Retiring Colorado State University research professor advocates for plants, producers
December 24, 2016
Retiring this month after 33 years working to assist the productivity and livelihood of farmers and ranchers, crop scientist and Calvin Pearson was asked to suggest three key articles from his years of work that he encourages The Fence Post readers to review. The topics include: “Guidelines for Using Conservation Tillage Under Furrow Irrigation,” “A Diversity of Agronomic Research in Western Colorado, 1949-2016” and “Intermountain Grass and Legume Forage Production Manual, Second Edition.” The articles can be found under Pearson’s photo on the Colorado State website.
Noted crop scientist Professor Calvin Pearson, who spent the past 33 years working to improve the productivity and livelihood of farmers and ranchers through research in western Colorado, believes that crop failures are just as important as successes.
"My job is to make the mistakes at the research center and not on their farms. So if we can figure out what works and doesn't work, if we can spin off the good technology to the farmers, they are not making as many mistakes on their farms," Pearson said.
The Colorado State University professor with a Ph.D. from Oregon State University has toiled in his field of agronomy and outside in the fields at the 80-acre Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station in Fruita for more than three decades. His patient research has focused on crops that command a lot of acreage and thus significant financial investment for farmers.
"We have to do the research so we can tell them the direction they should or shouldn't go. It may prevent a farmer or an industry from making a big mistake," Pearson said. "We have evaluated some products that maybe in the Midwest they work, but applying them here in salty, high pH soils these products just don't work."
Although Pearson will continue work as a consultant, he officially retired earlier this month. Some 120 colleagues, ranchers, farmers, friends and family attended his buffet bash and send-off party. Farmers such as Troy Waters of Fruita said they will miss Pearson, who has always been an approachable, friendly, hardworking, hands-on and knowledgeable resource.
"We really are going to miss his expertise, somebody to go talk to and bounce ideas off of; his door was always open," Waters said.
The longtime Fruita farmer, who primarily produces alfalfa seed, said Pearson and the research center provide strong support and information for issues ranging from weed and insect control to more efficient tillage techniques. Positive results on his farm include better production, healthier soils and fuel savings.
"In the past, he (Pearson) planted plots for different varieties of wheat, and we've used that data for what varieties grow in our area," Waters said.
ADVOCATE FOR AG
Farmers and colleagues call Pearson a dedicated advocate. Mark Brick, soil and crop sciences department chair at CSU in Fort Collins, has known his colleague since Pearson arrived at CSU for a three-day interview process in 1983.
"Calvin is just a rock-solid guy who does what he says he's going to do and doesn't make promises he can't keep. He really genuinely cares for agriculture and the local growers. He's really a genuine person and great scientist," Brick said. "Calvin has the ability to understand farmers' needs and problems in order to solve real-world problems to help them become more efficient and economically viable."
Both Brick and Pearson believe the strongest scientific accomplishment from Pearson's work at the research center was the grant-funded development of transgenic, or genetically engineered, sunflowers that could someday lead to a domestic source of natural rubber from sunflower leaves. Rubber is used in thousands of products and millions of tires in the U.S. but is an imported commodity.
"The work that Calvin did laid a lot of the groundwork for future studies that will be successful," Brick said.
"My experiments go for years," Pearson explained. "You gotta start somewhere, and the sooner you start the better. Some of this is going take several decades for it all to come together."
Pearson's life work has taken him across the world for short stints in Afghanistan, Mexico and Bolivia, and he has produced hundreds of conference talks, industry and technical reports, and popular articles. Yet much of the work has centered on western Colorado and farmers' lands in such towns as Delta, Montrose, Meeker and Hayden.
INNOVATE OR STAGNATE
Pearson's efforts produced additional revenue streams for Colorado farmers and helped form start-up companies. For example, western Colorado farmers are growing alfalfa seed successfully that is shipped to Idaho for processing, bagging and sales across America.
"Our farmers are in business, and my job is to keep them in business and keep them profitable," said Pearson, who served on the editorial board for the peer-reviewed international Agronomy Journal for many years. "If you don't adopt new techniques, you will eventually go out of business or you will be in a museum. The saying is 'innovate or stagnate.'"
As a fellow of the American Society of Agronomy, Pearson's research program focuses on topics related to sustainable crop production and soil management systems on furrow-irrigated cropland in the arid west with traditional cultivated crops as well as new and alternative crops. His study topics range from biomass plants for biofuel, to advanced lines of perennial pasture grasses, to malting barley for Coors beer. He develops plant varieties with higher yield and better lodging resistance, or a stronger upright growth habit so that the plants mature properly, are easier to harvest and don't fall over and develop disease.
Pearson grew up in Idaho as the son of a successful farmer.
"I enjoyed the plants more than the animals. I just loved watching the plants grow and seeing the harvest," he said. "It was sustainable, renewable and powerful."
Even a well-respected scientist has to explain his work much of the time. When he visits middle school classrooms and says he is a research agronomist, the students often ask, "What star do you like?" His goals are to teach students about the fulfilling job of being a scientist, the importance of research and "that our food just doesn't magically show up in the grocery store."
"Agriculture is highly technical and highly scientific, and it takes a lot of skills to grow and produce our food," Pearson said. "There are times in your lives when you need a doctor, lawyer, dentist and clergy, but every day three times a day you need a farmer." ❖