Former academic takes no-nonsense approach to soil

I first met Les Henry in December 2018 at a conference where I unknowingly sat next to him and another gentleman. After listening to their conversation for several minutes I knew I wanted to be friends.

I had read the well-known Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water in university and often heard my dad spouting sentiments such as, “you know what Les Henry says about phosphorus,” during our farm fertility planning discussions.

Agros may remember the name Les Henry if they attended the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture from 1970-96 and took the introductory soil science or public speaking course. He has also written a column in GrainNews since1976.

After exchanging contact information that day, I often called Henry on the drive home from conferences with burning questions about soil and crops. For example, I recently asked for his opinion on broadcasting phosphorus during winter.

His response was clear: “Well that’s a poor way to treat something you’ve spent $600 a tonne on.”

In one short sentence, I had my answer. Henry is known for his straightforward no-nonsense communication style.

His enthusiasm for agriculture began early on when he came off the farm at Milden, Sask., in 1960 with what he describes as straw sticking from his ears and dirt under his fingernails.

He decided to further his education in soil science during a period when fertilizer use was starting to take off on the Prairies.

As agriculture productivity improved in the 1960s, farmers became more sophisticated in the way they approached problems.

“They were beginning to ask questions that the professors and researchers didn’t have an answer for,” Henry says.

Because of this, he was tasked with communicating research results and bringing back messages from farmers about questions for which they needed answers.

“I always had nothing but respect for farmers, for both their opinions and their questions,” says Henry.

One of Henry’s early research projects was dealing with concerns about anhydrous ammonia, which at that time was thought to ruin the land. Many thought it would kill bugs and earthworms and reduce organic matter in the soil but the literature and Henry’s research proved otherwise.

“My question back then was — what earthworms because at that time there wasn’t any,” he says.

Henry clarified that the literature now proves the only possible negative affect of anhydrous ammonia is a reduction of pH.

From a research perspective, Henry believes that collaboration between practical farmgate knowledge and academic research is necessary for relevant projects.

“Integration is key, and sometimes there is too much emphasis on strictly academic work without looking at the application,” he says.

He alludes to the potash story as a prime example.

“Until the Saskatchewan soil testing lab opened in 1966 we thought all Saskatchewan soils had lots of potassium for crop growth. Lab tests of fields soon showed that the Carrot River soil type was severely deficient in potassium.”

After Henry completed his master’s in 1968, he took an opportunity to become the manager of the soil science department’s field based fertility research program. The department head and one of Henry’s most cherished mentors was Don Rennie, who played a major role in reducing summerfallow in the province.

“Rennie and I used to argue but always had respect for each other. He told me if I had to tell you what to do I wouldn’t have hired you. We had absolute freedom to challenge and question things,” he says.

Henry’s final major research project before his official retirement in 1996 tackled soil salinity. During this period, salinity was becoming a major issue and many feared it would take over the farm.

A different approach was used. Drilling programs on actual farms determined the cause was usually artesian discharge from aquifers.

After a few years, Henry’s research team was finding the same thing over and over.

“Soil salinity is not a knowledge problem and the research proved the only way to fix salinity is with tile drainage and leaching. In much of Saskatchewan leaching means irrigation,” he says.

Henry’s approach to research and life has always been practical.

“It’s important to remember that agriculture has gone through cycles and they will return again and again,” he says.

The fertile soils of the early 1900s became depleted as production improved, and interestingly, those might have been some of the most profitable times for farmers.

“During the First World War, wheat was $3 per bushel, which equates to roughly $38 per bu. nowadays.”

Henry believes nutrient balance needs more attention in farm fertilizer programs.

He will be 80 this year and still regularly visits the university library, curls in the winter and of course spends a lot of time at the farm in the summers. He has no intention to ever fully retire and still regularly attends conferences and trade shows to stay current on the latest technology.

“The moment you think you have nothing else to learn is the moment you might as well dig a hole in the ground,” he says.

“It’s been a lot of fun and I have had a lot of luck during my lifetime. I really don’t care when I die, I just want to live till I die and living is more than breathing.”

That authentic emotion cannot be found on the history channel, in a book, or on YouTube, and these stories may never be told unless the next generation asks to hear them.

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