Lacombe researcher receives prestigious agriculture award

Dr. Jim Helm and his team are credited for their international work

Lacombe resident Dr. Jim Helm has been awarded a prestigious international award.

Helm, former lead Alberta Agriculture and Forestry researcher at the Field Crop Development Centre (FCDC) in Lacombe, was awarded the American Society of Agronomy Distinguished Service Award for his work in the field for over 40 dedicated years.

Helm said he was to be presented with the award for food production this past November in Minneapolis, but through a change of plans, he was presented with it right here in Lacombe.

While the American Society of Agronomy is U.S. based, it is an international organization with members all across the globe.

So what is agronomy you may ask? Each day, people all around the world are affected by agronomy. From the food they eat, the coffee they drink, the gas in their vehicles to the fibres in clothing- all of these things are elements of agronomy and can be attributed to crop science.

“Agronomy is a form of crop science for the production of food and fiber, so even things like cotton can be considered as an agronomic crop,” explained Helm. “The main area that I worked in is cereal crops, which are primarily food crops like barley, wheat, corn and soy beans. The crop science side of it is more of the genetics, the pathology that affects them.”

Born and raised in Washington, U.S., Helm began his career as a master’s student mentoring under Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug and Dr. Orville Vogel.

“He got me started on this,” said Helm of Vogel. “In fact, the decision was made on a road trip to look at crops. We stopped at a little gas station that had a coffee shop in it. We went in and had coffee and Dr. Borlaug offered me a job as an assistant. Vogel said, ‘No, he’s going to do a PhD.’ I didn’t have any idea I was going to get a PhD.”

After a brief discussion, Helm decided he was going to go out on his own and completed a PhD.

“So that’s how it started. That’s who I worked with who helped me into the international scene,” he said.

Once Helm completed his PhD, there were no available jobs in the U.S. in his field, so he packed up his bags and moved first to Ontario and then to Alberta, settling in Lacombe in 1973.

“When I came here 42-43 years ago there was nothing,” he said describing the lack of a barley breeding research program in the area. “I brought everything with me. The moving van from Ontario to here was two-thirds filled with household effects of two kids, a wife, and me moving here, and one-third was genetic seed. That started this program. I built this program from scratch.”

So from the ground up, the FCDC was born and transformed into a world class cereal breeding facility.

The main headquarters sits along 50th St. in downtown Lacombe, a two-storey brick building that currently houses a large team of around 40 employees 10 scientists and over 30 staff working in pathology, biotechnology, quality and breeding labs.

“You cannot go to any Ag Canada station or any commercial research station or any university research that has a team that big,” said Helm. “That team is the biggest team in all of North America.”

With an an initial focus on feed barley, the FCDC programs have also expanded to include malt barley, spring and winter triticale and wheat.

“I designed a lot of that,” noted Helm. “I designed the farm, the research, etc.”

Where all of the fieldwork, the applied research so to speak, takes place is down the highway, just south of town along Hwy. 2A at the J. H. Helm Cereal Research Centre.

The FCDC is credited for the release of 42 cereal cultivars bred for conditions in Alberta and Western Canada, including 32 barley varieties, nine triticale varieties and one winter wheat variety.

“They all came out of the germ plasm that I brought over,” explained Helm. “I collaborated with the international centres in Mexico and Syria and then people all around the world.”

The centre has sent germ plasm all over the world with some of the varieties grow in Russia and Chile, just to name a few.

While the FCDC is mandated under the provincial government, it has received a resounding financial boost from the area and beyond to continue on the advanced research.

“It’s provincial, but I also brought in a lot of money from outside, from farmers, so over my years there probably $30 million was brought in,” he said.

The outside funding was used to fund staff and research at the FCDC.

Helm retired from the FCDC at the end of 2014.

His fellow researchers and former colleagues are quick to note the impact his research carries.

“He has an incredible impact on the agriculture industry in Canada (and internationally) and he has also been very active in the community,” said Erin Collier of the FCDC.

Nominator Dr. John Ryan, former soil scientist with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, agreed.

“Jim Helm is a household name among cereal breeders and scientists worldwide,” he said. “While this award is primarily a credit to Jim, it’s also a credit to his colleagues and the centre here in Lacombe.”

Helm agrees with Ryan, as he views this award in particular as a nod to the team at the FCDC and all of the good work they’ve completed.

“The team did some really important work here and that work has gone all over the world, but it has also put a lot of money in the pockets of producers here,” he said.