10 Lessons I Learned from the CREATE-CSS Core Course 2020

10 Lessons I Learned from the CREATE-CSS Core Course 2020

Reflective Essay Assignment
By: Paige Kennedy, MSc Student at the University of Saskatchewan

CREATE-Climate Smart soils is an interdisciplinary program that works to address climate change through soil science training. In the face of a changing climate, concerns about sustainability in agriculture are more pressing than ever before. The CREATE core course effectively brought together this year’s cohort in an online platform to discuss and learn about climate smart soil practices, and the complexity of implementing them in agricultural systems. We had the opportunity to interact with our coordinators, each other, and plenty of guest speakers. I learned many new things over the course of the semester. Here, I sum up my take-aways from the core course in 10 simple lessons.

1) Gender and diversity concerns are a real thing

(yes, even today, and yes, even here!)

One of the focuses of the CREATE-CSS program is the role that gender and diversity play in agriculture and soil science research. I am in a unique position where my entire advisory committee is made up of female scientists of different ethnicities, and even the CREATE core course is run by female leaders. As a young woman in agriculture, I really appreciate being able to see myself represented in the workplace in this way. However, it would be naïve of me to ignore the limited diversity and the differences in work roles associated with gender and diversity in the agricultural industry, and in science in general.

Near the beginning of the course Claudia made an interesting point that really stuck with me. Claudia advised us to make a deliberate point of interacting with female farmers during farm tours. Oftentimes, men are the “boots on the ground,” while women are in the background. Although they may call themselves “farmer’s wives”, these women are actually farmers too. In family farming operations, the women tend to deal with the marketing and accounting side of things. They also tend to take on the role of mediator, or work to diffuse tension in conflict resolution or succession planning. These are no small feats, and women farmers should be recognized as such.

In research specifically, diversity only serves to benefit us. I learned that more diverse research teams tend to be able to explain their results more clearly to a wider audience and develop more holistic views. Our life experiences and perspectives are certainly influenced by our gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, etc. Combining these experiences through group work and open discussion is an effective way of breaking down barriers in inclusivity and diversity in science and agriculture. Embracing diversity is a step in the right direction when it comes to limiting the effects of the “echo chamber” often found in research. The overall take-away here is that diversity should not be ignored, but rather we should seek to understand the benefits and work towards a more inclusive environment. This brings me to my next point:

2) Soil is social

 As graduate students in the soil science field, it is expected that we all had some pre-existing interest in soil, agriculture, or the environment. However, I never realized prior to this class how very social soil is. We all use soil in some way or another, whether to produce our food, to perform ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, or for recreational purposes like gardening or playing sports. As such, we are all stakeholders in soil and we should all care to some degree, whether taking a soil science degree, farming, or living in the middle of a big city with limited access to the soil directly.

One of the lessons in the CREATE core course was on social analysis for research. We were encouraged to think about field history, disparities that exist in access to resources, and the social roles and relations that influence soil management. These factors combined can be used as a guide for us to improve our understanding of the social side of soil and soil research. We need to be asking questions like “how does limited access to resources impact a person’s soil management decisions?”, “how might different social perceptions amongst farmers impact their farming operations?”, “how can we implement these social factors into our research?”

Distribution of risks and rewards in relation to soil management is another aspect of the sociality of soil. Farmers tend to take the risks in agricultural soil management, and even within farming different farmers take on different levels of risk. However, in the end, the  benefits of good soil management extend way beyond the farm – positive externalities, as an economist might say. There has been a lot of contention recently surrounding carbon taxes, and I think this is just the freshest example out there. I certainly don’t know what the answers are to big questions like this, but this class really got me thinking about them in a way I hadn’t before. And I think that’s a great place to start.

3) Software takes some hardcore brain power

(and data, too…we need more of that)

 Prior to taking this course, my knowledge and understanding of environmental modeling was extremely limited. Learning about tools like HOLOs and the Cool Farm Tool opened my eyes to new possibilities when it comes to emissions projections. Unfortunately, I was unable to use HOLOs directly because of the lack of compatibility with my computer operating system. However, working with my group gave me at least some idea of the program. One of the most important things I learned about the modeling software was that data is a limiting factor when it comes to software development. Using HOLOs right off the start, it was easy to become frustrated at the lack of options. There were important (and sometimes what I would consider to be mainstream) climate-smart practices that I thought should be included that were simply not there. These included split-applied fertilizer and cover cropping, for example. However, we quickly learned that without sufficient research on how certain practices change emissions, it is extremely difficult for software developers to implement them into the programs. Although a lot of the climate-smart practices we looked at in the CREATE core course are not necessarily new, often their utilization to reduce emissions is new. Cover cropping is a good example of this: used mainly to reduce erosion, improve nutrient retention and soil health, the impact of cover crops on greenhouse gas emissions is still unclear. As such, it is important for scholars like me to keep this in mind when 1) trying to use the technology and 2) when doing our research. Agricultural modeling programs are a practical, applied way that our research can be put to use in the field. Another important thing I learned in this class pertaining to modelling? I’m thankful to be on the research side of things rather than the programming end!

4) Science isn’t always “a science”

(that would be too good to be true)

Science is not always “a science.” Farmers and researchers need to be adaptable to change. There is plenty of environmental variability to consider: differences in soil type, moisture, topography, weather, history of the land, pest pressures and crops grown, just to name a few. Things that you think should work sometimes just don’t because there are a lot of factors involved and the connections may not be clear on paper. As a science student, it is easy to lose myself in the research. I tend to look at the benefits and drawbacks of a solution through a data-minded approach. I find myself thinking “Why would someone not implement (some practice)?! The numbers speak for themselves!” However, in this class I was constantly reminded of the links to social and economic aspects of our work…the solutions are never so simple.

Perceptions of risk can be significant barrier to practice adoption, and this varies from person to person. Some farmers are naturally more risk-taking or risk-averse than others. Perception of risk impacts decision making. Another barrier to science being so simple relates back to lesson #2, wherein a lack of research can limit our ability to implement climate smart practices because of a lack of convincing conclusions. Most farmers do not want to be the first to implement a brand new idea – they would rather watch their neighbours work out some of the kinks first.

I find that the real tough lesson here is that, for a variety of reasons, some of these great climate smart ideas may not be viable, or at least not viable yet. As good as an idea may sound, and as much as the science backs it, barriers can include lack of resources, not enough access to labour, and maybe a lack of interest. One of the most common obstacles of implementing new and exciting science is the economic viability. That leads me to my next lesson:

5) There has to be a profit

(at the end of the day, we all need to eat)

At the end of the day, farms are businesses, and families who farm need to make a living year-to-year, and in the long-run. If climate smart soil practices are too expensive or risky to implement, they are less likely to be adopted. We are expecting a lot from farmers! They are expected to produce high yields of nutritious foods at fair prices, navigate markets, keep the public happy, adapt to new regulations, and be stewards for the environment. In few words, they have a lot of people to keep happy. While farmers can easily say that the environment is their priority, there is a lot of risk management involved.

In general, farmers who focus on the long-term vision of their operations tend to value the environment more highly compared to those that are more concerned with the short-term. In class, we discussed at length the idea of laggards. Laggards often present the “why fix it if it’s not broken?” attitude. My perception is that this is actually deep-rooted risk aversion. Encouraging laggards to think more in the long-term may stimulate changes in behaviour when it comes to implementing climate smart soil practices. If succession planning is not happening on a farm, I think encouraging long-term planning is even more difficult because there is limited motivation to leave things in good shape for the next generation.

However, some farms are genuinely struggling to stay afloat. In these cases, short-term profitability must take precedence over long-term, because for long-term goals to even be put in place, farms need to make a go of it in the here and now. It’s a fine balance.

6) People have different motivations to turn to CSS practices

(same same but different, you know?)

 A main take-away from this class is that people have different motivations for what they do. In terms of implementing climate smart soil practices, some motivations that people on the frontlines (i.e.: farmers) presented were: working for the longevity of their farm; a genuine interest in science; to increase profitability; for the love of a challenge; to satisfy policy requirements and recommendations; or to address concerns of the younger generations and the public. Clearly, we have a diverse target audience here when it comes to presenting climate smart soil practices. This is an important lesson as it enables us to direct our solutions at different groups and to address the concerns that matter most to them – it’s all in the presentation!

Many of our guest speakers had different target audiences and thus different methods of presentation. But the overarching goal is essentially the same: to improve climate smart soil practices and encourage adoption. For example, Anne Verhallen goes directly to the farm and chats with producers. Ailsa Kay encourages us to look deeper at the diversity and inclusion factors. The Cool Farm Tool & Robin Brown encourages farmers to look at their own operations and develop goals themselves. General Mills focuses more on the production side of things, so their target audience is different still. The list goes on but the point remains the same: everyone has something that makes them tick. Using this knowledge to our advantage can improve interest in climate smart practices and hopefully increase adoption rates over time.

7) Problems are multi-faceted, so solutions must be too

 The global issue of climate change is undeniably complex. In agriculture, these concerns are no less complex. As such, we need to take a systems approach to reducing the climate impact of agriculture and view agriculture on a holistic level. As a science student, I tend to focus on the environmental research and the hard facts. However, real sustainability also considers the issue of our changing climate through economic and social lenses too.

General Mills explained how the carbon footprint of the food system as a whole should be addressed at multiple levels: on-farm, of course; reducing energy used in the processing phase; and mitigating waste on the consumer end as well. Axten farms shared their opinion that combined approaches are the most accessible or efficient: they said that combining practices and ideas from organic and conventional frameworks can yield better results than just one or the other. This idea seemed to be shared by quite a few of our other guests, including Buis Beef. The Cool Farm tool showed us that many small changes on the farm can combine to have significant positive impact on reducing the environmental risks attributable to the farm. These are just a few examples of multi-faceted solutions to multi-faceted problems addressed in this course.

At the end of the day, I am still of the mind that using science-based approaches is the way to go. However, I am now better equipped to also pay attention to the financials and the impact on people. The take-away here is this: let’s not get too caught up in our own numbers and research that we forget the reason for our research. We want to improve soil management via soil science research, yes! But our real goal is to improve sustainability, and that is inherently multi-faceted.

8) My classmates are pretty cool!

As previously discussed, climate smart practices are complex. So what better way to work on solving them than bringing together a diverse, passionate, and interdisciplinary group of people who want to learn and come up with new ideas? In the CREATE core course, each of our backgrounds is unique, yet inherently limited. By working together, we can expand our knowledge and our impact.

The discussions in this course were incredibly interactive and offered so many different perspectives. Oftentimes things that my classmates brought up are things that I genuinely never would have thought of before. For example, I have limited background in economics but some of my classmates specialize in that discipline. Other classmates were well-versed in modelling systems, or genetics research, or emissions tracking, or offered personal viewpoints completely outside of agriculture. All of these were valuable throughout the course. In combining all of our ideas, we were more able to come up with comprehensive solutions to complex problems.

Working in our smaller groups over the course of the semester also gave the opportunity to further connect with some classmates. My group worked incredibly well together, sharing perspectives, expertise, and new ideas. This was a really valuable experience. And, as this industry is incredibly inter-connected, I happily anticipate running into some of my CREATE cohort later on in the workplace.

Overall, combining our unique perspectives in such an interactive atmosphere allowed us to cultivate a more dynamic understanding of the course content and enhanced the CREATE core course experience.

9) There are so many job opportunities…like SO many!

Looking towards the future, I’ve always known that my long-term vision does not involve me staying in academia. This class provided me with the opportunity to realize more potential careers and to start refining my interests. I think we, as environmentally engaged students, are in a fortunate position right now in terms of being jobseekers.

Since climate change is a concern that is increasingly at the forefront for most people and many organizations, there are countless jobs emerging in the industry. Additionally, I think there is a growing interest in soil specifically. We can see this through Netflix’s recent release of the documentary “Kiss the Ground” and as public demand for sustainably produced goods (not just organic!) is on the rise. As this trend continues, I expect jobs to continue to pop up. For example, BASF recently committed to targets for boosting sustainable agriculture and Cargill also recently committed to improving regenerative agriculture practices.

Thanks to the CREATE program, we are making ourselves more marketable and preparing for a career post-graduation. Through guest speakers, we have also been exposed to many jobs that I hadn’t necessarily thought about before. This was useful in identifying our interests and future aspirations. For example, Anne Verhallen’s job is something I could see myself enjoying, whereas I certainly could not see myself in Roland’s position – software is simply not my thing. Both of these realizations are valuable!

Long story short, I don’t think any of us will have trouble finding a job. We are educated, motivated, and likely to be highly employable. I am optimistic about the future and I can’t wait to see what sorts of interesting things my cohort achieves.

10) Planning for the future can start now

(and it can be fun)

Through this class, I have gained a clearer idea of what skills will be useful in the job market when I complete by MSc. This allows me to better tailor my short and long-term goals now, in preparation for a future in a career that I love. Due in part to experiences in this course, I have started working towards goals outlined in my individual development plan and made amendments throughout the semester.

This class also reiterated the importance of developing additional soft skills, aside from just the academics. Interpersonal and industry skills are equally as important, and things that we should be investing time into now. This can be done by using LinkedIn workshops, attending virtual events, and speaking to people currently in the industry. Reading job advertisements is another thing that I have found to be very helpful and would not have done otherwise. Two years of graduate school is going to fly by, so reading job ads now gives me a clear idea of what skills I need to work on acquiring now to be job-ready upon graduation.

The value of networking really came to light for me in this class too. Having the opportunity to interact with guest speakers improved my confidence in my ability to connect with people in the industry. Some of our guest speakers noted the importance of keeping in touch with former employers and maintaining professional relationships. These connections can offer great advice and help to expand your network. Some of our speakers even got their current positions through networking this way.

I have also realized that learning what jobs I am not interested is just as important as realizing ones that I may enjoy. For instance, I had planned on doing my MSc. in plant pathology for the longest time…right up until I took a course in plant pathology! If I had the insight back then to reach out to plant pathology students or those working in plant pathology, perhaps I would have realized sooner that my interests do not quite fit there.

While planning can and should start now, it is comforting to remember that it is rather common for people to change careers multiple times. I expect my priority areas of interest to shift overtime and changing my career goals is likely to happen as well. However, working on developing those soft skills now will serve me well regardless of the career(s) I pursue.

The CREATE-CSS core course provided numerous opportunities to expand our knowledge and understanding of climate-smart agricultural practices. Of all my courses, this one makes the clearest connections between academia and the job market. I appreciate the different perspectives of the guest speakers over the course of the semester. I feel that this diversity contributed greatly to keeping the learning environment interactive and exciting, and to teaching me these 10 invaluable lessons. From appreciating inclusion and diversity, to improving our networking skills, the CREATE core course was a comprehensive introduction to all things climate smart research.

1 comment on “10 Lessons I Learned from the CREATE-CSS Core Course 2020

  1. What an excellent reflection based on your participation in the CREATE core course. Thank you for sharing and good luck going forward!

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