Allan Navratil is a reader.

"I read anything," he said.

As a boy, he was given a set of encyclopedias that were the length of a Radio Flyer red wagon. Navratil read the books cover to cover.

At 74, he keeps looking for more.

He plays piano. He is into astronomy.

Navratil lives in Midleton, Ireland, which is called the birthplace of whiskey. When he was in Saskatchewan earlier this month he saw the annual Draggins Rod and Custom car show at Prairieland Park and had supper one evening with friends in a hotel near the airport.

Navratil's main reason for coming to Saskatchewan is planted in agriculture.

"Unemployment is 15 to 20 per cent in Ireland," he said. "They're dying to get to work. With no job, there is no future. Moving here would be a great benefit to Saskatchewan and to Irish workers. I see it working on both sides. I'm particularly concerned with the Irish side."

Navratil made his case to the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce during lunch in its boardroom downtown. He sat at the head of the table with a file of notes near his hands and a side order of statistics in his head. He said Saskatchewan is seven times the size of Ireland in area, yet with less than one-quarter the population. He said farmland in Ireland has been the most expensive in Europe, while Saskatchewan's is the cheapest in Western Canada.

Much of his presentation was off the cuff.

Navratil drew laughs. "A note on my window said I have fine parking," he said after receiving a parking fine in Saskatoon.

He has an Irish accent, but as the chamber found out, there is more to his story.

"I haven't got a drop of Irish blood in my veins," he said.

His father was a chemical and mechanical engineer who moved to Ireland from the Czech Republic in the 1920s. Navratil's dad helped to start Ireland's sugar industry with a processing plant for sugar beets in a town south of Dublin. The refinery in Carlow had a chimney 90 metres high made of sand from the River Barrow, one of the Three Sisters rivers in Ireland. Three more factories soon followed.

Navratil farmed beets for years, sticking with it until 2006 when the food company Greencore closed the last sugar factory in the country.

"Our economic future left on a jet plane," Navratil told the Saskatoon chamber in what he calls the senseless loss of the sugar industry in Ireland.

A member of the chamber said she had a question not about business, but about him personally. Why don't you move to Saskatchewan, she asked.

"I'll give you a three-letter reason," he said. "S-U-E. My wife likes it where she is."

Only Canadians are allowed to own farmland in Saskatchewan. Although foreigners can buy land, the title must be in a resident's name. Navratil travels here a couple of times a year. His wife joined him for the trip this month.

Navratil is chair of the Irish Biofuels Initiative, a project he started in 2006 aimed at restoring the sugar beet industry by using beets to help make ethanol. He believes Ireland can process fuel rather than import it by the barrel.

His office is in Ballinacurra House, an estate in the Irish woodlands that dates to the 18th century. The property is booked for weddings and reunions, business conferences and trade shows. As those events happen, Navratil keeps cooking.

Navratil said outside of his father the two people who have influenced him most are Colin Campbell, a British petro geologist, and Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in New York who torches the idea of incinerating solid waste.

Navratil completed a degree in environmental science when he was almost 60. He studies. He reads and remembers.

At the start of his meeting with the Saskatoon chamber, he recited a line from the English writer and poet Hilaire Belloc: "From quiet homes and first beginning out to the undiscovered ends, there's nothing worth the wear of winning but laughter and the love of friends."

Later, Navratil added a line of his own.

"I'm not interested in my own economic aggrandizement," he said. "Life is not about what you acquire. It's what you give."

source: thestarphoenix


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