Making a green industry greener
It has a long and proud history – and now, seemingly, also an exciting future that may help make a green industry even greener by solving some major issues facing Canada’s horticultural sector.
The new Vineland Research and Commercialization Centre is what is evolving out of the old horticulture research station once run by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) at Vineland, bringing with it a new focus on industry-driven research, business development and commercialization.
Horticulture – which includes fruit, vegetable, flower and ornamental production – is big business in Ontario and a key part of the province’s economy, with farm cash receipts of $5.4 billion. The industry is faced with environmental challenges and rising production costs on many fronts, including labour, energy, crop protection and water, making research and innovation a key priority.
“Our future is in industry-driven research,” Bill Ingratta, Vineland’s director of external relations told members of the Eastern Canada Farm Writers at their annual meeting this week. “We’re moving away from projects driven by researchers and more towards looking at the market place and our value chain and focusing on projects that need to happen to make us profitable and competitive.”
The centre will focus on expanding markets through product innovation, especially premium products. But it will also concentrate on eliminating the environmental impacts of horticulture, such as reducing water needs, making better use of plant nutrition and reducing energy needs; safeguarding horticultural crops against environmental stresses like heat and cold by reducing their sensitivity to those stresses; and driving down the production costs in the industry.
“Our production costs are very high. For example, while it is necessary to increase the minimum wage, it has a huge impact on horticulture as the amount of labour involved in growing and harvesting crops is very high,” says Ingratta. “We need to find ways of using that labour more efficiently so we aren’t always just boosting production costs.”
Vineland’s new strategic direction evolved out of a panel of industry experts who have studied the future of the storied institution – world renowned for its horticultural research for over a century. In addition to research, the new centre will also focus on business and commercialization and on becoming a destination location in the Niagara Region.
“We’re going to be more than just a research institution,” says Ingratta. “We’re also going to focus heavily on business, innovation and commercialization of research, as well as working to turn Vineland into a visitor destination in its own right in this region.”
An independent board of members representing the entire value chain is overseeing the regeneration of Vineland, which was incorporated as a not for profit organization in 2007. And although OMAFRA has provided $25 million in funding, the institution operates independently from the government.
The centre has started hiring staff and is sourcing funding for research and other activities from various granting agencies through collaborative partnerships with other entities and institutions. Its vision is to be recognized internationally as a centre of horticulture research excellence, as well as a force in commercialization, Ingratta says.
But those activities need to be targeted and focused. “We can’t be all things to all people and we aren’t going to be commodity-specific,” he says.
Business innovation, commercialization and building relationships with business are key. This includes a new model for outreach, extension and technology transfer so that all members of the value chain can gain value from research results but that costs are also adequately covered. It also means looking at consumer reaction to new products before investing a lot of money into them.
“Gauging consumer reaction is important,” he says. “We have a plum developed from here that runs red juice called the vampire plum. People think it’s a novelty product so it may have applications.”
Down the road, Ingratta says, the centre is also to become a destination – that includes labs for researchers and space for incubation and business – to showcase horticulture innovations in Niagara, Ontario and Canada.