Alberta man moves from chemistry lab to farm field

Ken Coles sometimes sprays crops in the dark of night. Sometimes he seeds crops into snow-covered fields. Sometimes he tweets field observations via
@killerkencoles. And he always enjoys his work.

Coles is a farm boy who didn’t grow up on a farm and a data manager who can’t remember numbers.

And yet, in his work as general manager of the Lethbridge-based Farming Smarter Association, it’s part of a job he seems tailor-made to do.

Farming Smarter was formed from the combination of the Southern Applied Research Association (SARA) and the Southern Alberta Conservation Association. It undertakes research projects designed to benefit farmers.

Determining the focus, scope and duration of those projects is Coles’ job, which he does with the help of five or six full-time staff and a bevy of summer students. A board of directors and many corporate partners back him up.

And that’s why he sometimes sprays crops at night. It’s research into the best time to spray for maximum herbicide efficacy. And seeding into snow? Well, that has been a research project, but it has also been a necessity on occasion because of southern Alberta’s volatile weather.

“I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up, but I do like what I’m doing,” says Coles.

The son of an RCMP officer and a nurse, Coles lived in various towns as a youth but always considered his grandfather’s farm near Coaldale, Alta., as home base. Eventually the family moved there, and Coles now farms his grandfather’s and his father’s land.

With a degree in chemistry from the University of Lethbridge, Coles worked for Alberta Wheat Pool and for a soil testing lab before signing on as farm manager at the Monsanto research site near Coalhurst, Alta.

“Quite honestly, I loved the job. It was a lot of fun. I got to work on Roundup Ready wheat back then when they were trying to develop it,” he said.

“It ended up being kind of the perfect job because we worked with a team across the country on the research and development side. It was a really good work environment. They had a lot of resources.”

That’s where Coles got a taste for organizing and running research plot and project tours, and he found he liked it.

The company shut down the research farm and his job along with it, but not before he had decided to get his masters degree in environment and management from Royal Roads University in Victoria.

“I was the one redneck from Alberta, out there with a bunch of tree huggers from B.C., basically, and it was a great opportunity to see a lot of different perspectives and talk about agriculture in a positive light.”

Coles got a job with Agriculture Canada but found he missed the contact with producers. When a job came open with SARA, he took the leap.

“I guess my adventurous side said, ‘what the heck, let’s go for it,’ and I haven’t looked back since,” said Coles, who is now five years into his current job.

As well as envisioning, planning and orchestrating research projects, he and his team also organize 15 to 20 events each year to show farmers their progress and results. These range from plot and field tours to schools that explore crop disease, insects and chemical use.

Core funding, which is 25 percent of the budget, comes from the provincial government. The rest is project related and comes from the provincial and federal governments and from corporate partners.

“It’s been challenging with growing pains, but every year we’ve grown a little bit and its getting better and better,” said Coles.

The association’s budget has doubled every year for the last five years as it expands its projects. It has also had to add staff.

Coles sees the group as filling a void in agriculture extension that was once filled by Alberta Agriculture. However, he also sees it as a two-way street.

“We make sure, because it is our job to work for farmers, that we’re listening to them,” he said.

“It’s not just about broadcasting information. It’s about listening, too.”

Connections with provincial and federal researchers are also vital to Farming Smarter’s success, and Coles has those. He speaks highly of researchers and also of his staff.

“We can’t afford to have people that are not awesome,” he said.

By offering competitive pay and reasonable working conditions, that goal appears to be met.

“We don’t work a ton of overtime. That’s part of our strategy and part of getting the right people in place who can get the job done.”

Coles said pride in the association’s accomplishments and being able to see the fruits of his labours are the best things about his work. He clearly enjoys conversations and rapport with farmers during field days and knows the regulars by name.

“Certainly the events are fun because it’s an opportunity to show off the work that’s being done,” he said.

“You kind of get rewarded if somebody picks something up. They’re social events, let’s not kid ourselves. The stuff that we’re doing, it sort of sparks the conversation a bit.”

Coles believes Canadian agriculture has a bright future, though he sees a widening divide between rural and urban dwellers that concerns him. He thinks his association might be able to play a bridging role, though he’s not yet sure how.

But of more immediate concern is reduced government funding and emphasis on agricultural research, which can marginalize farm concerns.

It also leads to more reliance on corporate funding. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said, but it does result in a different focus.

“I think there’s some real issues in the overall funding structures of research in Canada right now and we are seeing some changes, but yes, researchers are forced to chase money. There’s no doubt about it.”

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