Call of home too strong to ignore

BROOKDALE, Man. — About five years ago, Mary-Jane Orr had a decision to make.

She had just earned a PhD in soil microbiology from Purdue University and was considering a career in academic research — possibly at an American university.

But something about that career path didn’t feel right.

Plus, she had grown up on a farm near Carberry, Man., and wanted to return to her roots.

So, she did what millions of people do when they’re seeking an answer. She opened her laptop and typed a few words into Google.

“I really wanted to come back to Canada. My job search was ‘soil’ and ‘Canada’, ” Orr said, laughing at the simplicity of her search.

Incredibly, the two-word search actually led to a job with Hylife, a company that operates hog barns and a pork processing plant in Manitoba.

Her position was an agronomist with Hylife, working with farmers on manure management planning.

“I took the job because it was a way for me to work in the real (world) of agriculture,” she said. “And to apply everything I learned related to nutrient management.”

Orr stayed with Hylife for four years, until something else related to the “real world” of agriculture came along.

The something else was general manager for the Manitoba Beef & Forage Initiatives, an agricultural innovation centre that operates a research farm near Brookdale, Man., and has two other research sites near Brandon.

Orr became general manager last September.

“The competition for our general manager’s position was really intense,” said Ramona Blyth, MBFI chair. “Mary-Jane’s areas of expertise and experience were a really great fit for MBFI. We are thrilled to have (her) on board.”

Fifteen years ago, the odds of Orr having a career in agriculture was about 100 to 1. She grew up on a mixed farm south of Carberry, but she wasn’t particularly interested in agriculture or the business of farming.

“I loved being out in the pasture, checking the cows and seeing the diversity out there. (I loved) being in a natural landscape,” she said in mid-June, while sitting at a kitchen table inside a construction site trailer — her office at the MBFI Brookdale farm.

That interest in nature took Orr to the University of Brandon, where she studied botany, native plants and the natural world.

At the time, she imagined her studies would lead to a job as a high school teacher, likely specializing in biology and geography.

Orr never pursued that path mostly because of Wendy Undereiter, a biology professor at the U of Brandon.

Thanks to a research award for undergraduate students, Orr worked with Undereiter for three summers. She was part of a research project looking at soil microfungi from samples taken at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, comparing soil grazed by bison to soil that wasn’t grazed.

The experience changed Orr’s life because Undereiter’s passion for mycology (the study of fungi) was infectious.

“It’s the invisible world under our feet that drives everything,” Orr said. One of Undereiter’s comments, about fungi that degrade keratin, remains stuck in Orr’s brain.

“I remember her saying, ‘if we didn’t have these fungi we’d all be walking in tunnels made out of hair,’ because they’re the only organism that produces the enzyme (to) break down hair (and) nails.”

After the University of Brandon, Orr left for West Lafayette, Indiana, and Purdue University to continue her studies of soil micro-organisms.

Purdue is a U.S. land grant university and well known for agronomy, so Orr wound up studying nutrient cycling in crops that are used to produce biofuel.

“(I) looked at every step of the nitrogen cycle, the organisms responsible … and how different management would impact those groups of (soil) organisms.”

It wasn’t really a conscious choice, but Orr was veering away from her initial interest in natural systems. She was becoming an expert in soil and soil micro-organisms that play a huge role in production agriculture.

After earning a PhD from Purdue, Orr worked on a project studying cover crops and soil health in Indiana. A meeting with farmers who participated in the research represented another turning point in her career.

“I had to go to a 4-H hall (in Indiana) and stand in front of farmers and explain their soil tests (from the cover crop research),” Orr said.

“That was a very humbling experience. These are (practical) people who (say) … ‘what does this mean for my farm?’ ”

Orr realized after the meeting, that a career in academic research wasn’t right for her.

Yes, being a professor at a prestigious university and speaking at an academic conference in Dubai is appealing, but she wanted to do something that answered real world questions for farmers.

Does this practice work?

Does this one work?

Why or why not?

“What are the challenges that farmers are facing? And how does this (practice) meet it?” she said.

Today, after her time at Purdue and during her four years at Hylife, Orr realized more fully, that there’s a balance between protecting the environment and the bottom line. Most farmers want to do the right thing but they also have to make money.

“I had a simplistic view (of agriculture)…. I started on the (political) left of things and I’ve swung quite a way as I’ve gained more experience,” she admitted.

“(I’ve had) the chance to learn from farmers, with respect to the challenges they face and the trade-offs we all have to make.”

Driving down a trail at the MBFI farm, in a John Deere Gator, Orr explained that MBFI takes a similar approach to its research.

University professors, Manitoba Agriculture staff and MBFI staff conduct studies on practices that may offer environmental benefits and could also improve producer profitability.

For instance, one MBFI project focused on teaching cattle to eat leafy spurge, an invasive species that harms pasture productivity. Another project has looked at diverse forage species and how that affects soil biology and pasture productivity.

However, the research done at MBFI isn’t top down — where a university professor studies an issue and then expects producers to blindly follow their advice.

“It’s not (about) academics telling farmers (what to do),” Orr said.

“It’s a two-way conversation. We’re a place where researchers can come and work directly with farmers.”

As she reached the end of the trail, Orr parked the Gator and began walking toward a herd of Black Angus cattle at the research farm. She stepped over gopher holes and dried up cattle dung.

Her workplace looks nothing like the bricks, ivy and pristine green spaces at an American university.

But she was smiling and had a bounce in her step.

Which might be worth more, much more, than publishing a paper in a prestigious academic journal.

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