Brent McCallum, Plant Pathologist at AAFC Morden

Brent McCallum, Plant Pathologist at AAFC Morden

Specializing in wheat leaf rust disease, Brent McCallum is a Plant Pathologist at the Morden Research and Development Centre (Morden RDC) for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). McCallum earned his Bachelor Degree in Agriculture at the University of Manitoba (UM) before completing his Masters Degree in the Department of Plant Science at UM. Next, he earned his PhD focusing on bean rust, wheat stem rust and the genetics of rust and rust resistance at the University of Minnesota. McCallum spends half his time living in Morden for work and half his time living in Winnipeg with his family.

Where did you work before AAFC Morden?

After my PhD I returned to Canada to continue my research at UM focusing on a disease of lentils. One year later I moved over to AAFC in a postdoc position where my research was focused on fusarium head blight (FHB) in barley until I got my current position in rust pathology.

What got you interested in this area of work?

I was really interested in genetics but I had the practical interest in farming and farm production from growing up with parents who farmed. The two areas kind of went together because you can apply genetics directly through plant breeding or genetic analysis of pathogen populations. It seemed like an area where I could combine my two strong interests. I really find it enjoyable because I get to see the varieties we work on with breeders go through the registration process and eventually see them in production in the fields.

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at Morden RDC.

Our research is focused on developing genetic resistance to leaf rust and other wheat diseases like FHB. We work with plant breeders and geneticists to incorporate this resistance into Canadian wheat cultivars. We do surveillance within Manitoba to figure out where the diseases are and how severe they are. Sometimes we access farmers fields but we also take advantage of the Manitoba Crop Variety Evaluation Trials (MCVET). This collaboration is great because MCVET doesn’t apply fungicides so we are able to find all of the diseases in each area and the levels of each.

We do an annual survey where we collect pathogens throughout areas of western Canada (areas we can access) and we have collaborators that send us samples from all over the country. We then do a detailed analysis of the pathogens variance profile so we can see which genes are effective/ineffective against the pathogen and compare those results with previous years to see how the pathogens have acted over time.

In addition, we do a lot of screening for disease resistance cultivars that are in development. We screen all the wheat lines being proposed for registration for their level of resistance and publish our ratings in the provincial seed guides. We screen diseases like wheat leaf rust, fusarium, stem rust and stripe rust so farmers can get a good idea how the crop lines will perform in their fields.

What can you say about the value of farmers providing funding and support to your organization?

Farmer funding and support is really important because farmers are the ones who have a grasp on what is valuable to them and what is going to pay off in their production practices. They are the ones who find new or emerging problems so we value any feedback that goes into the research we can do to help reduce the disease or problems they are facing. I also think most of the farmers are very patient and understand the research they invest in won’t produce results for one to two years.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

It’s a good feedback loop – they can direct us to the important issues and they can also help us apply the solutions. There is no point developing disease resistant varieties if nobody is going to grow them. The cultivars have to be in good backgrounds, high yielding, high quality germplasms so producers will grow them without taking a big hit by growing something that’s resistant to wheat midge, fusarium, or leaf rust. They can grow high quality varieties or adapt a new management technique or something that works for them. Its more the fact that they have valuable input on what problems to tackle, but then also in supplying the funding to tackle those problems and the implementation of solutions. They are really critical in all three of those phases.

I (with additional collaborators) just finished an interesting article titled, We stand on guard for thee: A brief history of pest surveillance on the Canadian Prairies, with an interesting message; we’re all specialists, for example I work on one disease on one crop. Farmers are generalists, they have to work with multiple problems on multiple crops. Fertility, insects, diseases, weeds, resistance, whatever the case may be. This paper helped us think more broadly because we looked at how all pest surveillance across western Canada has developed over time. Click here for more information or to read the review article.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I enjoy being active and being outside. I like to curl and play hockey in the winter and I enjoy outdoor activities like cycling and golf in the summer.

What gets you excited about the work you do?

Agriculture is a very diverse field and you get to meet a lot of good people. The people are my favourite thing. The group I work with is a very dedicated group of individuals. They are very skilled, highly trained, hard workers who are conscientious and really good to get along with. In addition, we collaborate with so many good people across agriculture Canada, the universities, industry and private industry.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Try to understand the basics of things. Some things can seem quite confusing on the surface until you drill down and get to the root of the situation. Try to understand it step by step. That’s kind of what your graduate training teaches you to do. Not to skim long the surface, but to try to get a deep understanding of what is going on.