O.M. McConkey was a pioneer conservationist

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Every year I manage to find a couple of cartons of useful books at the Elora Festival Book Sale, but one volume always stands out as a particularly satisfying purchase.

This year it was a copy of Conservation in Canada, by O.M. McConkey.

Dr. McConkey was a well known figure in the Elora area in the 1950s and 1960s. Not everyone realized that he was known internationally for his research and advocacy in the field of conservation. His book, which appeared in 1952, was the first book published in Canada on the subject of conservation.

Oswald McConkey was born into a farming family in Bruce County in 1892. Despite his achievements, he always considered himself a farmer. He abhorred pretence and phoniness, and he dedicated his efforts at universities to making farming more efficient and more in harmony with nature.

When he was a boy McConkey’s family moved to Alberta, but he returned to Ontario to attend high school. In 1911 he enrolled at the Ontario Agricultural College, but dropped out after one year due to boredom. He decided to homestead in southern Alberta.

McConkey’s farm was in what was then known as the dry farming area of Alberta, a region of scant rainfall. He quickly realized that traditional agricultural methods would not work well there, and after a couple of years he decided to complete his agricultural education. He graduated in 1917. His senior thesis, entitled “Dry Farming and Some Experiments in Cultivation,” tapped his own personal experiences in Alberta.

The thesis attracted wide attention, because it was an early study in moisture and soil conservation. It was also a boost to disk harrow manufacturers, particularly the T.E. Bissell Company of Elora. McConkey advocated disking rather than plowing in low rainfall areas.

Following graduation, McConkey enlisted in the artillery. At the end of the World War I, he stayed in England for a year, studying at Oxford University. He then took a position as a staff agronomist at an agricultural school in Alberta.

He soon realized he had to learn more to deal with the problems he encountered. McConkey went to the University of Illinois for graduate work, graduating in 1922. By this time his interests had focused on grasses and grains that would thrive in low moisture areas. He continued his research in the Field Husbandry Department (now Crop Science) at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph. During the 1920s he developed programs for grassland improvement and forage crops.

McConkey’s name soon became recognized in his field. He was awarded a scholarship in 1928 to Cambridge University in England for doctoral research. His work there, in genetics and plant physiology, provided him with the theoretical background for his future developments.

Dr. McConkey returned to the O.A.C. between 1930 and 1940, but spent as much time as possible travelling in Europe and Asia, studying conservation and cropping methods and picking up plant material useful in the development of new varieties.

In 1940 Dr. McConkey enlisted in the artillery, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Following World War II, he joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association and the Food and Agriculture Organization, working primarily in pre-revolutionary China. He acted as the advisor to the Chinese government in developing crop improvement and soil conservation programs.

Returning to the O.A.C. in 1948, Dr. McConkey continued his work in developing new varieties of grasses and clovers. As well, he continued his travels, studying and advising on conservation problems around the world. He retired as department head in 1957.

Dr. McConkey’s book, published in 1952 near the end of his active career, was addressed to a general audience. In some respects it seems quaint by contemporary standards. He placed agriculture unapologetically in the centre, and considered urban pollution problems only briefly. McConkey argued that sewage waste and garbage should be processed for use as fertilizers.

Like most people in agricultural research at the time, McConkey feared that a rapidly rising world population, coupled with finite resources, would soon produce widespread starvation. The focus of his conservation efforts, therefore, was to improve the productivity of agriculture while at the same time enhancing the environment.

Some of Dr. McConkey’s theories have been superseded as a result of continuing research. For example, he advocated massive flood control dams to control erosion and conserve water. We now realize that there are better, cheaper, and more subtle ways to achieve these objectives. On the other hand, some of his points stand up well.

An outspoken advocate of tree planting, he thought that 20% of the land should be woodlands and windbreaks. He was also a friend of wetlands, writing that “Mistakes have been made in the past by draining swamp areas, and we are learning that in many instances it may in the long run be most desirable not to disturb them at all.”

Millions of people worldwide have food to eat as a result of O.M. McConkey’s work in developing new varieties of grains, grasses and clovers. His conservation efforts have saved countless acres of agricultural land from water and soil erosion. As a teacher, writer and lecturer, he influenced the thinking of thousands of people, and inspired many to take up the cause of conservation.

After he retired, Dr. McConkey lived on his farm near Ponsonby, growing registered seed grains. He never lost his earthy manner that he acquired as a farm boy, and he considered himself above all a farmer. Always something of an eccentric, he was often seen in mid-winter wearing a kilt on his roadside strolls.

In retirement he continued to advocate conservation methods, pressuring governments to set up new programs and policies. In his later years he received many honours and awards.

Dr. O.M. McConkey died on July 6, 1970. We were fortunate to have a man of his stature in the community, and I am happy to have a copy of the book written by a man I wish I had taken the time to know better.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on May 24, 1995.

Thorning Revisited