Without agronomy, we would all be naked, hungry and sober.
This memorable quote is making the rounds of winter meetings, a reminder of the enduring importance of research. On-farm research is nothing new, but for brothers Shawn and Chris Brenn, Waterdown, Ontario, the results of their methodical approach are proving to be a competitive edge when marketing to big-name retailers.
“This is the third year (2018) that we’ve marketed a red-skinned, yellow-fleshed potato under the Goldenheart name,” says Shawn Brenn. “In my view, it’s the most flavourful potato you can put in your mouth.”
Goldenheart, a numbered variety, is exclusive to Brenn-B Farms, part of a marketing strategy to differentiate their offering of fresh potatoes. Of their 850 potato acres, only a portion is devoted to this variety. It’s packaged and marketed in five-pound polybags throughout eastern Canada, from Thanksgiving through the holiday season.
The marketing plan for Goldenheart rises out of four years of research on two on-farm sites with different soil types ranging from stony sand to heavier loams. Thanks to a City of Hamilton weather monitoring station located on their farm, they can track rainfall and temperatures. Their acreages are not consolidated but spread over 25 to 30 locations. Although the Elora Research Station, operated by the University of Guelph, has a robust potato testing program about 50 miles to the northwest, Brenn has observed differences in results when those same varieties are brought to the farm.
“The Elora site has heavier soils, cooler temperatures and sometimes more precipitation,” says Brenn.
On an acre research plot close to home base, the Brenn brothers plant 45 to 50 varieties, recording a number of characteristics, including quality and size of seed pieces. They experiment with seed spacing, anywhere from eight inches to 13 inches, depending on the variety. They observe emergence rates, plant vigour and time to reach row closure. The quicker the time to row closure the better and thus less need for expensive weed control. Liquid seed piece treatments aren’t recommended if wet and cold soil temperatures prevail.
At least three years of data are collected before planting a potato variety. First and foremost, the variety must meet yield expectations and be flavourful to be profitable.
“I’m confident that taste sells,” says Brenn. “There is less food waste, when consumers have a good eating experience.”
Taste is not the key characteristic that Darin Gibson is searching for in his potato trials. He and his wife Debbie Jones own Gaia Consulting which contracts with about 35 organizations every year to conduct basic agronomic research near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Low-profile, but high-impact proprietary research is conducted for companies that sell crop protection products to fertilizer to biopesticides. Almost all of the research is in potatoes, with some plots in carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, horseradish and red beets.
To support the intense workload, Gaia Consulting is moving into a new 7,000-sq-foot purpose-built site in March 2019 in Newton, Manitoba. This building will comprise potato storage, chemical storage, equipment storage, laboratory space and offices. A full shop with hoist will service equipment.
“We are tripling our footprint,” says Gibson.
While Gibson cannot speak specifically about the results of potato trials, he’s a keen observer of the research under his care. Half of the trials are commissioned by crop protection companies for fungicides and insecticides. A growing area of business is from fertilizer companies trialling liquid and dry granular formulations, in-furrow and broadcast methods of application. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Pest Management Centre conducts minor use trials at this location to see what’s appropriate for the region.
One observation of Gibson’s bears repeating: “Biopesticides have carried some baggage in the past, however some products are working better with similar efficacy to conventional products.”
As he relayed to the audience of the Manitoba Potato Production Days, biopesticides will become more important in the toolbox of the future.
In addition to this privately conducted research, provincial and national governments also play critical roles in the public sphere. All of these are examples of research in one commodity: potatoes. But the questions surrounding research are the same for all horticultural crops. Who has access to research results? When farmers share on-farm research, how will data be protected by supplier companies?
There are no immediate answers to these questions, but each farmer should be aware of how powerful the data becomes in aggregate. The impacts will be broadened as major agricultural chemical companies, post-merger, focus their efforts on research pipelines for the next decade. In turn, the questions at head office will be about the biggest pay-offs in major field crops. Potatoes will take a place beside canola and soybeans. But other field vegetable crops will be… small potatoes.
The structural changes in the crop protection arena will have implications for horticulture that are not clearly evident now. Suffice to say, that the top seven players look different than just three short years ago.
As much as aggregated data is powerful, so is local, down-home research. Just ask Shawn and Chris Brenn in these transformative times.