Many Canadians might not have heard of Phil Thomas.
But if you’ve ever cooked with canola oil, it might have been thanks to him.
To farmers across the country and around the world, the death of ‘Mr. Canola’ – the man who literally wrote the book on how to grow the crop – is a huge loss.
Thomas, 76, died unexpectedly in Lacombe on June 13.
“Phil was a staple in our industry, he absolutely was a pioneer,” said Robert Saik, an agricultural futurist and founder of Agvisorpro, a platform that connects farmers with ag experts.
“Phil was at the heart of that whole movement through its entire time from the beginning of the crop and its introduction to Western Canada to [what is] now a 20-million-acre crop. Phil was there the whole time.”
Thomas was born in Red Deer, and studied agriculture at Olds College and the University of Alberta.
He was working for Alberta Agriculture in the 1970s when a new version of rapeseed was developed in the country and started to be grown by farmers – called canola, for Canadian oil, low acid.
The crop, which is a relative of mustard, has small yellow flowers with seeds that are crushed to produce the oil.
Even though the crop is just a few decades old, it brings in nearly $27 billion per year to Canada’s economy. Around 43,000 farmers in Canada grow canola.
Within a few year’s of the crop’s introduction, Thomas had written the book on how to grow it (the Canola Grower’s Manual, published in 1984) and soon was travelling the world, promoting Alberta agriculture and sharing his expertise by teaching farmers as far away as China, Soviet Russia and South Africa.
“It was like the dictionary of canola, the Encyclopedia Britannica of Canola,” said Ieuan Evans, a forensic plant pathologist.
‘He knew every farmer’
Evans said he and Thomas would drive together through the prairies, stopping in to diagnose and study issues on farms.
He said Thomas didn’t need a map as he knew everyone, and Evans would cover his eyes as Thomas didn’t much like stopping at intersections, either.
“He knew every farmer and every side street,” Evans said.
“He’s often credited with the nickname Mr. Canola and he’s forgotten more about canola than we’ll ever know,” said Saik.
Thomas was inducted into the Alberta Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2010, for what the organization described as the tremendous contribution he made internationally by sharing his expertise.
“He is an enthusiastic ambassador, patient teacher and renowned for his knowledge. When the fields of summer are painted the colour of canola, one cannot help but be reminded of Phil’s invaluable career and the tremendous contribution his work has made towards Alberta’s success,” reads the entry in the Hall of Fame yearbook next to Thomas’ name.
“There probably aren’t many fields in Alberta that Phil hasn’t walked on while scouting a canola crop to solve a problem, teaching a local group of farmers or showing international customers what this crop is all about,” said Kevin Bender, with the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, at the time of Thomas’ induction into the Hall of Fame.
Since Thomas’ death, dozens of farmers have shared memories and condolences to his loved ones on social media.
“Not only is he missed as a science person, an agronomist in our industry, he’s missed as a human being in this community,” said Saik.
Thomas is survived by his wife Eleanor, children Darren and Lenora, and two granddaughters.