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Kristen MacMillan with students in field

Kristen MacMillan with Diploma students in the soybean field agronomy course

A practical alliance

University and industry benefit from agronomist-in-residence

August 7, 2019 — 

Kristen MacMillan in fieldIt has been two and a half years since Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers (MPSG) and the University of Manitoba joined together to create the Agronomist-in-Residence program, an applied research position designed to help bridge the gap between classroom and farmers’ fields.

The goal: to hire a research agronomist focused on pulse and soybean production issues who would not only advance University’s research expertise, but also share that knowledge with industry and students. And since she joined the Department of Plant Science in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences in late 2016, Kristen MacMillan has not only checked off all those boxes, she has far surpassed the high expectations of this innovative program.

“The Agronomist-in-Residence program is completely unique – no other university in Canada, and possibly in North America, has taken this specific type of approach,” said Martin Scanlon, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences.

“Agronomic research represents a continuum from basic scientific exploration to the practical extension of best practices to farmers. Kristen has been a key fulcrum in the interplay between basic research and near market science. She has also contributed immensely to our experiential learning programs by providing hands-on opportunities and challenging our students to solve real-world problems.”

PROTEIN DEMAND BOOMING

The idea of a resident agronomist was conceived to help build applied research capacity, and today it is especially relevant with the escalating demand for protein in Canada and around the world. The Manitoba government has signaled its interest in growing this capacity through the Protein Advantage Strategy, a consultative plan aimed at facilitating growth and investment in protein production and processing, and the research and development which supports these sectors. One such investment is the $400 million pea protein processing facility under construction by food ingredient company Roquette at Portage la Prairie.

Daryl Domitruk is the Director of Research and Production for MPSG, which represents more than 4,000 farmers in Manitoba who grow soybeans and pulses, including edible beans, peas, faba beans, lentils and chickpeas. He says the MPSG’s collaboration with the University of Manitoba was partly driven by the need to add capacity in order to sustain the production of pulses and soybeans, which are so critical to a successful protein industry.

“MPSG members are very keen and determined to see their research dollars generating practical results,” he added. “Meeting growers’ near term needs is at the heart of the Agronomist-in-Residence program and, in fact, drives everything MPSG does. The other factor at play for MPSG was the relative scarcity in Manitoba of research capacity dedicated fully to pulses and soybeans. The existing research community was doing all they could for our crops, but their time quickly becomes fully committed across a wide range of crops.

For Kristen, coming to work at the University of Manitoba has meant coming full circle. She received her Diploma in Agriculture, B.Sc. (Agronomy) and M.Sc. (Cropping Systems) from UofM, and then in 2013 joined MPSG as their first production specialist where she advising farmers and agronomists on soybean and pulse production. Kristen also took on the role of director of research and production, and led the development of the organization’s first strategic R&P plan. She is also involved in crop and livestock production on the family farm near Marquette where she gains valuable insight and aims to practice her own advice. So when the Agronomist-in-Residence was created, she was the natural choice for the job.

CONNECTING RESEARCHERS WITH PRODUCERS

One of the principal requirements of Kristen’s position was to design a robust applied research program, engaging scientists, industry and farmers throughout the province and contribute to the development of best agronomic practices for growing soybeans, edible beans and field peas in Manitoba.

“Currently, some of the areas I’m exploring are seeding practices and seed quality in soybeans, nitrogen management in dry edible beans, designing new pulse intercrop systems and next year, I will be initiating new work on field peas.  Overall, I’m interested in studying agronomic practices and systems that address productivity, profitability and sustainability goals in our farming systems,” said Kristen.

Working with crop research centres and farmers, she has trial plots stretching from Melita and Dauphin, and from Carman to Portage and Arborg. Kristen, along with her team of research technicians and summer students, has conducted multi-year studies on varying management systems and environments. The results of her studies are integrated into award-winning fact sheets and visual guides, news articles and reports to assist farmers and agronomists in decision making. In addition to informing regional crop production practices, her work is also supporting policy and providing new data on western Canadian soybeans to the scientific community.

soybean field plots

And when she isn’t on campus or out in the field, she is at producer meetings and conferences, connecting with the people that utilize and inform her research program.

“One of the challenges in the general scientific community is the time gap between research and adoption,” said Kristen. “For agriculture in Manitoba, the network of outreach and extension is evolving to better connect research and those practicing in the field.”

For part of that network, Kristen has harnessed the power of social media (you can find her on Twitter at @kpmacmillanUM). She can instantly reach her 1500+ followers to share research results, post photos of field plots and plants, and encourage dialogue with farmers and crop advisors on real-time issues.

William Pallister is a Portage-area dry bean farmer who connected with Kristen at the winter bean meetings. He is also a Faculty alum, graduating with his Diploma in Agriculture in 2015 and his B.Sc. (Agribusiness) in 2017. William describes the Agromonist-in-Residence as “a resource that combines both practicality and research.”

“Kristen has been an excellent agronomist and researcher on behalf of bean growers. We are able to make decisions on our farm with greater confidence knowing that her research is behind us,” he said. “She has also been great for bumping ideas off of when we are trying out new things on the farm.”

LEARNING BY DOING

Kristen MacMillanWhile research and outreach are significant activities for Kristen, a third dimension of the Agronomist-in-Residence is as educator, understandable considering its setting at the University of Manitoba. She has guest-lectured in courses such as Crop Production Principles and Practices and Advanced Cropping Systems, where she provides case studies and real scenarios for students to analyze.

“Kristen has been a pioneer in our experiential learning program and is focused on learning outcomes. She can see the value in introducing students to applied research and extension,” said Michele Rogalsky, Director of the School of Agriculture. “Many of our students are farmers and farm managers, and she is preparing them for their own operations and for the future of the industry.”

Last summer Kristen designed and launched a Soybean Field Agronomy course for diploma students that helped develop critical thinking skills while practicing integrated crop management, one of the first experience-based curriculums offered in the Faculty.  Each student monitored a soybean field, developed crop scouting skills and applied their knowledge to make sound agronomic decisions. They also developed an understanding of the knowledge transfer process, a model she has coined “From Theory to Practice”, by touring her agronomy research plots at Carman and attending an industry field day.  The course is now in its second summer with eight students honing their analytical and communication skills.

FROM THEORY TO APPLICATION

In reflecting on her progress so far as the University’s first Agronomist-in-Residence, Kristen sees a common theme emerging: the demand for and appreciation of experience-based learning and practical application.

“In the classroom, I can see the enthusiasm when students connect theory to application. When speaking with farmers, they appreciate my approach as a scientist, agronomist and farmer and involving them in the process through conversation at extension meetings. When collaborating with research colleagues, we strike a balance with understanding fundamental mechanisms and their value in the field and how they might sometimes be different.”

As the program approaches the end of its third year, Kristen continues to break ground on new ways to help students, researchers and farmers explore the opportunities created by the heightened demand for protein sources.

“Pulse and soybean farmers are seeing the research results at the farm level and they can be proud to know that the reach of this program has been gone beyond that to the University and industry level, which will provide a cascading impact on how we approach discovery and application of agronomic research,” she said.

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