Dale Cowan. A go-to person for Agriculture

Sharing over 40 years of knowledge with the next generation.

By Emily Croft

In a career of more than 40 years and counting, Dale Cowan has cultivated a reputation for his mentorship skills, an affinity for the newest technologies, and extensive agronomy knowledge. His lifelong contributions to farming will see Dale inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame on June 11.

Laura Shantz, executive director at the Ontario Certified Crop Advisor Association, says that Dale’s wisdom and long-time involvement in the industry made him a standout candidate nominated by the association.

“If you ask any certified crop advisor, it’s likely they know Dale because of his incredible mentorship skills. He has mentored a lot of the younger CCAs,” says Shantz.

Dale is currently the agronomy strategy manager and senior agronomist at AGRIS Co-operative in Chatham, where he has worked since 2008.

“We are moving to digital technologies from analog pretty fast. I spend a lot of time on training and support with moving to digital systems,” says Dale.

Dale Cowan
    Mariah Kaak photo

“The coaching aspect of my job is always variable and never the same. But the mission is the same – moving into digital and building retail for the next 100 years.”

While Dale still mentors farmers and colleagues in his day-to-day job, his career in agriculture started at a young age.

Getting the ‘ag bug’

Dale grew up on a small farm of about 25 acres in Essex County. As a young man he worked on his family’s own farm, along with neighbouring farms.

“To keep us out of trouble, Dad decided to get five Jersey cows to milk by hand. The neighbour across the road had horses. I drove a team of horses picking up wheat and got one of my first experiences with ag,” Dale explains.

“We also had a tractor and flat rack and so I hauled hay for neighbours in the summer. I started driving tractors when I was five years old.”

Dale says these early experiences are when he began to “catch the bug for agriculture.”

He went on to study at University of Guelph. After two years, Dale graduated in 1975 with a diploma in agri-business. He then continued to complete a degree in crop science, graduating at Christmas of 1978.

“I decided I wasn’t ready for the workforce. I still wanted to learn,” says Dale.

After graduation, Dale secured his first job as a dealer sales representative in Huron County for Masterfeeds.

He started in late fall, and by spring of the following year Masterfeeds began to take on crop protection and fertilizer management.

“Custom application was just starting. A brand-new three-wheel TerraGator showed up and I was the only guy with tractor experience.

“That’s when I got the bug for agronomy. I still liked livestock, but the crops side appealed to me a bit more.”

Getting involved

Not long after his introduction to agronomy, Dale met a business partner and started a small fertilizer company, which led into a joint venture with a larger fertilizer operation after two years.

“After that, I left that company to work with a consulting company for few years. That led me to meeting one of my first mentors, Denton Hoffman, manager of the Elgin Co-op at the time. He was one of three important mentors in my career (along with Tom Sawyer and brother Tom Cowan),” says Dale.

“He realized I had a knack for taking complicated things and making them sound easy. He introduced me to a head-hunting service in Toronto that was looking for a lab manager for Agri-Foods Laboratories in Guelph.”

Dale Cowan working in an office in 1991
    Dale as a lab owner and manager in 1991. -Cowan Family photo

At the time the lab was privately owned. Soil sampling had traditionally been analysed at University of Guelph with funding from OMAFRA, allowing farmers access to free soil sampling before the service was given up to the open market.

“Any company that wanted to do it could apply for OMAFRA accreditation, but soil sampling was no longer free, and farmers were anxious about having to pay,” Dale explains.

“I spent 1988 going around – I called on every feed mill, fertilizer outlet, and greenhouse – to see if I could get people to continue using the lab and to pay for services.”

When the owners decided that the transition wasn’t occurring fast enough and it was determined that the lab would be for sale, Dale jumped in.

“When they said things weren’t transitioning fast enough and they wanted to sell it, I said, ‘Good I want to buy it!’ and I purchased it in 1990.

“I increased business by 600 per cent in five years. It was quite successful when it transitioned to new owners in 2006. Even though I sold it, all the people I hired are still there and now retiring from company. I feel pretty good about that.”

Dale says that looking after his employees was a priority when selling the lab.

“I could’ve sold it for more money, but since I had the opportunity to move on, I didn’t want all my employees to lose their jobs. So, I sold it to someone local to keep it going.”

Dale was also very involved in the introduction of Certified Crop Advisors to Ontario in 1996.

“I was one of the first 25 or 30 people to write the exam and become certified, and shortly after that I joined the board. The program has now grown to include over 500 CCAs.”

This became extremely important to extension and the continued development of the agriculture industry during the late ’90s.

“In 1996, county-level extension was wrapping up. We agreed, in principle, that OMAFRA researchers would continue acknowledging tech transfer programs and that CCAs would do that at the farm level. That’s been a nice legacy to have been part of.”

Dale checking stand counts in field
    Dale checking stand counts on winter wheat. -Mariah Kaak photo

Dale’s involvement in the Ontario CCA Association and technology transfer efforts saw him receive the Ontario CCA Award of Excellence in 2015. He then went on the win the International CCA of the Year in 2016. Dale is one of two Canadian residents, and the only Ontario advisor, to ever receive this award.

During his involvement in many ventures and committees, Dale has maintained the goal of improving the agriculture industry.

“You try to help your industry and look for the greater good. I think if you do things that are good for the industry, they’ll be good for you.”

Shantz explains that between his involvement in the betterment of the industry and his current work in applying new technologies, Dale has become well-known across the ag industry.

“Everyone seems to know Dale. He really is the go-to person when it comes to anything agriculture related,” says Shantz.

Lessons & looking forward

With over 40 years of involvement in agriculture, Dale has seen many changes and has learned a few lessons.

“I’ve had a few key mentors. My brother Tom taught me to make sure your business runs without you. Make sure you empower your managers and staff.”

A second mentor for Dale was Tom Sawyer, who was inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2016.

“He was a stickler for quality. He taught me to always do your best, every time, the first time. Those comments still roll around in my head today – grow your people and do quality work.”

This advice has held true even as the industry has changed. During Dale’s career, technology has become a prominent aspect of farming and he doesn’t expect that trend will stop any time soon.

“The corn plant still grows the same way, but technology has changed so much,” says Dale.

“I would say hands-down that it’s technology on-farm that has been the biggest driver of change. It’s been gratifying to be part of that and help farmers on the way.”

One of the biggest changes to the industry has been the way knowledge is generated and shared. With an increased use of data collection, internet platforms, and technology, farmers may rely less on their local community for new information.

“There are always things that you don’t know, but there’s so much information now that you just have to ask and it’s there,” Dale explains.

“Being online has its own share of issues – not everything is truthful – but it’s been great. The local coffee shop is not where you trade info anymore – the new coffee shop is Facebook and Twitter. It truly is an international reach now.”

As knowledge is generated and shared at a rapid rate, Dale believes that the industry will have to update training methods to ensure that new professionals can learn all the information held by their predecessors.

“I see a cohort of my age group that will likely retire in the next five years. That means there’s 40 years of knowledge that I’d like to transfer to next generation, but it might take 40 years to do that.”

He predicts an increase in technologies that provide an immersive learning experience, such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence programs, that will allow the trainee to virtually perform all aspects of the job.

“We tend to teach people about things, more than the process. I can teach you how to use an app, but you also have to know how to talk to the farmer.

“We need to figure out how to pass on that acquired knowledge.

“I’m really hopeful for AI and VR technology. The most exciting part of training education is yet to come, in my mind.”

Shantz says that Dale is known for being adventurous with new technologies.

“He’s always trying to explore new and upcoming things,” says Shantz.

Dale talking on phone in field
    “I don’t know how anyone could be bored in agriculture –it’s a pretty exciting industry,” Dale says. -Mariah Kaak photo

“He likes to bring the newest technology to the field. It might be something that people are nervous to get involved in, but Dale doesn’t shy away from that. He likes to push the limits and try new ventures.”

Dale also supports the training of the next generation by sharing his wisdom and experience in his popular ‘Yield Matters’ column in Better Farming – a department he’s written for every edition since this magazine was founded in 1999.

“I’m a stickler that yields do matter.

“When I say we need high yields, people might think piling fertilizer around a corn plant.

“I like talking about production – what we can do better – and challenge people about what they are doing.

“There’s so much to write about. I don’t know how anyone could be bored in agriculture – it’s a pretty exciting industry.” BF

Post new comment

1 + 3 =