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Ken Coles will bring world knowledge to southern Alberta


Ken Coles is about to scour the world for the best way to fund and govern grassroots agriculture research focused on the people involved in farming. Thanks to Alberta Wheat Commission funding and his selection as 2022 Nuffield Scholar.

Ken Coles, Nuffield Scholar, holds up a tall hemp stalk at a public event.

For over a decade, Ken Coles, Farming Smarter Executive Director, piloted Farming Smarter through an increasingly complex and disjointed funding environment for agricultural research. It is the nature of funding sources to change programs every three to five years.

“Despite the fact we’ve made tremendous gains, I was beginning to see it could all fall apart,” says Coles. Encompassed in the changes are shifting funder priorities and values that remove support from existing structures engaged in supporting the farm community.

“I believe in what we’re doing,” Coles says. During a panel discussion with an international group called Agri Benchmark – a global, non-profit agricultural network, Coles realized that this is a global challenge.

There was a Nuffield Scholar on that panel who encouraged him to pursue a scholarship and there is a Nuffield Scholar on Farming Smarter’s Board of Directors too – Scott Holtman. Scott also encouraged Coles to apply. Coles remembered the enthusiasm of Nuffield Scholars for the journeys they experienced from ones that visited Farming Smarter.

“Maybe it’s a good time to look externally. In the end, making contacts around the world will be valuable in itself,” Coles says. He adds that he thinks a lot of passionate people working in non-profit agriculture research organizations find themselves pushed out as support for this type of work dries up. Public good agriculture research loses its people to private industry.

The journey

He starts his journey in Winnipeg in late November with an orientation for all the new scholars.

“It’s exciting.” He has two years to plan and execute his self-directed course of study. He wants to structure a protocol for himself with questions to ask, analysis to do and places to visit.

“I want to take a scientific approach to it because that’s the way I am,” he quips.

As planning progresses, he’s thinking about groups he knows exist in New Zealand and Australia. He’s also considering all the Canadian groups.

“There are groups in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I plan to use my network to figure out my best plan of attack,” Coles says. He adds that Nuffield has its own connections and he’s now part of that international family.

Ken strip tiller
Ken Coles, Nuffield Scholar, talks about the benefits of strip tillers at a public event.

His goal is to seek out exceptional research and extension agricultural organizations around the world that are clearly improving agricultural practices and outcomes in the regions they serve. He plans to study their operations, funding models, governance, quantifiable impacts, and client communications. He will explore where they get ideas and how they choose the ideas they pursue.

He’s particularly interested in how other organizations focus on their own long term viability. He talks about how there is a tendency in our society to go after the new and shiny. This leaves behind the study of less glamourous, but equally important work.

“We always have to sell something new. There’s no glamor in sticking to the core of what we do.” he says. “I want to learn how to cut through and work on what matters to farmers.”