Flashback: Newly expanded Winchester Agricultural Research Station blooms in North Dundas

Winchester Agricultural Research Station Agronomy Manager Holly Byker and Crop Technician Ian DeSchiffart at the expanded station earlier this year. A gallery of some of the Station's specialized equipment and facilities appears in the gallery with this article. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Editor’s note: A slightly edited version of this article originally appeared in the township’s 2019 Explore North Dundas Spring/Summer Resource GuideThe involved interviews took place in the first quarter of the year.

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

WINCHESTER — The local college campus is just a memory now, but the University of Guelph still maintains some deep and important Eastern Ontario roots right here in the Township of North Dundas — each and every growing season on Baker Rd.

In fact, the U of G recently invested approximately $3-million on a new 8,000-square-foot office and lab facility at its Winchester Agricultural Research Station where, among other activities, new crop varieties are annually grown and assessed on 150 surrounding acres.

The expanded Baker Rd. facility, as photographed in September 2019. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

The school also recently consolidated the last vestiges of its agronomic research functions from the former Kemptville campus into the North Dundas site, now staffed year-round.

It means that, for the first time, mainstay employees Holly Byker, Ian DeSchiffart and Ben Melenhorst no longer divide their time commuting between Winchester and what was their main office in Kemptville, now closed along with the additional research acres that once operated there. And they won’t be shuttling farm equipment back and forth between the communities at crop time anymore.

Previously, the Winchester station — technically located between Inkerman and Winchester — included only basic washrooms and a small lunchroom in the original storage building at the rural property.

“For us, in terms of being here, it is pretty huge to have everything here,” says Byker, a PhD student and the station’s Agronomy Manager of the last four years. “Obviously, it makes us more efficient in terms of planning our day around weather conditions and saving travel time … and movement of equipment and everything,” adds Byker, interviewed less than a week after the township granted final occupancy.

The bright and airy structure also builds better community relations, she suggests, highlighting a meeting of Dundas Soil & Crop Improvement Association members inside the facility just a day earlier. “I think that’s a huge plus, to have more of a daily presence here.”

While the U of G wound down final classes at the Kemptville campus in academic year 2015-16, the North Dundas site was retained to carry on agronomical research as part of the Ontario Agri-food Innovation Alliance, a joint arrangement with the province. “It was a priority for the province and the university,” explains Remo Pallottini, director of research facilities management in Guelph. “The province and the university, under this agreement, did maintain their commitment to the research enterprise [in Winchester] … and needed to keep an eastern location for research. That’s what spurred the investment in new and updated facilities.”

“There’s also been a significant uptick in spending on equipment over the last couple of years, to make sure the station is outfitted with the best and latest technology,” Pallottini adds.

In that category is a new plot combine, among the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of specialized and “research-focused” farm equipment sheltered within a cavernous new fabric-covered storage building also erected as part of the recent improvements. The costly little combine is basically a miniature version of the full-sized harvesters seen trundling all over the township during the fall.

Part of a network of 15 agricultural research facilities across the province, the Winchester Agricultural Research Station is now grouped into an administrative trio with remote stations in Northern Ontario — in New Liskeard and Emo.

“It’s an integral part of the ministry of agriculture’s investment in agri-food research, and it’s also a significant part of the university’s research platform,” says Pallottini of the local site. “Each one is a critical piece and each station has a unique role in that whole network, so the Winchester station being in the eastern area represents typical Eastern Ontario conditions.”

Byker says the bulk of the program in Winchester involves field crop trials on behalf of seed companies — planting, cultivating, harvesting and evaluating new varieties not yet officially registered for distribution to farmers. They work closely with so-called industry “recommendation committees” that decide if a variety deserves consideration for final approval from entities like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canadian Grain Commission.

“Corn, soybeans, dry beans, and the cereals — basically those products that go across the province — so we’re one of the locations to trial each of those, and all of that data is public data,” Byker explains.

“A variety might be really good on quality and yield, but maybe it has a really high susceptibility to fusarium [a type of fungus] that is going to cause a detriment. It might not stop the registration of the variety, but it might be information the committee includes in the process,” she explains, noting the Winchester location offers a window into Eastern Ontario’s “pretty unique disease pressures.”

DeSchiffart also points to the station’s efficacy for trialing crops within the specific climate area of Eastern Ontario. “So our station reflects ‘area 3’ for the cereals, and for corn it’s more broken down into heat units. The Experimental Farm in Ottawa carries out similar tests.”

Approximately 100 varieties of corn and 60 to 70 varieties of soybeans alone are tested at the station each year. Twenty-five varieties of dry beans are typically grown as well, while two dozen varieties of each of the popular cereal types (winter and spring wheat and oats and barley) are similarly trialed.

Each trial produces approximately 200 small mesh bags of seed for return to the involved companies. The facility boasts modern seed-cleaning and weighing equipment in a gleaming, lab-like environment, where the three employees — helped by a handful of summer students — handle thousands of bags.

A recent endeavour of the last couple of years has involved trials of relatively rare (these days) non-GMO corn. “Obviously, with Ingredion [of Cardinal] being right close by, there was a lot of interest in growing some non-GMO varieties and having some local data on that. So that’s something we spearheaded at this location,” Byker says.

Pure research is another part of the station’s mandate. Those projects have looked at the effectiveness of various fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide regimes in various crops, often in conjunction with the university. In other cases, large multi-national players like DuPont are simply looking for a place to test a product or seed variety, “and we form a partnership with them to provide the data.”

Staff at Kemptville’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) branch regularly conduct research at the station as well, DeSchiffart, a crop technician, points out. “They have a lot of projects.”

And while post-secondary agricultural education has fallen silent at the college campus, the new developments in Winchester are at least delivering a U of G faculty member into Eastern Ontario again. Professor Josh Nasielski, due to arrive in Winchester this May, will study cropping systems in the eastern and northern parts of the province, broadening the research possibilities for the station going forward, according to Byker.  Thanks to the U of G’s corresponding “investment” in Nasielski, “we’ll have more research that’s based here, and starts here and grows from here,” she says of the professor’s impending arrival.

The university’s ownership of the Winchester station is tightly interwoven with the history of the Kemptville College campus. When the province turned the campus over to the university in 1997, the decades-old station came along with it.

In another long-standing tradition, the station will again host a slew of farmers at its annual ‘Eastern Ontario Crop Diagnostic Day’ this summer, on July 17.

Editor’s note: Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Ernie Hardeman toured the site and took part in the revamped facility’s official opening on June 28.

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