Tractors with harvesting equipment in a field

Ken Coles is looking for answers. Passionate about learning and innovating, Coles is searching the world for the best ways to conduct agriculture research for farmers, in a more immediate way.

Coles is executive director of Farming Smarter, an innovation hub in Lethbridge, AB, where he and his team take a living lab research approach to solve many problems farmers face. One of the big hurdles along the way is always obtaining and retaining consistent funding.

a group photo of Ken Coles, Martin Gosse De Gorre and his wife Helene standing next to a cliff on the beach Ken Coles (R), along with former exchange student Martin Gosse De Gorre and his wife Helene on Dieppe Beach in Normandy, France.

The industry has gone through a lot of major changes over the last few years including the dismantling of the research and extension component of Alberta Agriculture; the creation of Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR), a non-profit, Alberta-based ag research funding agency; and changing funding priorities and policy, says Coles.

“I kind of hit a point of frustration, to be honest with you,” he says. “It’s a bit of a roller coaster job. You have waves of success and waves of challenges. It felt like we had built something really great here (with Farming Smarter), but we were really hitting a lot of road blocks as far as getting funding, financial support, finding good partners and good governance.”

That frustration led Coles to apply to the Nuffield Canada Agricultural Scholarships program, an international initiative (with British roots) to advance agricultural knowledge around the world. “I thought maybe this scholarship is an opportunity to go around the world and see what’s happening, try to find other organizations, like us, who are farmer-focused,” says Coles, who was selected as one of six current Canadian Nuffield scholars and recently completed the first leg of his studies in the U.K. and France this spring.


a group of farmers inspecting a field This is a farmer group who work together to share innovative practices they try on their farms. They take turns touring each other’s farm.

The living lab concept is getting a lot of attention lately, and it’s something Coles says Farming Smarter has been practicing for some time. He defines it as an approach to research that’s grassroots driven, farmer-focused and aimed at solving practical farming issues in a collaborative way. It’s still science-based, but Coles says science is one tool of many in a living lab, which also considers cultural, economic and other production risk factors in a well-rounded approach to innovation. Essentially, it’s ag research conducted in a real-life farm conditions.

Coles sees this as responsive research; a way of getting improvements more quickly into farming practices. “Farmers are not interested in learning old news — that’s why the living lab approach is so much more powerful,” he says. “You have (farmers) involved, we share what we’ve learned in year one, and make changes if we need to. Iterative or adaptive research just isn’t supported. It’s not seen as science. But farmers care about what works on their farm.”

One example in Farming Smarter’s experience is a question they got from a farmer about spraying at night, since this was now possible with auto-steer tractors. Would it impact efficacy? A demo turned into a project and, because of the level of farmer interest, farmers started applying some of the initial findings before the project was even finished.

“The big take home from our work was the worst time to spray was first thing in the morning, when everyone loves to spray,” says Coles. “We saw a 20 per cent reduction in efficacy first thing in the morning. Night time spraying was middle of the road. The project showed we can worry less about time of day for spraying, and focus more on how long the plant has been under stress, from heat or cold.”


Changing the traditional research model isn’t easy and Coles’ research will tell him if Farming Smarter is on the right track, or if there are other ideas and approaches being used effectively in other parts of the world. Already in Europe, he has seen a wide variety of organizations and approaches.

“In my short study time so far, I’ve found no one really doing a slam-dunk job of it, says Coles. “Very few places are doing a good job of incorporating the living lab model.”

Martin Gosse De Gorre standing next to bales of flax fibre in a warehouse Coles’ former exchange student, Martin Gosse De Gorre, is part of a flax cooperative. Bales of processed flax fibre in this flax processing plant are ready to sell.

For instance, in Scotland, he found that field scale agricultural research and extension knowledge transfer are all the rage and getting the big investment. In Ireland, research is handled by Teagasc, the nation’s Agriculture and Food Development Authority, and distributed by a robust network of farm advisors, somewhat similar to the old provincial District Agriculturalist system.

While these governments have the benefit of large ag subsidies, or “schemes” as they are called there, Coles is discovering that all those resources don’t always guarantee success. When he visited farmers connected with the Nuffield program, he heard a research disconnect. “A lot of the farmers still didn’t see value in what the [research groups] were doing because it didn’t matter to them,” he says. “So that was an eyeopener to me.
If we want to move industry forward, we need to listen to the innovators, and have engagement with them, and be relevant. That’s what a living lab does.”

On the other hand, investing only in farmer-driven work can be lacking as well. Coles found a kindred spirit in the manager of Scotland’s Innovative Farmers, a membership network of farmers running their own on-farm trials. “Farmers loved it because it was research that mattered to them, but we saw and discussed opportunities to improve the scientific rigor of their field-scale research,” says Coles.


Ken Coles and Charles Lecournet standing in a field Ken Coles (L) with another former exchange student Charles Lecournet, who manages a large chicory farm. The field the two are standing in was just planted to sugar beets.

Coles enjoyed making connections with people overseas, from passionate researchers to innovative farmers, and was welcomed as “one of the family” by Nuffield scholars who gave him new perspectives on agriculture, including a woman from Holland who milks camels, and a crocodile farmer from Zimbabwe.

“We keep telling people one of the huge values we provide here at Farming Smarter is the “bridgerbroker” value. Most people don’t know what that means, but it’s just making connections.” Who you meet at the conference, the scientists you hear — it’s such an important part of what we’re doing,” says Coles. His next travels could take him to meet with similar groups in Iowa, as well as to Australia, New Zealand or Brazil. Already, he’s got other scholars coming to see Canadian agriculture.

It’s all helping him see his own organization in a new light. “I heard lots of ‘wish we had that here,’” says Coles of his European travels. “I heard it over and over again. In the end, this first phase of the trip has really reinvigorated my passion.

“My ultimate goal is how do I come back and help this organization and others in the province thrive. I think we are a solution. I’ve recognized how lucky we are to have these groups already established with grassroots connections and local support in communities, who are already doing living labs. So it’s really ignited a flame in me to continue our fight for appropriate support from the government.”

Walking the talk

Ken Coles runs a living lab on his own farm, originally owned by his grandparents. “One of the things I’ve tried on my own farm is sub-surface drip irrigation, and now I’ve branched off into willow farming. I like trying new things,” he says.

He connected with a reclamation company in Calgary that harvests wild willows for oilfield recovery and was looking for someone to grow them. So Coles set up a willow orchard, seeding 50,000 “sticks” last year. It wasn’t the best year to start, given the heat and drought conditions, but already Coles is learning and adapting.

“Where they did survive was in low areas and saline seep. So, ironically, I’ve turned the least productive part of my farm into the most valuable.”

He’s connected with a scientist in Saskatoon who uses willows for salinity management and entrapment areas for nutrient leaking. And on his Nuffield travels, Coles met a fellow scholar in Ireland who has a willow orchard to encourage conservation efforts. “Innovations happening on the farm have applications in other areas and are happening in other areas.”