WGRF Chair Making a big Impact on Prairie Agriculture

Linda Gorim knows there’s no substitute for firsthand experience. It’s an approach she brings to every aspect of her role as Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) Research Chair in Cropping Systems at the University of Alberta – from the new undergraduate courses she developed to the grassroots research she conducts.

(Linda Gorim seeding cover crops into canola and wheat)

The position was created to fill an agronomy gap at the university, and Gorim is nearly four years into the 10-year position. “I look at this position as being WGRF’s ears on the ground to address the need for high quality personnel for the industry, and find out what farmers are struggling with to guide my research projects.”

Job number one for Gorim was to develop new agronomy courses to boost content and knowledge at the university. She was given a blank slate and set about custom-designing innovative new courses that would help produce the next generation of agronomists.

“I am all about experiential learning,” says Gorim. “And what I saw was that students were learning agronomy in lectures, books and video, but graduating without experiencing agronomy.”

Both courses take unique approaches to teach, inspire and connect students throughout the agricultural industry. Gorim draws on experienced agronomists, farmers, industry experts and farmers organizations to build greater agronomy capacity.

The living classroom      

The first course she created is field-trip based. Students start a week before fall classes and hit the road to experience agronomy around the province. “I take all the textbook information and we learn it in the field,” says Gorim. They tour university test plots, meet with farmers and try their hand at identifying real-time cropping issues in the field, and all the variation that comes with real-life crop stresses.

The bulk of the semester is then spent on in-class agronomic principles of crop production. Gorim brings in agronomists, especially those with decades of experience, encouraging them to impart their knowledge to help educate the next generation of agronomists. “I also bring farmers into the class so students can learn by talking directly to them.”

Real world ag experience

The second course also involves a collaborative, work-term approach to open doors so students experience much more than agronomy as they prepare for a career in agriculture. “My goal with this course is to produce very focused and efficient agronomists,” says Gorim.

Students spend one week in class learning the range of skills needed to succeed in the workforce, and then spend a semester interning with agricultural companies that they’ve found a job with. For the in-class segment, Gorim collaborates with Syngenta and Corteva to teach transferrable skills, time management, work/life balance and management styles. “We want to give students the opportunity to practice all these skills to give them a healthy start when they enter the workforce,” she says.

It’s not just the students who are benefitting. Gorim has been recognized for her experiential approach with a faculty award for innovation and a teacher of the year award. The companies employing the students also stand to gain as they look for high quality students as potential employees.

Needs-based research

Like the courses she’s developed, Gorim takes a similar approach to her research that all stems from grassroots level needs and made stronger through industry collaboration.

 “All my research projects are based on a need I have heard directly from farmers – relevant issues that farmers and the industry are facing.”  Her research projects fall under two main categories – agronomic research and sustainable agriculture research.

Her agronomic research is screening canola lines for photosynthetic efficiency, and she’s also looking at how to integrate cover crops in canola and wheat cropping systems.

The sustainability research covers a gamut of grassroots issues. Assessing humalite deposits as potential crop biostimulants. Addressing the significant problem of low soil pH in Alberta using Lime. Studying lentil seeding rates and pea/canola intercropping options. And looking for new options for using compost on fields, with particular interest for malt barley growers.

Building strong connections

Even though her chair position started about the same time as the pandemic, Gorim saw the year of lockdown as a blessing, giving her time to connect with farmers, building connections and trust. She also used the opportunity to uncover a long list of ideas and issues. “What really drives me is finding solutions for producers and building trust,” says Gorim.

Along the route that brought Gorim to the University of Alberta – and her first stop in Canadian agriculture – a Saskatchewan researcher told her that if she wanted to have an impact then the Prairies was the place to be. In a few short years, those who are experiencing her approach can see her impact at work gauging by the interest and engagement that continues to grow for her courses and research projects.