Ontario Crop Research Centre – Simcoe A HORTICULTURAL HISTORY AND PRESENT-DAY OVERVIEW
In 1960, the Ontario Government purchased the 165-acre Alway farm so as to establish a Horticultural Experimental Station (HES), just east of Simcoe.
At the time, tobacco was ‘king’, but there were concerns in the late 1950’s as to the future of tobacco. There was also productive land-loss in the greater Toronto area -and with it, fruit and vegetable production. In addition, there was interest from growers in the central Lake Erie counties to better develop the fruit and vegetable industry. The farm was selected for its sandy soil which would represent the majority of productive land in the region.
The first research trials were established in 1961. In the early days, the station only had a resident foreman, while the research and demonstrations were carried out by the staff from the parent Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario, located in Vineland, 100 km away. In 1964, Dr. George Collin was transferred from Vineland to Simcoe to be the station’s resident research scientist, and to oversee the expansion of continuing research. In 1970, the research station opened a new facility on site to include more greenhouses, an auditorium, a pest-management lab, cold storages, and office space for administrative staff. The integration of research staff and agricultural advisors allowed the horticultural industry to have access to a variety of services on a basis of ‘one-stop shopping’
The HES Simcoe research programs will continue to refine the production technology for the important fruit and vegetable crops of southern Ontario, and examine the feasibility of new crops. This will help achieve the goals of replacing imports and expanding exports, improving cost-competitiveness and providing the consumer with wholesome, reasonably-priced food.
Research is either ‘basic’ or ‘applied’. Basic research, referring to investigating for ‘unknowns’ for the sake of science -which may or not have any immediate practical use. Applied research has practical goals from the outset. At the Ontario Crops Research Centre - Simcoe, all research is ‘practical’ and client-based, and undertaken to assist the grower community and its associated industry partners.
On occasion, something will be accidentally discovered as a ‘by-product’ while actually looking for something else ...this is called serendipity -the ‘bonus round’. For example, penicillin, pulsars, and radioactivity are ‘serendipitous’ discoveries. And well, so is Viagara. These discoveries are often referred to as ‘accidental brilliance’.
As research money is always in short supply and funding an ongoing challenge, most ‘seed’ money will either come from grower organizations, or industry. Once the initial funding is secured, applications will be made for matching government grants. It is all results-driven, and most of these studies are three years in length, or less.
Government research (third party research) has the benefit of being unbiased and objective, and -supposedly, without having any vested interests or hidden agendas. No ‘skin in the game’, as it were. The Ontario Crops Research Centre - Simcoe, has a mandate to solve grower problems, and issues important to the grower-community and industry. Technology is the study of applied research, and technology transfer, is getting this information to growers so as to adopt these new findings, for increased productivity and profitability, as may be the case.
Research into tree fruit studies, for example, can be long-term, and therefore expensive. Consequently, private industry is reluctant to get involved given its shorter horizon interests.
Dr. John Cline of the Ontario Crops Research Centre - Simcoe is a pomologist, and is involved in root stock studies for fruit trees, which can require 10 years for results! Otherwise, he is involved with fruit-load management, investigating various fruit-thinning strategies -including, mechanical, chemical, and bioregulators.
There is increasing interest in producing hard cider in Ontario. And the research centre is helping in evaluating apple varieties that are especially suited to this beverage. For example, ‘Porter’s Perfection’ and ‘Goldrush’ have been proven to hold promise.
The Ontario Crops Research Centre – Simcoe is an amalgamation of staff belonging to the University of Guelph, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), and associated industry -such as Asparagus Growers of Ontario, and Ginseng Growers of Ontario.
Specifically, there is a post-harvest specialist, apple specialist, spray technologist, specialty crops and IPM (integrated pest-management) specialist, transition crops specialist, water quality engineer, and a ginseng and herb specialist. Some of the research programs include cucumber variety trials, asparagus breeding work, hazel nut production, and a hop garden -among others.
In Ontario, there are approximately 9,000 acres of ginseng grown by about 150 growers, and all are of the North American species, Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng). This represents about 80% of the world’s supply outside of China. The industry once contributed $275 million annually (2015) to Ontario’s farm gate. Another species known as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is native to China and Korea, for example, and probably accounts for more than 50% of all ginseng grown and consumed, world-wide.
Accordingly, this is a crop of considerable value, and merits research into problem areas such as replant disease ...growing this crop more than once in a field can be a very risky proposition; resulting in a ‘tight-supply’ for suitable land, and therefore, expensive land-rent prices. Since 2013, the Ontario Ginseng Grower’s Association, in conjunction with OMAFRA staff and university researchers, have identified ginseng root-crop residue to be an abiotic toxicity, in addition to fungal pathogens, as contributing to ‘replant disease’.
Where the cost-of-production can be about $19-$20/lb for most growers (up to $30/lb for new growers), mostly due to the shade infrastructure required, high costs of specialized machinery, labour and crop inputs, recent market prices of $13-$14/lb have curbed ‘enthusiasm’ for this crop, by some growers. At one time, $50-$60 paid per pound of production, resulted in increased production and now over-supply. There is also a premium market for native ginseng found in the ‘wild’. However, this ‘wild-crafting’ (collecting from the wild) has pretty much decimated indigenous plant populations, and is now an endangered species. All forms of production in the forest and wild-harvest are now illegal under the Endangered Species Act, 2007.
Another component of the Ontario Crops Research Centre - Simcoe, is the asparagus program. OMAFRA in conjunction with the University of Guelph, and the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario, have a very unique 3-way association. It is an exceptional working group with exceptional results, especially as it pertains to the asparagus breeding program, and the distribution of asparagus seed.
Dr. David Wolyn of the University of Guelph was instrumental in asparagus breeding, and has gone on to world-wide acclaim for the work that he has accomplished. The goals have all been met with increased yields, quality and profitability, for the asparagus growers community.
There are approximately 3,700 acres of asparagus grown in Ontario, with about 150 growers. The large majority of asparagus grown in Ontario, Quebec, Michigan and Washington states, are all from University of Guelph breeding program; which include hybrids such as Millennium, Equinox, and Eclipse. These Guelph hybrids -depending upon weather, yield in the range of 5,000-6,000 lbs/acre, consistently -and, are quite ‘at home’ in Ontario’s climate. Moreover, these yields are sustained over a 20-plus year lifespan!
The program has been so successful that a ‘private company’ was formed to market the seed whereby the revenues are funnelled back to the breeding program. The development of new asparagus hybrids may require 20 years of research, and since long-term commitments as these require lots and lots of funding. Enter, Fox Seeds. Mr. Brandon Yott is CEO, located at the Ontario Crops Research Centre - Simcoe. The sale and distribution of asparagus seeds is unique given the need for long-term funding for ongoing asparagus breeding program.
Research is often the unsung hero in so many areas of science. Quietly, and in the ‘background’, many dedicated staff devote entire careers for the betterment of crop production, grower profitability, and the improved livelihood, of producers and consumers, alike.