Henry J. Bergen CM, LLD (hon)
Henry Bergen is an inventor whose creations have helped Albertan and Canadian agricultural producers to increase crop yields, limit pesticide use and make the most of the resources available to them.
Henry John Bergen was born into a German Mennonite village in Southern Ukraine on June 26, 1935. His childhood was marked by famine and the presence of an oppressive Stalinist regime that took the life of his father, John, when Henry was three years old. His mother, Justina, was left to raise five children on her own and Henry and his siblings quickly learned the Mennonite principles of hard work, independence and self-reliance as they laboured in the village orchards. By 1943, Justina realized that they needed to flee if they were to have any hope of a better life so the family set out on a perilous journey across Second World War Europe. Five years later the gamble paid off when the Bergen’s landed on Canadian soil.
They followed in the footsteps of relatives and other German Mennonites that had come before and chose Coaldale, Alberta as their new home. Although they now enjoyed the freedom they had risked their lives for, Henry and his family still had to work exceptionally hard to make ends meet. They tended sugar beet fields for local farmers and started building a new life with nothing to their name but the wooden box of meager possessions they had brought with them.
Despite the deprivation he endured, Henry is able to trace the emergence of two important traits to those early years. They taught him to work hard and to see projects through despite setbacks. Perhaps more importantly, Henry learned from a young age that if he wanted something as simple as a toy to play with he would have to make it himself. Poverty had sown the seeds of innovation and creativity that would come to define his life’s accomplishments.
At 17, Henry found seasonal work tending experimental crops for the Canada Agriculture Research Station in Lethbridge but his strong work ethic, meticulous attention to detail and versatility earned him the opportunity to move into other areas of the station. Crop researcher Doug Smith saw potential in young Henry and helped him land a job in the mechanical shop where he soon found himself presiding over a small corner stocked with specialized equipment and consulting with the station’s PhDs on the development of new tools and instrumentation. Henry’s innate creativity and problem-solving skills were enhanced by part-time studies at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology where he picked up courses in Mechanical Engineering and Metallurgy. By the time he graduated in 1959, Henry had become a fixture at the Centre and a trusted collaborator for many of its scientists.
The year 1962 was an auspicious one for Henry on two fronts. First, it marked his marriage to Mary Ann Lepp, a local girl and fellow member of the Coaldale Mennonite Church community. Their family soon grew to include their sons, David and Douglas, and their daughter, Jacqueline.
A second important partnership was cemented that same year with the introduction of a breakthrough planting tool dubbed the Smith/Bergen Plot Master, which Henry developed with his mentor Doug Smith. It was born out of a need for the even planting of experimental crops in order to ensure consistent test results. The Smith/Bergen solution was an adjustable, self-propelled seeder that was formed in Henry’s imagination and cobbled together out of spare parts and a discarded old motor. Soon researchers across the country were asking for plans to a piece of equipment that is still in use today in virtually the same form and that continues to assist scientists in their work to improve the business of farming for Canadian producers.
By the time he left the Research Station in 1968, Henry had seen his name published as a co-author on seven major research projects that incorporated his inventive designs. With that work under his belt he was ready to set out and establish his own manufacturing business in Coaldale. Many of the inventions of his firm, GEN Manufacturing, sprang from a desire to help local producers minimize the effects of soil erosion and moisture loss in a region where strong winds have always played havoc with crops and where dust storms have the power to carry away valuable top soil and destroy livelihoods. His creative designs have led to everything from instrumentation to schedule crop irrigation, to an innovative and low-tillage approach to seeding and fertilizing, to unique modifications that have allowed individual producers to get maximum benefit from their equipment at a minimum expense. Henry is quick to point out that the direction and support he has enjoyed from his son and business partner, David, have been key factors in GEN’s ongoing success.
Henry Bergen’s inventions have been recognized with awards from the Public Service of Canada, the Alberta Society of Engineering Technologists and the Canadian and American Societies of Agricultural Engineers. He received the Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005, became a Member of the Order of Canada in 2006 and received an Honourary Doctorate from the University of Lethbridge in 2008.
Throughout his career, Henry has maintained a steadfast commitment to seeing small family farm operations succeed. When asked why, he simply says “if you can help farms to stay in business and families to stay together…to help keep them going when times are tough and commodity prices are down…then that’s something to be proud of.”
In addition to fostering success for Alberta farm families, Henry has focused farther afield with efforts to improve the quality of life for people in need in countries like Belize. Through his initiative, Hope for Humanity, Henry is committed to teaching people how to grow their own gardens as a way to battle poverty. In time, he hopes his work will help people to also harvest a stronger sense of community and a renewed faith in the future. True to his hardworking Mennonite heritage, Henry Bergen has never been one to wait for someone else to step forward when there’s a challenge to be met, offering that “some people say all we can do is pray and wait for an answer but I say that’s what we’re here for – to provide the answers to the problems we face.” It’s clear that Henry Bergen’s creativity and independent spirit have allowed him to find answers that have truly benefitted the agricultural community and the province as a whole.
Henry and Mary Ann Bergen live in Coaldale and their three children and seven grandchildren all live in Alberta. They make annual visits to B.C. to visit his siblings (Annie, Bill, Peter and John) and also enjoy spending time away from the family business and Hope for Humanity work at a small retreat near Cranbrook.