Blog: Meet a Researcher

Aida Kebede, research scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Aida Kebede

Aida Kebede, a research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Ottawa Research and Development Centre (RDC), is focused on corn germplasm development and genetic studies. She was raised in Ethiopia and received M.Sc. and B.Sc. degrees in plant breeding and plant sciences from Haramaya University, before completing her PhD in plant breeding from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. She now lives in the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area.

Where did you work before AAFC?

Prior to coming to Canada, I worked at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, also known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT. As a PhD student, I spent five years conducting research on improving breeding methods for corn drought tolerance and supporting the establishment of a double-haploid breeding program. I was part of the team that brought the in vivo double haploid line production technology from the University of Hohenheim, Germany, to CIMMYT, Mexico.

After that I worked as a post-doctoral fellow with Lana Reid (former corn breeder) and Linda Harris in the corn breeding program of the Ottawa RDC from 2013 to 2016 and afterwards as a PRP-research scientist at the Morden RDC under the supervision of Curt McCartney from 2017 to 2019. At Morden, I worked on finding molecular markers for disease resistance breeding to oat rusts.

What got you interested in this area of work?

A renowned plant geneticist from Ethiopia, Melaku Worede, who is also a good friend of my father, inspired me to study plant breeding for my postgraduate studies. Since I did my PhD thesis research in corn breeding, I could say corn grew on me.

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at AAFC’s Ottawa RDC.

My day-to-day activities for a given growing season include designing field trial experiments and nurseries, overseeing planting, recording germination and seedling vigour, followed by observing plant growth and eliminating lines that do not fit the set criteria. In the summer, pollination is a collective effort for my technicians, summer students and myself. We work seven days a week until mid-August.

Then in September we go through our nurseries for a second round of selection and eliminate lines with undesirable traits such as tillering or overall plant stand. Next, we (my technicians and myself) harvest nurseries, isolation blocks and yield trials, and then harvest seed gets processed and the data analyzed in order to do the selection before the new season starts in January.

Around seven years ago, Lana Reid, plant physiologist, and Malcolm Morrison, plant phenomisist, at the Ottawa RDC started making crosses and tested a new method of cold tolerance screening and selection. In this method, crosses and progenies were germinated in cold temperatures (13°C day / 7°C night) in a growth chamber and those which germinate within 21 days were transplanted to the field and selected based on additional attributes to pass to the next generation. This method of selection granted a five-day earlier germination advantage over the commercial check hybrids when tested here in Ottawa. I took over the advancement of the breeding population for cold tolerance in 2021 and continued until the end of the Canadian Agriculture Partnership (CAP) project in 2023.

There is a new project starting this year under the Sustainable CAP stream where the cold-tolerant breeding populations will be tested for cold tolerance under field conditions here in Ontario and Manitoba. This will be in collaboration with Yvonne Lawley from the University of Manitoba.

My role as a breeder is to continue advancing the germplasm in the breeding pipeline with selection for best yield performance and early spring cold tolerance. Promising inbred lines will be released in the coming three to four years, and breeding companies could make use of those inbred lines for making commercial hybrids.

What is the best part about your job?

The best part about my job would be that our research outputs have direct practical application. The inbred lines we develop are taken up by private companies that will turn them into hybrid varieties for use by corn growers.

In addition, the multi-disciplinary nature of our work gives us the opportunity to interact with different national and international organizations, universities and industry groups who dedicate their efforts to the sustainability and productivity of the corn industry in Canada.

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

I would say it is the golden key for maintaining continuity of our research work. Germplasm development is not a short-term undertaking. You need at least nine or more years to develop a variety that a corn grower can use in their field. The support we get from farmers ensures that we succeed.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

It gives farmers the arena for their ideas to become reality and their voices to be heard, plus the opportunity to guide future research directions. At the end of the day, they are the direct users of the technology and germplasm we develop.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I love gardening. I have a community garden lot near my home where I grow vegetables and herbs. I like playing basketball and badminton as well.

How do you celebrate agriculture?

Attending the Corn and Apple Festival in Morden, MB, used to be one of my favorite events when I was living there. I really enjoyed the farm machinery parades, buying stuff from the local vendors with homemade products and the free, cooked sweet corn they serve to everyone. I haven’t found a similar event in Ontario yet, but I have been to a maze inside a corn field, which was a lot of fun.

Who or what inspires you?

People with positive thinking attitudes. I am inspired by those who focus on the solutions rather than the problems.

What is your favourite food or meal to cook?

Sweet corn. It only takes five minutes to cook in boiling water, and tastes delicious.

Lorne Grieger, director of technical sales, Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute

Follow @PAMI_Machinery on X (formerly Twitter).
Follow @PAMI_Machinery on X (formerly Twitter).

Say hello to Lorne Grieger, director of technical sales at the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI).

Grieger studied bioresource engineering (formerly, agricultural engineering) at the University of Manitoba and has worked with PAMI in both project management and ag research related positions. He grew up on a farm in Swan River where his family still farms, and he and his wife live near Birds Hill, close to his wife’s family. They have two daughters.

Where did you work before PAMI?

I’ve worked for PAMI on two separate occasions. I previously worked for a pharmaceutical company. When I look at what we’re doing for the livestock sector, biosecurity principles are very similar in terms of managing disease or daily livestock operations. I’ve used a lot of background from my time there and applied it to the work we do with the livestock sector at PAMI.

I also worked in a consulting firm for a few years. From that experience, the machinery design side is very applicable to some of the work we do now for industry clients. As an organization, we work in two areas: the industry side, where we help companies do innovation testing, design and engineering work prototyping, and the other side is public research.

What got you interested in this area of work?

I’ve always liked equipment – it’s intriguing. I love working with tractors and big iron, but also the technology piece that goes with it. You have these large pieces of steel with control and guidance, the technology is remarkable. When you think it hasn’t changed or can’t get any better, somebody comes out with a new concept or idea. It’s ever changing, ever evolving and ever improving.

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

In my current role, I oversee proposals. I collaborate with grower groups to understand their needs and see how we can address those needs through PAMI’s expertise and experience. We look at implementation of technologies or understanding technology features, and how to use it on farm.

Some of our work that Manitoba Crop Alliance recently funded was looking at seed damage from large air seeders, for example. If you understand what that seed moisture is and the germination impact, you can adjust your seeding rate accordingly to get the stand you’re looking for. After all, when you’re investing millions of dollars in equipment, you want to understand the best fit or how to use it effectively for your current operation, because equipment is not one size fits all.

On the grain drying side, a lot of the work we’ve done is looking at current practices and measuring or understanding what farmers’ baselines are in order to make decisions, or find ways to increase efficiency and reduce costs. This could refer to new technology as well, understanding grain drying aspects both in the bin as well as dedicated drying systems. By using different pieces of equipment or looking at different practices as a whole, we are looking at the best ways to manage risk or ways to increase profitability.

If we can understand some of those details, we can provide both simple and more complex ways of working with equipment or modifying current processes to allow farmers to be more efficient and more profitable down the road.

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

Producer funding is critical for the work we do. We don’t want to just do research – we want to do work that’s applicable to people that are feeding their families and looking to pass down a farm to the next generation. If you put money behind a project, that means it’s important to you, and as a result, it’s important to us. We want to work in those areas.

Having open dialogue with grower groups helps us understand what is important to members, so that, as we look at the future of our organization, we can invest in the right resources, people and expertise to be able to answer the questions that grower groups are asking.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?  

We aren’t telling people how to do their craft or run their business. We want to provide information that can be used to make good decisions. That could be in terms of operational or equipment investments, to modifications or investments on a capital side as well. It is a little bit of de-risking when you look at adopting a new practice, what exactly does this mean? If we can answer that on an individual basis so everybody can learn and understand it, it lowers the risk for all involved.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

Camping, and being outside as much as possible. The Duck Mountains are where my heart is. I just love being up there, as well as Whiteshell and further on into northwest Ontario. It’s a gorgeous country that we live in.

What is the best part about your job?

The best part of my job is constant variety and working with new ideas and new concepts. If we do a certain practice, what does that mean for farmers? Does that make a difference in terms of their operations, revenue and sustainability on a farm level? That’s what I really enjoy, working out the applicability down to the farm gate difference, including how economics, different practices and equipment choices can be affected as a result of the work we do.

What are you excited about for the future of agriculture?

The future of agriculture is ever changing. We always find ways as an industry to innovate, problem solve and rise above challenges. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else comes along, and we find ways to adapt and to be successful as a result. Moving forward, seeing the next generation come online along with new technologies and advancements is remarkable.

Follow @PAMI_Machinery on X (formerly Twitter).

James Tucker, research scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada


James Tucker is a research scientist in barley genomics at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Brandon Research and Development Centre (RDC). He completed a bachelor of science in chemistry and biology at the University of Winnipeg before spending a year in entomology at the University of Manitoba (U of M). He then moved to Montreal to do a master’s degree in quantitative genetics at Concordia University. He worked for a while before returning to studies later in his career to complete his PhD in plant science at the U of M. Tucker lives outside of CFB Shilo with his wife. He is the father of two children.

Where did you work before the Brandon RDC?

I started out as a summer student in the ’90s and worked my way up as a research technician in Winnipeg at the Cereal Research Centre before moving to Brandon in 2001. I worked as a biologist and then a barley pathologist, supporting the barley breeding program. In 2018, I was made into a research scientist at the centre. Aside from one summer working for the Canadian Forestry Service, my work experience has all been within AAFC.

What got you interested in this area of work?

Initially, it was employment. I was working in Winnipeg in entomology and molecular genetics as a technician and then took a job as a barley pathologist. I had an interest in genetics for a long time. In genetics there is a lot to work on and there are always new and complicated problems. What really grew on me was the community. Barley is an extremely co-operative research community and it’s been a really positive experience working within that community.

Tell us a bit about your work at the Brandon RDC.

The Developing barley germplasm with improved resistance to Fusarium head blight (FHB) and other biotic stresses for western Canada project is the major driver of my research. This project ran from 2018-23 and was funded under the National Barley Cluster.

I work closely with Ana Badea, a barley breeder here at the Brandon RDC, as well as the other barley breeders in Canada. There are a lot of diseases in barley making it quite complicated. We focus on the diseases that are of major economic concern and cause damage for farmers. This includes Fusarium head blight (FHB), stem rust, spot blotch and other biotic stresses that affect barley production.

In the spring, we work on experiments to get seed from Dr. Badea’s program to collaborators, for example – and receive seed from other institutions around the country and internationally – and set up studies and seeds for our disease nurseries (stem rust, leaf disease and FHB) here at the centre. Plots are grown and infected, followed by record-taking of disease ratings for thousands of plots. A big task in the fall is harvesting the FHB nursery. In barley, there is not a good relationship between the visuals and the toxins like wheat, so we need to harvest a lot more, and by hand. The work is labour intensive, where approximately 10,000 rows are harvested each year. Then during the winter, we are cleaning and processing the seeds, sending them for analyses in order to get all of the information back in time for the breeders to use to make their selections.

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

In my view, a lot of the research I do is funded through farmers and their faith in giving me the funds I need to do the research that matters to them. In the research I do, I always focus on the benefits for farmers, which is very important to me. I really appreciate the funding support.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

In my research program there are short-term and long-term goals. Some things take longer than others. Breeders have a big job. They have to breed for so many traits, while constantly trying to improve yields, so that farmers can benefit. I work with the breeders to help them select the best lines to advance depending on the trait they are targeting (e.g., resistance). This results in farmers getting new and improved varieties with better disease resistance packages, for example. 

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I do a lot of gardening. I’ve been doing martial arts for most of my life, and I really enjoy being in nature going hiking or walking in the forest and riding ATVs.

How do you celebrate agriculture? 

I have a good-sized garden. I love putting my hands in the soil, smelling the soil and growing things. It’s kind of like my Zen time. It’s pretty exciting that we get to put seeds in the ground and the sun provides the requirements to grow and produce food that we get to eat. I normally grow excess food and tell the neighbours it’s a “you pick” garden, so they can come and take what they like.

What is a good piece of advice you’ve received?

 I’ve had a lot of mentors over the years, and some good advice I received is that research is a slow and steady game of increments over the years. There are really good days where you find something or a new discovery, but it’s slow working and it takes time, especially in FHB research. You have to gain an understanding that things don’t happen quickly and it takes time and resources to do research, but over time, you eventually achieve your goal.

Click here for more information about the Brandon RDC.

Andriy Bilichak, research scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Follow @ABilichak on X (formerly Twitter).
Follow @ABilichak on X (formerly Twitter).

Andriy Bilichak is a research scientist and cereal biotechnology program lead at Agriculture Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)’s Morden Research and Development Centre (RDC). Bilichak completed his PhD in plant biotechnology at the University of Lethbridge and his postdoctoral fellowship at the Lethbridge RDC.

He was raised in Ukraine and now lives in Winkler, MB, with his wife Nina, who is currently on maternity leave with their baby girl, their son Mark, and his mother.

Where did you work before the Morden RDC?

After my postdoc at the Lethbridge RDC, I worked on a collaborative project with Dow AgroSciences, now Corteva, developing methods for non-transgenic gene editing in wheat. After that, I worked for a startup biotech company where I looked into different genotypes of high-THC and high-CBD lines of cannabis and how to improve pathogen resistance. Then I eventually began my position at the Morden RDC.

What got you interested in this area of work?

I’ve been working on gene editing from the beginning. My PhD was in plant transformation/biotechnology, so it was a logical next step for me to move into gene editing. I enjoy working with like-minded people and thinking and living in science and working towards new discoveries.

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

My program at the Morden RDC focuses on gene editing and functional genomics, which is the characterization of novel genes. We are trying to identify genes and their role in pathogen response or abiotic stress, for example. The original program was focused on spring wheat, but we’ve added winter wheat and plan to add barley as well.

Since we work on biotech and transformation, the major part of our program is gene editing. We use CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tools to dissect the contribution of different genes, either in pathogen response like leaf rust or abiotic stress. We also collaborate extensively with other groups that look into other traits like pre-harvest sprouting, for example.

The overall vision for the program is to adopt gene editing for targeted modification in elite Canadian cultivars. We are trying to discover genes that are involved in tissue culture response in wheat, as we want to apply this knowledge to introduce gene editing into elite Canadian cultivars.

The goal would be, for example, if the breeder comes to us and says, “I have this great variety with all these nice agronomic qualities, but it lacks this one. Can you edit or modify this trait for me through genetics/gene editing?” we would be able to quickly do that. The transformation protocol usually takes four months from the time we put the embryo in tissue culture until the time we regenerate the seedling, and it takes another four or so months for the plant to grow. So, let’s say we can regenerate a particular mutation or edit the target gene within a year. This improves line and delivery to the breeder.

In terms of peptides work, the Application of antimicrobial peptides to increase cereal crops resistance to fungal pathogens project was funded by Manitoba Crop Alliance and Western Grains Research Foundation. Through this research, our lab student screened a library of 20 peptides that were selected from literature that had indications of potential antifungal properties that were never tested against leaf rust.

She found some peptides had much stronger antifungal activity compared to others. We then took those peptides and checked the growth curve to try to find out the best concentration for them. Then, when we sprayed those peptides on the leaf surface before infection with leaf rust, we discovered we could suppress the first infection on the susceptible cultivars by just foliar application of those peptides.

We also discovered endogenous wheat-encoded novel peptides that could potentially be used as a fungicide. We are currently working toward engineering these peptides in the wheat genome through gene editing applications. In this way, wheat expressing the anti-fungal peptides in leaves can potentially become more resistant to rust infection. Eventually, these edited non-transgenic lines can be tested in the field for pathogen resistance.

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

We highly appreciate funding from farmers that allows us to do discovery work and adoption of new biotechnology tools for wheat improvement. Most of the work we do is upstream science that eventually can find its application in the farmer’s fields.

Biotechnology tools become very important in adapting wheat genetics to better cope with climate change and unpredictable weather conditions during the growing season. The gene-edited crops become widely accepted worldwide and through funding of biotechnology programs like ours, Canadian farmers can remain competitive on the international markets through growing of the improved cultivars generated using novel breeding tools.   

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

Although we work in upstream science, in every project we apply for we indicate how that work will benefit farmers in the long term and how we can transition it from the lab into the field. We collaborate extensively with other groups (like breeders) on the transition into the field.

In terms of gene editing, we focus on traits that are important to farmers like increased yields or reduced pesticide applications. We are thinking about how to reduce fungicide applications, for example, by looking into alternative means to control pathogens (like peptides). Every research project is centred around the objective of benefitting farmers and agriculture.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I enjoy sports. I like playing soccer, especially with my son because he is really into soccer. I used to play table tennis and I hope to renew that passion again.

What is the best part about your job?

It’s always interesting for me to go to the lab where we apply biotechnology tools for trait improvement in wheat. Whether we increase the transformation or editing efficiency, whether we have a particular phenotype that we are interested in, and how, in general, gene editing can contribute to the development of new varieties and how it can help in breeding programs. In my opinion, now is a very exciting time to be in plant biotech.

What is your favourite podcast right now?

I enjoy listening to different science podcasts, especially ones that tell odd stories about scientific discoveries and how they came into the world. Two examples are Unsung Science and Disappearing Spoon. They are both very interesting.

Follow @ABilichak on X (formerly Twitter).

Alankrita Goswami, assistant professor, University of Manitoba

Follow @alankrita10 on X (formerly Twitter).
Follow @alankrita10 on X (formerly Twitter).

Alankrita Goswami is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness at the University of Manitoba (U of M). She holds a master’s in rural management, an engineering degree in biotechnology and a PhD in agricultural and applied economics from the University of Georgia. Goswami lives in Winnipeg and works at the U of M Fort Garry campus.

Where did you work before the U of M?

I was working as a PhD student for four years at the University of Georgia in the United States, and then I came to Canada to work at the U of M.

What got you interested in this area of work?

Economics always interested me. I was doing my engineering degree in biotechnology back in India and in my third year I wanted to be in a workspace where I could somehow contribute to the community. There is a tradition of teaching in my family, both my mother and grandmother are teachers and many of my aunts are teachers.

With an original interest in contributing to the rural community in India, I went for an MBA with a specialization in rural management. It was a very structured program where I had three internship components and got to live and work in different villages.

This shifted my areas of focus from biotech to rural management, and then I started as a pre-doc at the International Water Management Institute-TATA Policy program in India. This got me into agricultural economics as I began looking into irrigation and how it contributes to the ag economy back in India. Then the transition was complete – I began my PhD after that.

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the U of M.

In terms of teaching, last semester I taught the agricultural marketing course and this semester I am teaching applied econometrics.

My PhD dissertation chapters were on U.S. agricultural futures markets. My research was mostly geared towards looking at futures markets as a risk management tool for farmers and their effectiveness, especially during anomalies such as what we call non-convergence in the markets. This is when the futures markets are not aligning with the cash markets and dissecting what the possible reason(s) could be.

Futures markets, by design, incorporate not just current supply-related information in prices, but also related to future supplies. In a current project, I am looking at the interconnectedness of markets such as Canadian canola and U.S. soybean oil in the context of anticipation of future supply shocks.

We are studying the transmission of the impacts of expectations of future supply shocks from one market to the other. This will help us understand how these markets are interconnected with each other through the market expectations channel. By conducting such research exercises we intend to distill information on what future supply disruptions mean in context of farmers’ risk management strategies involving futures markets. We also intend to extend this work to include impact of anticipation of future supply disruptions in livestock markets.

Another area I’ve started into is microstructure of agricultural futures markets. At the microstructure level of agricultural markets, we aim to study the traits of the market at a higher time resolution (such as nanoseconds). Understanding market activity at such a micro level can be key to distilling information on aggregate trading behaviour of ag-market participants. Such information can be of utility to users of ag futures, such as farmers, ag businesses, etc. By studying micro-level details of ag-futures markets, I will aim to translate learnings from this work into information of practical utility for the users through a series of technical bulletins.

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

Such funding is of great help to researchers like me who want to contribute to the agricultural community through our work. It provides the opportunity to leverage resources to study issues plaguing the agrarian landscape and come up with solutions to such issues.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

The extension-centric work in the coming months will be very important. Technical bulletins aimed at the farming community for example, be it the work on looking at anticipations of supply shocks on ag markets or be it this very aspect of looking at the market at a very micro level, I want to translate the information generated from my work into practical utility for farmers.

 How do you spend your time outside of work?

I have always been a voracious reader. I like running and I am hoping to get back into painting this winter. I like to go back to a memory, think of something and paint it. 

What is the best part about your job?

I love research. I like to inspect things and dissect social issues that might be impacting the agricultural economy, and I like engaging with farming communities. Agricultural policy also interests me and my job is a mix of everything I love, including teaching.

What is your favourite food or meal to cook?

I love Italian food. My mother is a very good cook and she would always be preparing it in so much detail, and when you watch a person prepare food with that much love and attention to detail, it gives you the feeling they are creating something important. She really got me hooked on Italian food.

Follow @alankrita10 on X (formerly Twitter).

Stephen Crittenden, research scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Follow @Steve_Crittende on X (formerly Twitter).
Follow @Steve_Crittende on X (formerly Twitter).

Stephen Crittenden is a research scientist in soil health and nutrient management, as well as lead of the Soil, Water, and Crop Production Science team, at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Brandon Research and Development Centre (RDC). He grew up in Collingwood, ON, and has worked in several countries, gaining a unique understanding of agricultural practices around the world.

Crittenden completed his master’s at the University of Guelph and his post-doctoral work at Cornell University in New York State. He spent time working in Rome and France before completing his PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where he worked on tillage systems and soil quality.

Crittenden now calls Brandon home, where he lives with his wife and two kids.

What is the best part about your job?

I take being a public servant seriously. Whether it’s communicating with media, commodity groups or farmers, or trying to produce science-based information, it’s incredibly gratifying. That is where I see my role, trying to produce science-based information that will benefit Canadian farmers.

What got you interested in this area of work?

Soil health is a topic that came up over and over from farmers in Manitoba. People wanted to know what soil health information is important and what is relevant for their farm, how they can measure indicators themselves or, if working with a commercial lab, what indicators would be most relevant.

I really got interested in focusing on soil health here in Manitoba because that’s what I kept hearing was important to farmers.

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

I’m a scientist, but I’m also lead of the Soil, Water, and Crop Production team. A big part of my role is facilitating the work of the team as a whole. We have hydrology and agrometeorology, we have some hydrological modelers, soil crop modeling, agronomy and economics.

We have a number of technicians working and running trials, taking samples and collecting data in the field, and we have technical staff in the labs working on plant and soil nutrient analysis, enabling us to track nutrients in all of these disciplines.

As a scientist, my role is to ask those fundamental questions that are relevant to Canadian farmers and to try to answer them in a science-based way. This could be through writing funding proposals, data analysis or working on reports or manuscripts.

In a project funded by Manitoba Crop Alliance (Manitoba Corn Growers Association prior to the amalgamation) and Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers, we looked at the utility of soil health indicators for yield and protein in corn, soybeans and canola. We are currently working on the analysis, but the tried-and-true indicators (spring soil nitrate tests, soil organic matter or phosphate tests) are still proving to be quite useful to differentiate between management systems and correlate relatively well with yield and protein.

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

It is pivotal. I heard from farmers that soil health was one of the priorities they felt they wanted to better understand, which has directed the focus of my work. Working with the commodity groups gives us confirmation that the questions we are asking and what we are trying to accomplish is beneficial for farmers.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

Soil health can provide a good foundation, literally and figuratively, for good crop performance. If a farmer is going to invest in soil testing, the work we are doing can help you pick which soil health indicators are relevant for your crop yield and protein.

An old adage that used to hang on a professor’s door at the University of Guelph said, “Soil test, don’t guess.” You can get a lot of information relatively easily with a soil test or two.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

Chasing after my two kids!

What gets you excited about work?

One thing I will mention is social media. I love reading all the posts about planting or harvest progress, current issues or other concerns relating to my work – from farmers and commodity groups to ag media. It’s not just about me trying to share what I’m doing, it’s very much about learning what else is going on in the industry and, indeed, trying to focus my work on what would be relevant for farmers. I have found it to be a beneficial tool.

What are you excited about for the future of agriculture?

Trying to provide updated and useful information farmers can base their decisions on. One new method we are working on is called soil spectroscopy. It’s infrared spectroscopy: you basically shine infrared light on soil and can get a lot of information about carbon, texture and salinity. We are trying to expand the number of properties we can predict with spectroscopy.

All our work is with the aim of trying to better our soil testing methods and regimes, and the information we provide to farmers. In a nutshell, that’s what gets me excited about the future – updating the fertility aspect of it, developing new indicators or understanding indicators that are out there, or trying to find new methods to do soil testing.

Follow @Steve_Crittende on X (formerly Twitter).

Aaron Beattie, Chair in Barley and Oat Breeding and Genetics, University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre

Follow @CDC_USask on Twitter.
Follow @CDC_USask on Twitter.

Aaron Beattie completed his undergraduate science degree at the University of Waterloo, his master’s in plant breeding at the University of Guelph and his PhD in plant pathology at the University of Saskatchewan. He grew up in Saskatchewan and currently lives in Saskatoon.

Where did you work before the Crop Development Centre (CDC)?

I worked at Southern Seed Technology, a winter nursery in New Zealand for about a year. This is the nursery we collaborate with and send our barley to in the winter. Prior to that, I was working in the dry bean breeding program at the University of Guelph.

What got you interested in this area of work?

My background from my undergrad was biology and genetics. When I finished my undergrad, I knew I liked genetics, but I wanted to do something that wasn’t pure research. That’s where plant breeding made sense because it leans heavily on genetics and various aspects of biology, but it has that applied piece as well. That helped me make my decision to go to the University of Guelph. My thesis was focused on plant breeding and I continued in that area afterwards in my work. I came back to Saskatchewan for school, and eventually landed my current job.

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the CDC.

The summer is busy between running tours for the barley and oat programs for farmers and funders, doing selections in the field and keeping my crew organized leading into harvest. Teaching is a big part of my winter, as well as evaluating data we collect from the fields in the summer and organizing our winter work, such as the quality and molecular data. I’ve got four graduate students working at the moment, and we have a lot of industry interactions.

In terms of research, one project we are working on, Phenotyping and Genomic selection for improved barley Deoxynivalenol (DON) resistance, is funded by Manitoba Crop Alliance, SaskBarley, Alberta Grains and Western Grains Research Foundation. This project deals with trying to get a better handle on fusarium resistance in barley, which the barley research community has made a lot of good progress towards over the past 20 years.

This project aims to develop genomic tools to help me select for better resistance. We’re working closely with James Tucker at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Brandon. We send him a few thousand lines every year and he evaluates them for DON and fusarium resistance. We are also genotyping these lines to create prediction models for fusarium resistance.

Eventually, we hope to develop a way to select for better DON resistance using genomic tools early on in our breeding program, and evaluate only those lines that we think have better resistance in the nursery as a means to confirm the better resistance.

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

The work we do as breeders spans fairly large periods of time. You’ve likely heard that it is an eight-to-10-year process to go from a cross to moving forward a variety. Funding from farmers is key to our program, as well as to other barley breeding programs in Western Canada because it allows us to make long-term plans. It allows us to test more, which means we have a higher probability of producing something better in the future.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

It allows farmers to have a voice in terms of what we do, which is critical. Hearing new ideas from farmers based on things they are seeing in the field is invaluable. We try to listen to the whole value chain, and farmers are at the start of that chain. They need to be engaged in the process because we want them to see value in our work and keep barley in their rotation.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I coach and play hockey.

What is the best part about your job?

I like the idea that what I do is practical to people. The idea that you can take research and translate it into something that has value to other people is rewarding. Also, it’s a very nice community to work in. There are a lot of very engaged and enthusiastic people in agriculture and a lot of innovation. People are willing to incorporate new ideas – I really like that about the industry.

What gets you most excited about your work?

Interacting with people across quite a wide range of disciplines; researchers all the way to the end users and farmers. Having that diversity of viewpoints is quite interesting, and then trying to figure out how to make it all come together into a variety. It’s fun to go through that process and interact along the way with people influencing your end goals.

Follow @CDC_USask on Twitter.

Dilantha Fernando, professor and dean of studies, University of Manitoba

Connect with Dilantha Fernando on LinkedIn.
Connect with Dilantha Fernando on LinkedIn.

Dilantha Fernando is a professor in the Department of Plant Science at the University of Manitoba (UM) and dean of studies at UM’s St. Paul’s College. Dilantha was born in Sri Lanka where he completed a bachelor of science in botany with a chemistry minor, as well as a master’s in microbiology. He then moved to the U.S. and completed his PhD in plant pathology at Oregon State University.

Fernando has been recognized with several prestigious awards for his work in research and teaching. He is an editor of six journals, including two where he is editor in chief. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife, who is also a researcher, and the two youngest of their three sons.

Where did you work before UM?

I have been very fortunate to have had work opportunities in many places. After completing my PhD, I held a postdoctoral position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, where I worked on rice diseases. Next, I was presented the opportunity to come to McGill University as a postdoctoral fellow, which brought me back to North America.

After McGill, I held postdoctoral positions with the University of Arizona, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Ottawa Research and Development Centre (where I first worked on fusarium head blight) and Michigan State University. I then accepted a full-time position with UM.

What got you interested in this area of work?

While doing a degree in botany, one must have that moment of realization: “This is what I want to do.” I was not going to be a top scientist looking at plants, I was more fascinated by what I could not see – the bacteria, the viruses, the fungi. My microbiology research was entirely on bacterial microbiology. I became fascinated with how a single cell of a bacterium can do so much – good or bad. That’s where it all started, with my background and fascination with microbiology.

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

I begin my days very early. I generally wake up around 5 a.m. to do any editing work and catch up on emails with a nice cup of Sri Lankan tea, before sending the kids off to school. In my office which is beside both of my labs, I spend time with my graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, working on research papers, developing new ideas and writing proposals and reports, before heading to St. Paul’s for the afternoon to do administrative work.

I teach two courses: plant disease management in the fall and the epidemiology of plant diseases in the winter. I also work with graduate and post-graduate students in the lab. This is one of the best parts of my job, mentoring students through research.

In research, I focus mostly on canola and cereal diseases. I have been working on Fusarium in wheat and barley, and training post docs in this area. The population structure of Fusarium pathogens of small grain cereals, their distribution and relationship to mycotoxins research is funded by Manitoba Crop Alliance, Western Grains Research Foundation, Alberta Wheat Commission, Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute, SaskBarley and Sask Wheat.

In this research we are looking at the western Canadian cline, or the way the pathogens are moving, and how that is impacting farmers. Our studies are also looking at how different chemotypes can impact the cereals.

Building on this opportunity, we have received thousands of isolates from different sources, including scientists in the east and in Ontario, enabling us to do several studies and make comparisons, which is very important. With these isolates, we are starting to see differences and to understand why a certain area might be getting less or more disease pressure. One of the key questions we are interested in is to understand why the 3A-DON chemotype is displacing the 15A-DON chemotype.

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

The funding farmers give to support any research is so important. If you have good ideas and you want to help the world, to execute those ideas you need funding. It enables us to train highly qualified personnel and to answer farmers’ key questions that can only be answered through doing the research.

In our lab, we as researchers have a moral obligation to provide applicable results back to farmers.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

The direct benefit a farmer would see in the type of research I do on Fusarium is increased yields and decreased loss of quality. Because of that, farmers will gain a lot of opportunity at the trade level.

Safeguarding their fields is another direct benefit, because if they know how to reduce the inoculum of any fungus, any pathogen, they are going to have a better opportunity the next season with less inoculum of the pathogen in their fields.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I have a very busy lifestyle. My biggest hobby seems to be family and keeping in touch with friends, which has been a pleasure, especially when I am travelling. When I travel overseas, I always have somebody to meet up with, and some of those friendships have continued for more than 40 years.

What are you excited about for the future of agriculture?

This is a discussion we have at home because we feel very proud to work in agriculture. There are industries that come and go or change, but everyone in the world has to eat. Our land is not going to grow, but the population is.

So, we have to find new techniques to improve production, with less diseases, higher yields and high quality. I think agriculture is going to be one of the most desired industries also from a work standpoint where there will be more opportunities for people trained in agriculture to find jobs.

Who or what inspires you?

I give the highest credit to my parents. Both my brother and I were interested in playing sports, but my parents told us, “If you want to play sports, you have to be really good to be someone in the sports world. If you have an education, you can go a long way.”

I loved doing science and up until my PhD I had never worked in agriculture, but that opened up a new area that got me excited.

Connect with Dilantha Fernando on LinkedIn.

Gurcharn Singh Brar, assistant professor, University of British Columbia

Follow @gurcharn_brar on Twitter!
Follow @gurcharn_brar on Twitter!

Gurcharn Singh Brar grew up in Punjab, India’s “breadbasket,” where he completed his B.Sc. in agriculture (honours in crop protection) at Punjab Agricultural University. In 2012, he moved to Canada’s breadbasket, Saskatchewan, and completed his M.Sc. and PhD in wheat genetics and breeding at the University of Saskatchewan.

Currently, he is an assistant professor of plant science in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, and lives in Surrey with his wife.

Where did you work before UBC?

I started my job at UBC in January 2020, and before that I was working at the Crop Development Centre (CDC) of the University of Saskatchewan where I did my M.Sc. and PhD. For a short time after I completed my PhD, I was working at the CDC as a research officer in wheat breeding and genetics.

What got you interested in this area of work?

I often say I am in a long-term relationship with wheat. I’ve been around wheat fields since I was a child – my dad grows wheat and rice on his farm. When I was in high school, I would visit the wheat fields and loved wheat as a plant. When I started my bachelor’s degree, I used to interact and look at wheat from a different perspective. In my third year, I saw stripe rust in our field and decided I would focus my work on wheat rusts.

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

My research program is split between wheat and barley. I work closely with public wheat and barley breeders in Western Canada. The major focus of my research on wheat and barley is breeding for disease resistance.

We focus on the five priority diseases, and in my program, we’ve established uniform disease screening nurseries, mainly for Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) and stripe rust, where wheat and barley breeders send us their material, we plant it and provide them with data. We also started working on bacterial leaf streak (BLS) of wheat.

For barley, my main focus is on FHB, net blotch, scald and stripe rust. Recently, we started working on BLS of barley, which is emerging as a new disease, especially in southern Alberta and Manitoba.

For wheat, pre-breeding is where we do a lot with genetics. The Mapping novel FHB and stripe rust resistance genes from Watkins landraces project – funded by Manitoba Crop Alliance, Alberta Wheat Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture – will feed into our pre-breeding research pipeline.

Our colleagues genotyped a panel of Watkins landraces (a few thousand lines) and shortlisted a core panel of about 300 lines. Of those 300 lines, which we screened with stripe rust and FHB, we have identified close to 12 which have a very high level of resistance to FHB and deoxynivalenol (vomitoxin) accumulation. Of these 12, there are two which are highly resistant to FHB and stripe rust.

We have two graduate students working on this project, aiming to identify the genes that are making these landraces resistant to both diseases, and we are very close to finishing this research. The goal is to develop breeder-friendly markers with the aim to transfer these resistant genes into elite CWRS wheat lines that breeders in Western Canada can use.

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

We can’t do the research if we don’t have the funding from producer groups. I really appreciate the funding and support from the deepest core of my heart. One thing I learned from my mentors and I keep in mind is to make sure my research goes back to help the farmers. If not in the short run, in the long run it should pay back.

I think the Prairie producer groups are doing a commendable job. For me, the biggest positive is although I am sitting on a UBC campus far from Manitoba, they understand my research has value, too. They don’t limit funding to the provincial boundaries, which I think is a very visionary approach.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

If we develop a variety, for example, that is a direct benefit to the farmer because it gives them another option. The other research we are doing, like genetics and pre-breeding, also has benefits. Suppose we identify novel genes for resistance to FHB from these Watkins Landraces. We transfer that resistance to some CWRS wheat lines and develop markers that we give to breeders. They can use that resistance in their future varieties.

When these varieties are released, if they have improved resistance over today’s varieties, there is potential to minimize and possibly eliminate fungicide reliance. Or, for example, in some years you have to spray twice, maybe we can limit it to one application. That will save money and a lot of effort. It will also improve the grade of the crop, and grade improvement means more money in pocket.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I am a workaholic. I really love my work, but I like to spend time with friends whenever I get the chance. I also like to read Punjabi literature – fiction, poetry, etc.

Who or what inspires you?

 My father is a big inspiration. He worked tirelessly in the field and I don’t think I can work as much as he did at my age, or even now. For wheat breeding, my PhD supervisor Pierre Hucl is my biggest inspiration. He is hardworking and very passionate about wheat – I think he is crazy for wheat, but in a good way!

Follow @gurcharn_brar on Twitter.

Derek Brewin, professor and head of the Department of Agribusiness and Agricultural Economics, University of Manitoba

Connect with Derek Brewin on LinkedIn.
Connect with Derek Brewin on LinkedIn.

Derek Brewin is professor and head of the Department of Agribusiness and Agricultural Economics at the University of Manitoba (U of M). He earned his B.Sc. at the University of Alberta, followed by an M.Sc. at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and PhD at Penn State University. Brewin has worked at U of M since 2003 and lives in Winnipeg, dangerously close to the best ice cream in the city. 

Where did you work before U of M?

I started this job after I finished my PhD, and before that I worked as a research associate at USask in the Strategic Development Fund. Prior to that I worked at the Canadian Wheat Board as a corporate advisor, a policy advisor for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and a lender for Farm Credit Canada (FCC). 

What got you interested in this area of work? 

There are so many opportunities in agriculture. Once I got the B.Sc., I kept getting wonderful offers. I was fortunate that FCC needed somebody like me when I came out of my program. Working and learning about how FCC forecasted prices led me to go back for my M.Sc. I thought I would return to work with FCC, but when I finished my degree there was an opportunity at the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) in transportation policy, and once I got into policy I’ve stayed interested. 

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at U of M.

I teach an agriculture marketing course where we evaluate the ag supply chain from the producer to the consumer. We know consumers are the main drivers, but ag supply chains are complex. To be able to work out the different steps in the beef, grain and oilseeds supply chain, or livestock supply chains, requires understanding of a lot of firms and agents.

When you’re thinking about the whole supply chain, the incentive to grow at the beginning, or the farmer’s bottom line, is a big part of why there is supply at all. This is something I’m always watching as part of my classes. I ask my students to think about what the price of canola is in Manitoba, for example, and how that factors into the price of the bottle of oil in a supermarket. Thinking about how those prices are all connected and how they cover the costs of processing to transporting helps us understand the market better. 

The Research to explore socio-economic impacts of disruptions on Agri-food supply chains and markets project, funded by Manitoba Crop Alliance, is about building capacity in this area, as there is growing demand for it. 

COVID-19 had a huge impact on food markets and in the food supply chains, there was a large shift from people eating out to buying retail and feeding themselves. That was definitely a big disruptor. The barriers put up during the protests of the grain supply chain at the beginning of 2020 also slowed down some grain transportation and led to backlogs in terms of movement. These are some of the areas we focus on for this research. Learning about current and historic disruptions, like the Great Canadian Grain Logistics Crisis of 2013-14, is what I teach to my students and what drives my research. 

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

Some of the evidence on public sector investment in agriculture shows that it pays off 40 to 1. I’ve done some research on innovation systems and I feel really good in terms of the economics of it. It can be a really slow process; sometimes it’s 40 years between when something is invented and when it has an impact on yield. I think, in the long run, farmers are going to be a lot better off for the research investments made through the check-offs. Economists need to keep checking that return on research as well as contribute in their own areas, especially in training new analysts. 

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers? 

For my work, we are looking backwards to learn. Learning more about these big interruptions through a few projects with Alankrita Goswami, we are collecting evidence from disruptions like BSE, COVID-19 and the transportation breakdowns in 2013-14. The more we understand these, we can work to determine whether or not current policy could help us get through a similar interruption. For us as economists, it’s a good thing to make sure the incentives have stayed in the right place to invest and monitor these systems in order to keep our supply chains functioning.

How do you spend your time outside of work? 

I enjoy reading about economics and international economics, as well as history and historical fiction; I really enjoy books by James Michener. I like playing old-timer hockey, curling and occasionally camping. Every year I go on a pretty serious canoe trip, a tradition that began back during my master’s.

How do you celebrate agriculture?

The first thing that came to mind was working the calves at fall. Some of our own work was tough sledding with just my dad, brother and I. But sometimes we would tackle the calves as a community with friends from the bigger ranches and we had calf weaning/branding events. It was a real celebration of the year’s calf crop and everybody getting together in a very traditional way, one they were doing 200 years ago and are still doing today. For me, that is a special event and a way to celebrate agriculture. 

Who or what inspires you?

I’ve met some leaders in the agriculture sector, some students included, who really inspire me – some who have received awards of merit from the faculty here. These leaders come in to be celebrated and receive these awards, and we get to hear their stories and all about their great careers. It’s nice to hear how people have changed the Manitoba sector, and it’s really inspiring for our students.

Connect with Derek Brewin on LinkedIn.