Agency, the National Soils Survey Council and the Manitoba Fertilizer Board and received an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Manitoba.

He died in 1976 and was inducted into Manitoba’s Agricultural Hall of fame in 1980. After 1975, the building where the University of Manitoba’s food and soil science departments are located was called the Ellis Building in his honour.

Arthur H. Joel: Studied factors in soil formation

Joel was another American who made the trek north.

A Michigan State graduate, he became head of the U of S soils department in 1924, following the resignation of Roy Hansen, the first department head.

By the time Joel took over, the Saskatchewan Soil Survey had been underway for three years.

Darwin Anderson said that from his reading of early reports from the Saskatchewan Soil Survey in those early days, it appeared that Joel almost was the department because it was still new with a small staff.

The work that Joel undertook was monumental.

H.C. Moss wrote of the difficulties in a 1983 paper about the history of Saskatchewan’s soil survey.

“The small staff available at first for survey work meant that only one party was in the field; as this consisted of the department staff, periodic returns to headquarters had to be made in order to deal with the accumulation of mail and university business. Hence the survey could only be carried on during the summer vacation, and in winter the staff had to analyze soil samples, prepare soil maps for publication and write reports, in addition to teaching students.”

Anderson said Joel was “ahead of his time.”

He pointed to a paper put forward by Joel in 1928 that outlined what he felt to be the key factors of soil formation. Joel’s ideas mirrored those put forward by an American scientist in 1941 and have since been adopted as a standard in the field.

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