Alta. researcher awarded for helping pulse industry

Mark Olson says the keys to his success in helping expand the pulse industry in the province were the people who helped him along the way

Mark Olson remembers when farmers were testing peas nearly everywhere in Alberta.

They were fairly new for growers in the mid-1980s, requiring much patience and persistence as people in the agriculture industry looked for a crop alternative.

“Around that time the first SS lines came out,” said Olson, speaking to producers at the Alberta Pulse Growers annual meeting at FarmTech in Edmonton.

“They were shorter lines with a semi-leafless trait, managing to stand up somewhat,” he said.

Those first lines essentially helped kickstart the pulse industry in Alberta, Olson said.

As time progressed, with new technologies and more farmer acceptance, the crop managed to gain more acreage.

Peas, for example, went from around 20,000 acres in 1985 to about two million acres recently, he said.

“Falling down is still a problem, but it’s come a long way.”

Olson was recognized for his efforts in helping grow the pulse industry when Alberta Pulse Growers awarded him with the Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award on Jan. 29 at FarmTech.

After earning a bachelor of science in agriculture and a master’s degree in agriculture from the University of Alberta, Olson began his career with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development as a summer technician.

He would then work as a district agriculturalist, later becoming the unit head for pulse crops with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Olson said there are many people behind his success. The pulse industry wouldn’t be where it is today without them.

“It’s been a team effort, not just one person, that allowed us to go out on to the field and do research,” he said.

Early in his career, Olson said he worked with farmers to test the crops on their land. The researchers would supply the inputs while the farmers would bring the machinery.

They used what were considered new air-seeders at the time, which Olson said provided a good learning experience.

“Success of industry is all about the people I worked with over the years,” he said. “So many people make a team and make us a success.”

He sees lots of growth potential for the industry, given consumers are demanding more high-protein plant-based foods.

He said he’s fond of lupin, a crop that provides high protein levels.

“I think we are in a good position and good spot for growth,” he said.

During his presentation, he highlighted the importance of agriculture research, especially when scientists, extension specialists and farmers are all working together.

He said extension specialists and scientists need to work together and build trust, which effectively helps get better information out to farmers.

“For farmers, make sure you get these extension people and researchers out on to the farm so they can understand the challenges you are facing,” he said. “People will bend over backwards to help you, and it’s rewarding for farmers and rewarding for researchers.”

He said leaders of organizations need to be brave and courageous, but it’s best if they have all the information before making a decision. Understanding the system is important, he added.

“It’s easy to tear down systems, but to be a builder and innovator is totally something different,” he said.

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