Feature Articles

Remembering a soil champion

February 10, 2008:

Dr. Donald Rennie's research helped spur the no-till revolution in the West

The soil conservation community lost one of its most avid supporters with the death of Dr. Donald Rennie at the age of 85. The former dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan spent his career, and even into retirement, teaching Prairie farmers about the importance of maintaining healthy soil.

SCCC executive director Doug McKell was first struck by Dr. Rennie's dedication to conserving soil resources when he first met him as a student at the University of Saskatchewan in the mid 1970s.

"I had the chance to sit with Dr. Rennie at the SCCC March 2007 annual meeting of Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) when we inducted him into the SCCC Soil Conservation Hall of Fame," says McKell. "He was still as passionate as ever and requested to sit in on our board meeting to see what was going on in the industry today. His mind was sharp and we enjoyed hearing him talk about his experiences and theories. His legacy will live on for a long time."

A look back

Dr. Rennie said that one of his earliest memories dates back to the 1930s to his family farm near Gull Lake. When the winds would pick up, he and his brother would place damp cloths on the windows of their family farmhouse in order to keep the black clouds of soil from blowing into the house.

"It's funny the things that stick in your mind," said Rennie, "But seeing that fertile soil blackening the sky and dirtying those towels were what really made me think from a young age that there had to be a solution to keep that earth on the ground where it belongs and where it can do its job."

From his appointment to the Soil Science department of the University of Saskatchewan in 1952, Dr. Rennie made a career spreading the soil conservation message. He told the story of how summerfallowing, the practice that helped settle the West and made cropping possible in the early twentieth century, was actually destroying the cropland. He'd follow up with the recommendation to leave stubble on the ground in order to improve farming for the long term. Eventually, people listened.

Early research

Rennie's first soil research began with his PhD thesis in Wisconsin, studying soil structure. That led to more research on soil quality and he says his colleagues quickly realized that the solution to erosion then is the same as it is today – to leave the residue on the land. However, in those days, he said, they didn't have the proof and as a result nobody listened.

"We tried to send the message that you should leave the field white, not black because you were destroying the soils," he said. "But people would laugh at the trial plots and say they were examples of bad farming. We needed more science to back up our claims. Even some of my colleagues said I was spreading misinformation."

He said that by the early '70s they had the evidence to prove that summerfallow and tillage were the wind erosion culprits. The turning point came for him in 1973 at a meeting of professional agrologists in Saskatoon.

"I was the first to give my speech laying out the evidence against conventional farming. After thirty minutes the packed room was totally silent, and then there were cheers. I was able to make my case in a way that they couldn't argue against. We had excellent press coverage and the shift in tillage practices started literally overnight."

Championing for continued change

Tillage practices did, indeed, change dramatically. The Prairies went from 20 million acres of summerfallow in the early '70s, to only seven million acres 10 years later.

Dr. Rennie retired from his position as Dean of the College of Agriculture in 1989. He also served for two years as Head of the Soils, Irrigation and Crop Production Section of the Joint FAO-IAEA Division in Vienna, Austria.

Throughout the years Dr. Rennie continued to earn the respect of his peers in Canada and internationally. He received countless accolades including the Order of Canada. Even almost 20 years after his retirement he remained a champion for soil conservation.