Retiring pathologist has full calendar

There will be no easy chair and fuzzy slippers for Alberta Agriculture plant pathologist Ron Howard as he begins official retirement May 1.

In fact, it sounds as if retirement will look a lot like his regular job, albeit with shorter hours and greater freedom to choose his tasks.

Howard has worked for 39 years at the Brooks Crop Diversification Centre, where he has studied an estimated four dozen crops ranging from canola to tomatoes.

The scientist and researcher is a frequent presenter at crop field days and has worked with researchers in other parts of Canada as well as China.

Howard admits there is a list of home and yard renovations awaiting him, but he has also established his own company through which he will continue research work.

“There’s a real shortage of plant pathologists in Alberta, and the folks that have the regular jobs, like Mike Harding, my successor, are carrying a heavy load on their shoulders,” said Howard.

“I’m not going to set up a laboratory in my basement and turn myself into a research station. I don’t want to make that sort of investment. I’m going to be working with people who have field plots and labs and greenhouses, where I can come in and assist with the work.”

He is already planning alfalfa fungicide trials and has been booked for crop disease presentations this summer.

The seemingly tireless researcher said he won’t miss 60-hour work weeks or the daily barrage of emails and phone calls.

However, activity is part of his personal makeup because even his leisure pursuits, as a dance instructor and a black belt in karate and judo, ensure he is constantly on the move.

The one thing that hasn’t moved in 39 years is his workplace. He ob-tained his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin after earning bachelor and master’s degrees in plant pathology at the University of Sask-atchewan.

“When I graduated, there was a job open at Brooks here for a plant pathologist and I got the job and 39 years later, here we are,” he said.

“A lot of people ask, ‘how could you possibly stay in one spot for 39 years when people usually stay three or four years and then they move?’ I just felt that I had everything I needed here, so why venture off elsewhere?”

Howard said he was glad of the opportunity to train his successor and ensure that plant pathology re-search and extension carry on from the Brooks base.

Harding, who began working with Howard in 2004, speaks of his mentor’s encyclopedic knowledge, experience and work ethic.

“I soon learned why Ron is a national and international authority on many topics,” said Harding.

“He is a perpetual learner with a photographic memory, and keeps a work pace that few could match. I also discovered that his scientific and educational excellence was balanced with patience, humility and compassion.”

Ken Coles, head of the Farming Smarter applied research organization, agreed.

“He has been wonderful to work with,” he said.

“No matter what it was when we were working on a trial, if we ever needed help, he was always there. Every extension event that we invited him to, I don’t think he’s ever said no. He’s the epitome of professional.”

Howard speaks highly of his scientific colleagues and staff in Brooks but also of the many farmers he has met and worked with.

The diverse crop mix of southern Alberta provided a variety of subjects for study and disease diagnosis.

“No two days were the same,” he said. “And if you ever had any doubts who you were working for, just look out the front window.”

Howard’s list of academic achievements, professional organization memberships and awards is extensive. He has published more than 1,000 articles and edited a book on diseases and pests of vegetable crops that has sold thousands of copies worldwide.

He developed a computer retrieval system allowing searches of fungicides and fumigants, which researchers and pesticide companies use across Canada.

He led the design team for two major expansions of the Brooks research centre, the most recent a $16 million greenhouse project.

Howard is an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, and in 2008 he won the Dow AgroSciences Innovation in Agriculture award.

He has been recognized at various times, and for various aspects of his work, by Agriculture Canada, Alberta Agriculture, Alberta Pulse Growers, the Plant Pathology Society of Alberta, the Canadian Phytopathological Society, the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association, the Canadian Seed Growers Association and Potato Growers of Alberta.

“It’s been quite a busy career, I must say,” Howard said.

“As I look back on my time in agricultural research, it’s been a wonderful experience.”

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