Success in Partnership: Re-Inventing Vineland

A sea change takes some impetus. In horticultural research in Ontario, that change happened eight years ago when the Vineland research station reinvented itself as the partner-driven Vineland Research and Innovation Centre. And it got a boost earlier this week when Ottawa and the Ontario government announced they were combining forces to give the centre a whack of money — $26.5 million over five years — for research, innovation and commercialization.

Vineland is a long-standing horticultural research institution. It’s been around since the early 1900s, located in the heart of the fruit-and-vegetable intensive Niagara region.

Lately, it’s taken a modern view towards development, clearly approved by the province and the feds.

That view is centred on partnerships. It sounds simple, but getting the various players in the complex and diverse food sector on the same page is as challenging as getting consumers to eat what’s good for them.

Traditionally, coordination has been a problem. New fruit and vegetable varieties were mainly focused on growers’ abilities and researchers’ expertise. And that was not unique to horticulture. The entire agriculture sector had long been focused inward, trying to keep its own 88s straight, and not getting a lot of feedback from consumers, either.

But that’s changed, and Vineland has developed a strong track record of making connections with virtually every significant grower association in the province. “This is a new way to innovate,” says Vineland CEO Jim Brandle. “It’s more results-oriented. Things flow faster when you have investment from growers, a good consumer focus and partners for commercialization.”

Society needs Vineland to succeed. Ancaster-area MP David Sweet says “savvy” consumers are increasingly looking for a variety of homegrown produce. They want Ontario products. And for many reasons (including the positive effects of eating fruit and vegetables), they must have them. Every effort possible is required to bridle health care costs, and better diets are a vital first step.

So in developing new varieties, researchers (including research partners connected to the University of Guelph) will look at traits ranging from enhanced flavour to disease and drought resistance.

They’ll also have an eye towards bringing what are called “world crops” into production. Brandle notes a landmark study by University of Guelph Prof. Glen Filson that estimated a $700-million a year market exists for such crops as Chinese broccoli, eggplant, okra, bitter melon, smooth amaranth and bok choy — in Ontario alone.

Vineland’s job is to help adapt these world crops to Ontario conditions.

Other research efforts resulting from Tuesday’s support will centre around horticultural production systems, including natural and automated pest management systems for greenhouse and nursery operations.

Labour is one of the sector’s biggest costs, and in Brandle’s view, if production can be reduced or automated like it is in field crops, food prices can be held in line and products will be more accessible.

And finally, he says, researchers will keep trying to answer the age–old question — what do consumers want?  — so farmers can respond with the appropriate commodities and products.

Recent successes from Vineland’s product, process and varietal development efforts include: Sundown Pear (for which sales of 40,000 trees are predicted this year), Pixie grapes (an ornamental dwarf grapevine) and the development of the Appassimento grape drying system for Ontario conditions.

Research has shown most people don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables because they don’t know how to prepare them. But if limited variety is the main reason you’re avoiding them, with Vineland’s help, you may soon run out of excuses.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as

@theurbancowboy

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