Early in his career, John Patience learned that understanding what producers want and need to hear is more important than telling them what you know.
Back in 1975, Patience was a young Extension swine specialist, and he was asked to give a talk to a group of hog producers in Saskatchewan. “I gave probably the worst presentation of my career. I completely misread the audience. I talked about stuff they had no interest in,” he recalls.
A pork producer had given Patience a ride to the meeting, and Patience recalls the ride home from the meeting “was one of the quietest rides I have ever been on. … It was bad, but I learned a valuable lesson.
“You’re not there to share your knowledge, you’re there to deliver information the producers need, value and can actually use. That was a very big — and essential — lesson for a young Extension worker to learn.”
Adhering to the lesson to give producers what they needed has earned Patience, Iowa State University professor of swine nutrition, the status of Master of the Pork Industry.
A big reason that Patience pursued an Extension position after earning two degrees at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, was an experience in his youth.
He was lured to work in Extension by recalling a visit by an Extension swine specialist paid to the farm of his parents — Alwyn and Ellen Patience — near London, Ontario, in the early to mid-1960s. That Extension swine specialist, the late Garnet Norrish, offered the elder Patience advice on a new cropping opportunity for his farm.
“He said, ‘Al, why don’t you switch to corn?’ They sat down at the kitchen table, and Garnie worked it out and said, ‘You can raise this number of pigs on this farm if you raise barley; but you can raise this number of pigs if you raise corn.’ So, the next year, my dad put most of the farm into corn.”
Before this, the Patience farm grew alfalfa and barley in addition to hogs. This was the time when corn was just beginning to achieve success as a crop in southern Ontario. It was a pretty novel idea.
The switch to all corn enabled the Patience farm to grow its hog production numbers. “That was a profound change in my father’s farm, so I saw what good Extension could do if you had a knowledgeable Extension person, and Garnie was a good guy. He was a farmer’s guy.”
Norrish said what the elder Patience needed to hear — not necessarily what he, as an Extension specialist, knew.
Patience learned to give producers information they needed to hear in his own Extension career. But about three years after that presentation debacle, a friend called him about a possible job change, a move to the feed industry as head nutritionist at a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, co-op.
“I liked what I was doing, really enjoying working with the pork producers, just really good people to work with,” he says. “They were like producers everywhere. If they like what you’re doing, they’ll tell you; and if they don’t like what you’re doing, they’ll tell you that, too! So, it was a perfect environment for me to work in.”
Patience’s friend came back with, “So, John, you like what you’re doing, but are you going to like doing that for the rest of your career?” Patience was stopped in his tracks. “No, that was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.”
He spent four years as a nutritionist for that co-op, where he got to do collaborative research with American cooperatives such as Land O’Lakes, AgWay and Southern States. That work opened a lot of opportunities for Patience, but it also opened his mind to the fact that if he wanted to get anywhere in the feed industry, he would need to get his doctoral degree.
“That work environment was constantly challenging me, and I felt like I was unable to rise to the challenge the way I wanted to because I didn’t have enough education,” he says. Seven years had passed since Patience was last in a college classroom, but he had two jobs under his belt in that time — experience that would serve him well.
Rubbing elbows with experts in the field at nutrition conferences enabled Patience to know where he wanted to obtain his Ph.D. “I had met Dick Austic [a professor at Cornell University], and whenever he talked science, there was a twinkle in his eye; he was just so enthusiastic about science and so enthusiastic about answering questions and learning new things, so I thought I’d love to do my Ph.D. with him.”
Austic’s field of expertise was in poultry nutrition, which Patience thought was perfect. “That fit. I thought if I got my master’s in swine, and then got my Ph.D. in poultry nutrition, then I’m in good shape for working in the feed industry — because back then, we weren’t as specialized as we are today. Then, you handled multiple species.”
A little luck
Patience claims he needed a little luck to get into the Cornell University doctoral nutrition program. “I was a little late applying, and the person in charge of the nutrition graduate program said they were full,” Patience recalls.
“Because of my background, because I had experience, and there was a strong connection between Cornell and Guelph at that time, and he asked me where I got my master’s, and I said ‘Guelph’ — so that helped me — and he said, ‘You know, no one’s going to notice one extra person.’ So, they let me in. I mean, talk about luck, my whole life has been full of luck — there’s no other way to describe it.”
Patience was wondering what exactly he had gotten himself into as he attended his first Cornell lecture. “When I sat down in my first lecture at Cornell, I was kind of nervous. I look around and see that I’m by far the oldest one in class and I think, ‘Man, this might not be good.’ ”
It worked out just fine, as Patience, though the elder in the classroom, brought with him the industry experience. “When you have experience going into grad school, it really allows you to look at the material through a different lens,” he says.
“When the professors are talking about biochemical pathways or physiological phenomenon, your mind is going, ‘Oh, this is what happens in the pig; this is what’s going on when the pig isn’t eating, or this is what happens when the pig is sick.’ So that part of it saved me. The other students — their minds already had had that continuous flow of information, but they didn’t have the benefit of work experience.”
Though Patience came to Cornell with the idea of broadening his nutritional knowledge by adding poultry to his arsenal, Austic approached Patience saying he had the perfect dissertation project for Patience — it was in pig nutrition. “I told him, ‘I came here to study poultry, Dick.’ But I guess I was destined to work with pigs, so that’s what I did.”
Another bit of luck that graced Patience while at Cornell was that he was able to work with Dean Boyd, who was a Cornell assistant professor in swine nutrition at that time. “That’s when Dean and I forged a professional relationship, but also a friendship. … He certainly had a huge positive influence on me.”
What are you interested in?
Patience eyes retirement — with 2020 being his last year at Iowa State University — but as he looks ahead, he pauses to look back on his days at Cornell, and the tutelage he gained from Fred Hutt, a geneticist and professor emeritus.
“As I look to my retirement, I start thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ They told me that when Fred was a full professor, he was very tough — very, very tough,” Patience says. “He was brilliant and successful, and he took me under his wing because I was Canadian, and he was from Canada. Fred would give me all kinds of advice.
“How do you achieve success professionally in this world? One of the pieces of advice he gave me was, ‘If you want to work with the industry, listen to the industry.’ I have followed that advice my entire career.”
He offers his own students a variant of that advice: “If you ask producers what they want, and you do it, don’t be surprised if they are interested in what you do. If you don’t ask producers what they’re interested in, and if you do what you’re interested in, don’t be surprised if they’re not interested in what you do.”
That advice harkens back to Patience’s own discovery from that failed presentation at the Extension producer meeting: Tell producers what they want and need to know.
Upon completing his doctorate, Patience spent two years at an Ottawa research station with Agriculture Canada, the Canadian version of the USDA. After his two-year stint there ended, there were virtually no nutritionist job openings open.
But then a phone call out of the blue came, asking if Patience would like to apply to become the director of the Prairie Swine Centre, a swine research facility at the University of Saskatchewan. He applied for, and got, the job. Once again, luck smiled upon John Patience.
After 21 years at the PSC, Patience felt he had done all he was capable of doing. “So, I retired, giving the board a year to find my replacement,” he says.
After announcing his retirement from the PSC, and mulling over his next step, Patience ran into Chuck Rhodes, who was the dean of veterinary medicine at the University of Saskatchewan and an Iowa State University graduate.
“He asked what I’m going to do now that I’m retiring,” Patience says. Patience didn’t really have a plan, but Rhodes told him that Iowa State University was looking for a professor in swine nutrition. “Would you be interested?” Rhodes asked Patience. “Holy crap, yeah, I would be,” Patience recalls telling Rhodes.
Only problem was, he only had two days to turn in his application, which he did — “and the rest is history. … It was a phenomenal event in my life. Once again, serendipity if there ever was one. … If you can’t be successful in swine nutrition at Iowa State, where can you be?”
On the road to Iowa
When Patience made the move south about 10½ years ago, he was part of a rebuilding initiative at ISU. Both he and Nick Gabler, now a successful associate professor of animal science, joined the Animal Science Department at about the same time.
Patience’s ISU appointment is Research and Extension; and without the administrative responsibilities that he had at the PSC, he has been able to focus on research and work with a full complement of grad students. “It was just like a rebirth,” he says. “We’re a large department here, and a large campus focused on agriculture and swine, so the opportunities to collaborate are phenomenal: more than I had encountered before, so I’m able to expose my grad students to so much more diverse science than I could give them on my own.”
Not only can Patience expose his graduate students to other animal science professors and students, but ISU also offers chances for greater collaboration.
“Depending on their project, they may work with a microbiologist, or they may collaborate with the USDA facility [National Animal Disease Center] over on 13th [Street in Ames] and learn about immunology, or work with the faculty over in the vet school — all providing expertise that is well beyond my capabilities,” he says.
“My biggest emphasis is in trying to serve the industry and provide value to the industry; a very high priority for me is my students, because there’s such a shortage of people with advanced degrees in swine nutrition in this country. It’s a really serious shortage, and it affects our industry. … We have a great group of swine nutritionists out there, but whenever there’s an opening, my phone is ringing; and when my students get ready for graduation, they virtually never search for a job because people are always looking. It’s definitely a seller’s market, if you are a graduate student looking for a job.”
According to Patience, part of the reason for the shortage of swine nutritionists is because of the way the swine industry has evolved.
“The industry has become so technical. Years ago, high school education was enough for someone in certain sectors of the industry; and then years later, you needed a university degree, and then you needed a master’s and then a Ph.D. degree,” he says. “Larger companies started hiring their own nutritionists, who generally had a Ph.D. So, if I’m going to sell product to that company, or provide them with a valuable service, then I need a Ph.D. to be able to sell to their Ph.D., so it just hugely increased the demand for people with advanced degrees.”
Adding to the conundrum, Patience says, was that this evolution coincided with the decline in the number of university programs that were training swine nutritionists.
Patience says one industry strength is the variety of swine nutrition graduate programs in the U.S. They offer the industry great value, as well as offering prospective graduate students the opportunity to pick the type of program they would like to study in, choosing which professors or strength best fits them.
When Patience arrived at ISU, he had to first develop his research program — but he also had to develop his graduate program.
He harkened back to his training at Guelph and Cornell, and decided he wanted his students to be well-rounded in applied nutrition, and be exposed to the such basic sciences as biochemistry, physiology, immunology and microbiology.
Patience points out that across the country, there are many very good graduate programs in swine nutrition; some are similar to others, and some are different. He considers this an ideal situation, because “each one brings something different to serving our industry and gives undergrads the opportunity to select a graduate program that most closely suits their interests.”
Realizing that the seven to nine graduate students that he works with are individuals, and that each one is different, he treats each one differently. He admits that he is tough on his students, expecting a lot, but also knowing that each student has different strengths. “I tell them that I want them to write the best thesis they are capable of. I want them to be able to look back on their thesis in five to 10 years, and say, ‘Yeah, I did the best that I could at that time.’ I don’t want them to ‘just finish.’ ”
In addition to helping his students develop strong research and nutrition knowledge, he also stresses the importance of his students developing soft skills and gaining knowledge of the industry. Patience and his students frequently invite industry people to come to campus and talk about their company and the industry, and offer advice to people who are about to enter the working world. Patience says, “People in our industry are so supportive of students. They want to help them in any way that they can, and as a result, their advice is always very useful.”
Patience says upon retirement, he’ll miss his grad students the most. “They are what makes my job so enjoyable and rewarding,” he says.
Collaboration among universities is also an important part of research and of graduate training. Patience’s team has worked with teams at Kansas State University, the University of Illinois, Purdue University, the University of Kentucky, USDA, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Manitoba, South Dakota State University, INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research), Guelph and others.
“Our world is actually quite small, and working together makes us all better at what we do. Adding to this are the opportunities to collaborate with industry partners creates an impressive array of facilities, expertise and capability that no single institution could possibly support on its own,” he says.
“At times there is duplication in research done at different universities, and some people may think that’s a waste of time and money,” he says, “but I would rather have two research projects that come up with the same results than a single project with a P value of 0.001 any day of the week.” Repetition breeds validation and confidence.
Whether he’s talking of his own work at ISU, or that of another North American university, Patience sees such teams filling a role that production companies can’t provide the swine industry on their own.
Like everything else, the world of research is changing rapidly; many companies now own and run their own research facilities, and there is a growing list of private facilities available for contract research. Universities are asking themselves where they will fit a decade or two from now.
“We [universities] have the ability to do research projects that some of these companies cannot do on their own, so I think that we can play a role as a third-party researcher or collaborator with the industry,” he says.
“We can show our results and then they can take that work and try to apply it to their company. … We can also play a role in developing new concepts, or helping a concept evolve, or taking basic research and taking it to a more applied level; and then those production companies take that new knowledge and see if it really works in their system.”
As a university professor, Patience equates himself to a small businessman, with a product to sell, — or as he sees it, two products to sell. “I’ve got my research results, and I’ve got my students,” he says.
Now that he’s eyeing retirement in 2020, he no longer accepts new graduate students, so his remaining students will complete their programs before Patience heads out the door. He and wife Reb plan to travel over the next few years, as well as spend time with his grown children in Toronto — Emily, Mathew and Michael; and her grown children in Iowa — Kate, Nick and George.
Though he has a condominium in Toronto and plans to spend some time there, Patience is proud of the fact that he became a U.S. citizen in early March. “This country has provided me a lot, a second career, really — and a wife — so why wouldn’t I want to become a citizen?”
Just as the swine industry has evolved, so has Patience’s research work. It has varied enough over the years that it’s probably easiest to encapsulate his work as research to improve the health of the pig nutritionally. Over the years he has done work on water quality, feed efficiency, amino acids, and fat and fiber content in swine feeds.
“Research that we’re doing right now is looking at energy,” he says. “We got into energy because 10 years ago, very few were studying energy metabolism. What’s the most effective way to supply it to the pig, and then how does the pig use that energy?” This is important because energy is by far the most expensive component of the diet.
Energy research is complicated by there being four potential energy sources in a pig’s diet: fat, starch, protein, fiber. “How the pig responds to that energy depends on which source you feed the pig,” he says. “Our understanding of starch is pretty good, our understanding of amino acids is pretty good, but we don’t understand fiber at all very well in North America. The Europeans are way ahead of us. … So, we decided to concentrate on fat and fiber.”
Keeping research relevant to industry needs surfaced during the fiber research when the updated veterinary feed directive went into effect, banning the use of antibiotics as growth promotants.
“We can’t use drugs to prevent disease anymore, so we’re saying we know fiber has functional qualities,” he says. “We know it affects the health and function of the gut of the pig, it affects the structure of the intestinal tract — so let’s try to understand that, and let’s see if we can work to formulating diets to help the pig fight off disease without having to use antibiotics. … We can’t say we’re going to replace antibiotics or what antibiotics did, but maybe we can help the pig handle disease on its own more effectively.”
His only regret about the timing of his retirement is that he won’t be able to take this research to the next logical level, “to formulate some diets, and put them out there under commercial conditions to see what the pigs in the barns tell us. That would be my next step, but someone else will have to do that.”
The work of a Master is never truly done.