“Do you see powdery mildew? I don’t see powdery mildew.”
That’s typical in-the-field banter. But this conversation was special. It involved a select group of industry influencers, all of whom were delighted to be in a sun-splashed Niagara vineyard in late August 2020. In what has become a rare event these days, five invitees were eyeballing scientific trials by Cohort Wholesale of a new grape fungicide that’s in queue for registration.
Adhering to strict COVID-19 protocols as directed at the time, Cohort Wholesale proceeded with fungicide trials on several sites across Canada, showcasing control of powdery mildew on grapes and cherries. As a new player in distributing crop protection products, it was critical to gather data and provide Canadian experience for a product that’s already been registered in the United States.
The company worked only with grower cooperators where health and safety protocols could be respected by both parties throughout the season without disrupting the grower’s business.
“Our pre-registration fungicide trials went ahead as planned but we couldn’t travel to our sites outside Ontario,” explained Scott Hodgins, manager, Cohort Wholesale. “In those cases, we were fortunate to have great research cooperators who went above and beyond sharing their in-season observations as well as more photos and videos than they may have otherwise.”
This change, one of many during the COVID-19 reality, further complicates the long lead times of research. Generally, it takes a decade to identify and develop a molecule for market at an investment ranging from $250-$300 million. Such costs are likely to rise as two trends collide: mergers and acquisitions of crop protection companies over the last two years have slowed decision-making and COVID-19 fall-out continues to restrict the agility of local retailers.
Unlike other sectors which have pivoted to e-commerce, growers have been hesitant to order crop protection inputs online because they value the agronomic advice of their retailers tailored to their individual farms. The industry is now at a key crossroads of how new products and technology will be delivered to end users and who has the credibility to deliver them.
“There are a lot of new fruit and vegetable products being introduced right now, including both conventional synthetic pesticides as well as biopesticides,” said Hodgins. “At Cohort Wholesale, our role, on behalf of our supplier partners, is to work with farmers to help them understand not only how these new products work but also how they work together with existing products and where each of them fit into the farmer’s management strategy.”
Wired for product launches, crop protection companies will likely see most timelines pushed out as the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) tries to cope with examining data for new registrations and re-evaluations under COVID-19 protocols.
“There’s a domino effect here,” explained Chris Duyvelshoff, crop protection advisor, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA). “As the life cycle of some products are terminated or others have restricted uses, growers are left with fewer tools to fight against pests and disease – and we need new ones.”
Before the pandemic, the Pest Management Centre (PMC) supported research for label extensions for minor uses. In yet another brake to the registration process, the PMC was not able to conduct its usual 37 projects at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) research centres. Due to safety protocols, only about 40 per cent of the trials went forward, pushing the majority of work out a year.
It's important to note that PMC conducts this research because registrants have no incentive for very small markets. Duyvelshoff cited the example of about 2,000 acres of raspberries in British Columbia and the need for pest control of spotted wing drosophila. If there was industry consensus through the minor use priority setting process, PMC could conduct trials for efficacy and residue data. But the likelihood of that happening is now delayed.
“There’s going to be a big impact going forward,” said Duyvelshoff. “Only 10 new priorities have been selected for the minor use program in 2021. It’s going to take a number of years to work through the backlog because we’re still not at full research capacity in 2021.”
Funding for research will be unplugged in other surprising ways. Some of the revenues earned from the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention are normally funnelled back to the Niagara Peninsula Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association which then dispenses funds to approved research. With the 2021 event cancelled, that stream has dried up.
Fewer research projects, no events, less money – it’s a challenging time for a researcher and extensionist such as Dr. Wendy McFadden-Smith. She’s the grape and tender fruit IPM specialist for the Ontario ag ministry.
“You can only go so far without face-to-face events,” said McFadden-Smith. Attendance at Zoom meetings is sporadic. Virtual tours are hit-and-miss. So she’s blogging and sending her extension advice through several channels.
Along with the COVID-19 vaccine, there seems to be a bright light for 2021. That’s her research plans for a weather-based model for detecting mealybug populations, funded by Ontario Grape and Wine Research Inc. with additional support from the Marketing and Vineyard Improvement Program. Her research into strategies for mitigating red blotch virus in grapes is funded by the Canadian Grape Certification Network.
Thanks to provincial funding, her hope is to hire three students and a research assistant for the upcoming summer. The entire industry will be cheering when the next grape industry tailgate tour is announced. Date – and year -- to be determined.