The World is My Potato

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Colby Robertson
Colby Robertson in the field with a spore trap, which is part of a network that monitors for blight spores. This helps potato growers make spray decisions for fungicides. Photo: Colby Robertson

Exuberant agronomist shines on federal youth ag council and with master’s research.

Many people are content to attend post-secondary school, find a job, settle in and push the ball forward in life. Well, do not count Colby Robertson as one of those people. The enthusiastic 26-year-old from Carberry, Man., is about as eager as they come.

The young man works as an agronomist with a southern Alberta potato processor near Lethbridge, Alta. Robertson enjoys his “dream job” as he meets with farmers, reviews seed size profiles on-farm, checks planters to ensure they run properly, monitors for uniform emergence and, post-harvest, collects bin and colour samples. For Robertson, he is gleefully headlong in the tuber industry.

“Agriculture is my culture, and this is what I want to be in for the rest of my life,” he says.

Although he was born and raised in area which is a hotbed of potatoes, he was not raised on a farm, yet still developed a passion for spuds.

“I thought if I was going to be involved in something that’s just not generally cereals or oilseeds, potatoes were unique in that way,” he explains. “There are many opportunities for specialization. The other side was that I also wanted to be connected to my hometown in some way, shape or form and this was a great fit.”

One key way Robertson has worked to ensure agriculture has remained at the forefront of his life was his recent decision to apply for a seat on the federal government’s Canadian Agricultural Youth Council.

“It was an opportunity to develop Canadian agriculture while also developing myself,” he says. “It seemed like a natural opportunity.”

Chances were slim as more than 800 people across Canada applied. However, it was clear Robertson’s passion and educational background were obvious factors which would make him stand out. However, after a prolonged period of silence, he resigned himself to the fact he was not chosen. He logged in once more just to see who was selected.

“I thought I had already missed the boat and I was surprised and excited when I received a notification I had been chosen,” he says.

Robertson says the newly formed council brims with innovative ideas from coast to coast.

“There have been a lot of ideas that have come to me from others — things I never would have thought of through different perspectives that have been shared and cultures that I would not have been exposed to as easily,” he explains. “The discussion has been really rich, and it has shown me activities within Canadian agriculture that I wasn’t aware were ongoing.”

To date, Robertson has been on two separate breakout teams to examine different issues within Canadian agriculture. From there, the smaller group reports back to the entire council where ideas are later shared with Marie-Claude Bibeau, the federal agriculture minister.

His schooling brings an in-depth, science-based perspective to the council. Fresh off a master’s degree examining different products and practices to manage potato early dying complex, his research focused on Verticillium dahliae, a soil-borne fungus which affects potatoes as well as a corresponding species of nematode that, if present, acts as an accomplice of the fungus. Overall, the fungus can cause extreme economic losses if unchecked and ranges in severity depending on field histories.

The graduate research conducted by Robertson was done under the watchful eye of Dmytro Yevtushenko, his thesis supervisor and the research chair in Potato Science at the University of Lethbridge. According to Yevtushenko, a person like Robertson is akin to winning the lottery multiple times as the young man is interested in agriculture, specifically potatoes, arrived with high grades and tremendous work ethic.

“This is a dream person,” says Yevtushenko. “I was very lucky to have Colby in my lab. We are interested in a young generation of scientists and he’s the guy.”

Yevtushenko explained how Robertson was so organized and diligent with time management that he finished his master’s within two years, something relatively rare in the world of scientific research.

And while Robertson was approached about doctoral level research, it was clear he is most excited about applying his skills and knowledge in the fields.

Robertson knows he has a bright future ahead and maintains location makes no difference, promising he will always be knee-deep in spuds. “The world is my potato,” he says with a laugh. “Wherever potatoes lead me, that’s where I want to be.”

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