A Conversation with an Environmental Engineer: Dyan McGrath
The first-born daughter to Loren and Joanne Pratt of Pratt Farms of Maricopa, Arizona, Dyan McGrath obtained a Bachelor and Master of Science in Agricultural Engineering and a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering. A wildcat at heart since she got her undergraduate there, McGrath may have transplanted herself in Canada but she’s going to always be one of our own.
Her professional path led her to Saskatchewan, Canada where she works as an environmental engineering consultant by day, an adjunct professor by night, and a mom and farmer the rest of the time. She and her husband are raising their daughter on their 4th generation family farm in West-central Saskatchewan.
McGrath’s Dad, Loren Pratt, raised her to be able to accomplish any task and rely on no-one (particularly a man), and in doing so she woo-ed her then future husband by hopping on his combine and thrashing wheat all day, by herself, on her first visit to his farm.
“It takes a great deal of teamwork to keep all our gears turning and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” says McGrath.
A friend and fan of the Pratt family all my life, I connected with Dyan via Facebook Messenger after seeing her daughter and her in a combine. It struck me how accomplished this young woman is and it was time to remind her not to forget her Arizona roots. I was also truly curious about what she’s doing with her Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering.
I asked McGrath how she’d respond to other moms who fear Glyphosate. “I would respond with, do your children photosynthesize? Because the only way glyphosate would make them sick was if they had that metabolic pathway, which we do not. I really believe kids are sick nowadays because of the lack of exposure to the outdoors and letting them eat dirt. Many adults now are overprotective helicopter parents striving to give their kids a better life than they had (in reality, they already had it good), but in this mentality, we are doing more harm than good. I like to tell people that if Round-up had a better flavor, I'd sprinkle it on my French fries since all it really is, is salt.”
Dr. McGrath comes from good stock; I think she can handle just about anything. Somehow, I think her mom and dad let her eat a little dirt, I certainly know she had to shovel it!
Arizona Agriculture: What exactly does an environmental engineer do, including an explanation of your Ph.D. thesis? What inspired this young farm girl from Maricopa, Arizona to pursue this degree?
McGrath: The field of environmental engineering is extremely broad! In a nutshell, we are tasked with providing solutions that make the world a cleaner, safer place for all, whether that be on land, water or in the air. My career specifically has focused on land and water. As a farm kid from Arizona, the importance of water resources and conservation practices leading to the efficient use and protection from pollution is paramount for sustaining usable water for generations to come. As a youngster, I attended the University of Arizona (Go CATS!) and obtained a B.Sc. degree in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering. But school didn’t stop there, I was recruited to the University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, SK, Canada) for a Master of Science program followed by a Ph.D.
Throughout those programs, I studied the environmental implications of a disease outbreak in our livestock sector and what the likely disposal method (mass burial) would do to our soil and groundwater supplies in different regions.
You can read more on that here: https://harvest.usask.ca/handle/10388/8208 . While studying, I worked full-time as an environmental research engineer (because what farm kid can only do one thing at a time?!) and studied a variety of things: manure storage effects on groundwater, design of optimum environmental monitoring systems for soil and groundwater in the livestock sector, land reclamation practices in the mining sector, and plant water use and hydrology in reclaimed landscapes. If you want to dive down any of those rabbit holes, you can find the bulk of my publications here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Dyan_/research
Arizona Agriculture: So, with your education in hand, what are you now doing with it for clients?
McGrath: What does one do with all this fancy education and tons of research experience? Well, I now work as an environmental consultant with a larger firm in Canada providing remediation and reclamation services to the oil and gas sector in West-Central Saskatchewan. What does this actually mean? The mining and the oil & gas sector in Saskatchewan provides roughly 16% of the GDP for our province and we are the 2nd largest producer of crude oil behind Alberta.
The region I reside in is predominately dryland farmland and pasture, however, the secondary industry in the area that directly affects our farmland is the conventional oil and gas sector. For example, there are 19 oil and natural gas wells in the half-section (320 acres) of land that we farm directly east of my house, I lost count when trying to figure out how many we farm around in our entire operation. This is only a snapshot of the region; this is typical for many miles in all directions.
Globally we are reliant on oil and gas for basic necessities and with this large industry, comes both big and small environmental challenges. Oil producers in the past have typically earned a bad rap for their lack of environmental protection practices, however, in the last couple decades our ability as a society to promote sustainability, and environmental protection of our resources (land, water, etc.), this industry has turned a new leaf.
My day-to-day consists of consulting on remediation and reclamation strategies for both old and new oil and gas-related spills, whether that be long-term monitoring or the design and implementation of in-situ or ex-situ remediation strategies. The end game for any accidental release is to clean up and restore the landscape to its previous function and environmental engineers are a key component to making that happen. There is only so much arable land on this planet, and we need to do what we can to preserve every acre to feed future generations.
Arizona Agriculture: You and your husband farm in Canada. Tell us about it and what are some correlations, if any, to you growing up on an Arizona farm?
McGrath: Farmers, no matter where they are in the world are all the same breed. They are some of the most intelligent, hard-working people on the planet and that is no different here in Saskatchewan. Growing up on an Arizona farm, you see the challenges of water security and the costs involved with growing a crop-based largely on the cost of water. Whereas in Saskatchewan (SK), your crop grows on the hope that it rains, or that winter snow provided enough residual moisture to germinate your seeds. Similarly, your margins are extremely low in both places, one based on the price of water (AZ) and the other based on the cost of scale (large equipment needs) and input costs (SK). Our farm in Saskatchewan consists of about 5,000 seeded acres and 720 acres of grassland for pasturing livestock. We run a rotation of canola, hard red spring wheat, red lentils and barley as well as maintain around 140 head of commercial Angus cattle. Needless to say, farm life here in SK is just as busy, when you aren’t seeding, spraying or harvesting, livestock care and grain marketing/hauling keeps you busy. There is never a dull moment.
Arizona Agriculture: What will be the number one environmental issue facing agriculture now and in the future?
McGrath: There are two main issues that I believe are going to influence agriculture and I’ll tread lightly here because each of these issues could have entire books written about them: 1) Environmental extremists, and 2) fear-mongering of the public by the media against ag practices based on point number one (e.g. glyphosate use, GMO’s, or cow farts causing global warming). Not one day goes by where I don’t see the spread of misinformation, for example, a carton of orange juice or bag of peanuts labeled “GMO-Free” when those who are educated, know that GMO versions of these commodities don’t even exist.
It is advertising like this that is one day going to cripple our industry from the outside, in, for something that scientifically makes zero sense. I strive to keep a toolbox of comebacks to educate the uneducated about their “beliefs” that aren’t based on scientific fact. The dangerous path the media has taken on glyphosate use quite frankly is terrifying to every farmer I know. This chemical is one of the safest and most effective weed killers out there that allow us to efficiently control invasive species and increase our production per acre. Feeding the world isn’t a small feat and without the use of chemicals such as glyphosate, that will become much more difficult.
Arizona Agriculture: You and I well know that our farmers and ranchers are our first environmentalists, especially as science has discovered improved production methods. Speak to this.
McGrath: Without farmers and ranchers being our first and foremost stewards of the land, the world as we know it today wouldn’t exist. If farmers and ranchers didn’t care about conservation and keeping their land pristine, they wouldn’t be farming for very long.
Most farmers run extensive testing programs every year to determine soil nutrients and distribution throughout their landscape. Using some of these tools, we can then make educated decisions on crop rotations, input adjustments for any deficiencies and precisely farm every inch available to optimize our production and efficiency.
Arizona Agriculture: Agriculture always gets push back from environmental groups. Do solutions exist to work more cooperatively?
McGrath: In my experience, many environmental groups are out of touch with reality. 100 years ago, 90% of the people in North America were involved in agriculture and the production of food. Today, that number has dropped to 2% in only a few short generations. When you remove that many people from understanding that your meat doesn’t just appear at Safeway, or your apples don’t come from magic plastic packages, the extremism is inevitably going to flourish and get worse with time. To overcome this is going to be agriculture’s greatest challenge in the next decades and it’s going to take strong, educated, ag advocates to speak up, get loud and bellow over the top of their noise and present scientific facts to back it all up.
If we present factual evidence-based research and get that the media attention in deserves, environmental groups that listen to science will hopefully gain a new respect for food production and we can work together to promote better practices to make agriculture more sustainable. If we cannot work together to sustain agriculture, that signals the end.
Arizona Agriculture: However, we get criticized for pushing too hard on science. What do you say to communication experts when they suggest you first meet someone at their “concern” level before you serve up the science and the facts?
McGrath: Your question is a tough one. I struggle with bluntness and offending people who are hypersensitive because I’m not one to be afraid to state the truth. I find many that are passionate about something sometimes can’t handle the truth. I tend to preface the science by saying, “while I respect your opinion, would you mind if I share some evidence-based science with you to show you the other side and why our opinions can differ and that it is important to base your opinion on facts that haven’t been misconstrued or twisted to fit someone’s agenda?”
Arizona Agriculture: What do you anticipate will be the future for agriculture in North America?
McGrath: This question is tough for me because I really think the future right now for many industries is very volatile. Prior to the polarization of America and the COVID-19 pandemic, I would have told you that the future for Ag looks great. But today, while I am grateful to be in this industry during these troubling times, I am scared to see what the future brings with many of the points I talked about previously becoming bigger issues.
Because our margins as farmers are so low and the cost of doing business keeps rising, I anticipate farmers having greater financial challenges. In our region, with reliance on rainfall and selective breeding practices, we manage to produce 60 to 80 bushels-per-acre wheat crops, which 20 years ago would have been unimaginable. But a quick water and nutrient balance will show that we are nearly 100% optimized for production at these rates with the current breed of wheat we are growing. Grain prices when adjusted for inflation over the last 150 years have decreased dramatically.
Farmers have always been able to rise to the challenge to provide more with less, but at some point, I believe very soon, the scale will need to tip. North Americans pay the least for food across the globe, and that may be the root of our problem. While we’ve always prided ourselves on cheap and readily available food supply, that is coming at the expense of someone else (farmers and ranchers). I have been promoting the idea that we, as a society, need to be okay with paying more for food and that “more” shouldn’t go to the middle man; there has to be some trickle down to the producers. If we are able to accept this, we may be able to rely less on imports and more on what we can produce locally, and the trickledown effect would provide better lives for many.
Arizona Agriculture: The USMCA just passed in all three trading countries, Canada, the United States and Mexico. Certainly, good news for free trade between these trading partners. What from your perspective does it open for the U.S. and Canada?
McGrath: The USMCA is an accomplishment of the Trump Administration that provides key updates economically to the 25-year-old NAFTA agreement between the three countries. Since the implementation of NAFTA, economic prosperity was achieved for all parties involved, but like any agreement, overtime needs a revisit.
Specifically, USMCA opens Canada’s Dairy industry and allows for more fair trade of dairy products into the country. Previous 300% tariffs on dairy coming into Canada and our supply management “quota” system, was crippling consumers. It is my hope that with the eventual dismantling of Canada’s supply management system, more innovation and competitiveness may come to this sector of agriculture in Canada.