Longtime crop breeder honoured in China

Vern Burrow’s long and distinguished career as an Agriculture Canada oat breeder was winding down in the late 1990s when he asked himself an unusual question.

Over his more than four decades of oat breeding that led to 27 of his varieties being registered and his work with hulless oat varieties being widely recognized, he had been to many international conferences with little or no Chinese presence.

“I often wondered what was happening to my crop in China,” he said in a July 24 interview in his Agriculture Canada office where he is research scientist emeritus. “There was a void and I didn’t understand it.”

That question led to one of the great accomplishments and honours of his life.

On June 18 in northern China, a statue of Burrows was unveiled to honour him for his role in helping invigorate the Chinese oat industry.

He is a hero in China, credited with helping introduce oat varieties that can grow on saline soil, reclaiming large swaths of farmland that had been deemed unproductive.

“It’s all pretty amazing,” said the 82-year-old Winnipeg-raised scientist who spent his career as a plant breeder on the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, trying to resurrect oats as a key Canadian grain after mechanization replaced the horse for most farm work and sharply cut the demand for oats as feed.

On his office wall is a poster that proclaims: “Canadian naked oats. Rice of the Prairies.”

Despite his best breeding efforts, Burrows concedes oats have not made a major comeback as a Canadian crop.

China is a different story and in many ways, it was a fluke.

After asking himself that curious question about why China was not represented at international oat conferences, he wrote a letter to the Chinese government offering his services as a consultant free of charge.

A government official wrote back for his CV. “They didn’t know who I was or whether I had credentials.”

Soon, word came back that if he would pay for his own travel to China, the government would arrange lectures and meetings with Chinese scientists and a visit to the Beijing gene bank.

He made his first trip in 1999, took seeds of 14 Canadian varieties and was given 21 varieties in return. The Chinese had long been breeding naked oats but their varieties were not robust.

He also met a young Chinese breeder, Ren Changzhong, who came to Canada to study, lived with Burrows and his wife Betty to study oats and English and eventually brought his family to Ottawa for months so he could do oat research in collaboration with Canadian scientists.

And then something unexpected happened.

As Chinese scientists planted progeny of seed varieties supplied by Burrows, they reported that they were flourishing on saline soils that had long been considered unproductive. They may even be taking some of the salt out of the soil although that has not been proven.

“I had no idea why that was true,” he said with a chuckle.

But research revealed that he had been selecting varieties that he had nurtured at a California winter nursery in an area fed with water from the saline Colorado River.

“They must have developed a tolerance for salt or a resistance and unbeknownst to me, I was selecting these varieties,” said Burrows. “It turned out to be a very big deal in China where they have millions of saline soil acres that had been good for nothing. Now it can grow a nutritious crop that humans and animals can eat.”

Ren Changzhong, his former student and now president of the Baicheng Academy of Agricultural Sciences, led the campaign for the statue. “He is a Canadian agricultural scientist revered by the Chinese people and praised as an international friend in the style of Dr. Norman Bethune,” he said according to an Agriculture Canada statement.

And like Bethune, the legendary Montreal physician who died treating Chinese communist soldiers in 1939 during their fight against Japanese invaders, Vern Burrows now is a Canadian with a statue erected to honour him in China.

“It was very exciting to be there to see the statue,” he said in his office cluttered with oat samples and photos as colleagues came in to talk about the honour.

Burrows is an Order of Canada member and has been honoured by Agriculture Canada and the Agricultural Institute of Canada for his oat breeding work.

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