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Former HRIO will crow about its many achievements in 2006

will crow about its many achievements in 2006

April 22, 2008  By Jim Meyers

What growers in Niagara still
refer to as the Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario, or HRIO,
is having its 100th birthday next year. That’s a significant
achievement considering reaching that milestone was in doubt almost 10
years ago.

What growers in Niagara still refer to as the Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario, or HRIO, is having its 100th birthday next year. That’s a significant achievement considering reaching that milestone was in doubt almost 10 years ago.

Like a lot of other provincial government assets, HRIO was potentially on the chopping block in the early days of the Mike Harris “Common Sense” Tory government. With a political mantra to restructure ministries, reduce budgets, downsize, outsource, or to sell off government assets that competed with private enterprise, growers feared the government of the day would go the route of privatizing consulting services it was providing at little or no cost.

The government annou-nced in the spring of 1996 that a year later – on April Fool’s Day 1997 – HRIO, which had for 90 years been part of the provincial ministry of agriculture, would become part of the University of Guelph. The university took over other provincial agricultural research stations and five agricultural colleges under contract with the then Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), which provided $50-million a year in funding. Some $1.2 million goes annually to the Vineland Station to fund four major research areas. This funding is augmented by corporate grants and funding from agricultural trade and grower associations.

Since 1997, a number of programs were ended or transferred from HRIO to Guelph and staff numbers were cut in the changeover that Niagara growers still refer to as a dark day locally. Now, HRIO is officially known as the University of Guelph’s Department of Plant Agriculture – Vineland Ontario Agricul-tural College – and has a research role that reflects the university’s position as Canada’s preeminent agricultural and food-related university.

Plans are now underway to tell the 100-year story of the research centre not only to people in Niagara, but the rest of Ontario, Canada and the world, but also to a younger generation of growers who are not as aware as their parents and grandparents about the role that HRIO has played in Ontario’s fruit and vegetable industries.

“We’re going to sound our horn,” says Dan Rinker, an associate professor specializing in mushroom research. He’s been at the research station for almost 22 years and is chair of the centennial committee. “If it’s done right, it will make the community aware of what’s been done here,” he says about the opportunity to boast about the contributions HRIO has made to Canadian agriculture.

A book, other events planned
It’s still too early in the planning stage to be specific but a centennial book will definitely be part of the celebrations. Contributions for the book will come from retirees and those still at the station in each field of research. As well, there will be a lecture series through the University of Guelph, unspecified community events, a tie-in to ongoing twilight tour on-site grower meetings, the planting of a centennial garden and orchard, school classroom kits, and, it’s hoped, a Canada Post stamp.

There’s no budget for a centennial celebration other than everyday office expenses so the centennial committee is going cap-in-hand to the corporate community for tax deductible donations in order to make any type of splash.

A lot of the effort to make it a success will also come from staff and retirees volunteering their time, said Prof. Rinker. “It’s like a family here,” he said, “though not the same number of bodies running around like there was 20 years ago when a blend of research, extension, economic and processing personnel made it feel like a family business.”

The research station’s extended family has been the regional OMAF office on one side and the federal Southern Ontario crop research station on the other, says grape specialist Helen Fisher, who has been at the station almost 25 years and is a member of the centennial committee.

When there were just six Ontario wineries some 25 years ago, grape research at the station would be passed on to growers through winery fieldmen and reinforced through the work of extension specialists next door at the provincial agriculture ministry office, she said.

“And if we wanted help with bugs, we’d also go next door to the federal research station,” she said.

One of the retirees making a contribution to the centennial book will be Neil Miles, who headed peach research for 16 years up until his retirement five years ago. He followed Stan Leuty, the station’s seventh director, who was the interim head of tree fruit research after long-time grape and tree fruit researcher Ollie Bradt retired in 1978 following 25 years as the station’s grape and tree fruit researcher.

Tree fruit research, especially peaches, is an area of research the station is perhaps best known for. Over the years, some 25 varieties have been developed and all but four have been freestone fresh market peach varieties. Neil Miles developed the four clingstone varieties – Vulcan, Vinegold, Virgil and Venture – for the processing market and these earlier maturing varieties have extended the harvest season by a month. That’s allowed growers to plant exclusively for the canning market in order to meet the needs of the former Canada Canners plant in St. Davids, now owned by Kraft Foods, he said.

Miles credits the many years of research done by Ollie Bradt, who died last summer at age 90, and by interim department head Stan Leuty (the station’s seventh director) who developed many orchard management practices, and the continuing work being by Dr. Jay Subramanian, who has taken over the tree fruit breeding program.

Seeking older varieties 
Ray Kaczarski, the research station’s farm manager, is on a mission to track down as many varieties developed at the station as he can find. He’s compiled a list of 104 introduced in the last 50 years (31 were developed in the first 50 years) to plant in a centennial garden and orchard.

“Some peach varieties are gone forever,” he lamented, adding there is faint hope that some growers may still have trees dating back to a time when breeder’s rights didn’t preclude HRIO from asking a grower if he might be interested in on-farm testing a promising variety.

Many introductions, particularly in the early years, were vegetable and tomato varieties developed to meet the demands of what were then a number of Niagara canning plants. Some 20 tomato varieties were developed, 10 sweet corn, two pepper, and single lettuce, asparagus and cucumber varieties came out of research that also developed new flower and ornamental shrub varieties.

Dr. E. Frank Palmer notes in his history of what was in 1956 the Vineland Horticulture Experiment Station that in the first 50 years of research, 31 new varieties were introduced from 187,517 field tests from which 1,384 selections were made.

Eras were defined more by directors than events and Dr. Palmer left the largest footprint – more than 40 years – of the eight directors at the research station while it was under the control of the
agriculture ministry. His hobby was breeding lilies, many of which were then grown at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington.

A 90-acre gift of land in 1906 by local philanthropist Moses Rittenhouse, who made his fortune as a Chicago lumber baron, made the then Jordan Harbour Horticulture Experimental Station possible. For 12 years before that, there had been a number of testing stations in Niagara run by the Ontario Agricultural College and the Fruit Growers’ Association of Ontario.

The experimental station soon expanded by 85 acres with the addition of the Victoria farm (Wm. A. Wismer), now south of the Queen Elizabeth Way, and in 1918, another seven acres on Victoria Avenue was added. The 35-acre grape sub-station, closer to the Niagara Escarpment on Cherry Avenue, was added in 1946 and in 1953, the 17-acre John Boothman adjoining the Victoria Farm was added for a total of 234 acres. Some land was lost when the Victoria Avenue interchange on the QEW was improved.

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