Research station fight heating up

With a little more than a week before the Thunder Bay research station is slated for closure, the region’s agricultural community still is struggling to find a way to keep it open.
“I’m still hopeful,” said Gordon Scheifele, research co-ordinator for Northwestern Ontario and crop technology advisor at the Thunder Bay station.
“I don’t think that there is going to come about a change by the Oct. 31 close date, but we see that it is very realistic that we may have something develop immediately after that,” he added.
As previously reported in the Times, the University of Guelph announced the research station would close in August due to a capital shortfall.
The project is a joint partnership between the university and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and local farm groups have been approaching both groups to see if there is a way to keep the research station open.
OMAF communications officer Derek Nelson said Monday that the decision is out of their hands.
“It’s not the ministry’s decision to keep it open. It’s the university research program and the university has made its choice,” he noted.
“The ministry has given $50.5 million in funding, the same as last year and the year before,” he added. “There has been no change in the amount of funding for the overall research umbrella.”
When first announcing the pending closure back in August, Dr. Alan Wildeman, vice-president (research) at the University of Guelph, stated OMAF funding had remained constant but failed to address increased program costs.
“The basic position of the ministry is that we have financed our part of the agreement with the University of Guelph for research purposes,” Nelson reiterated.
“They make the choices in that envelope.”
“I don’t blame the University of Guelph at all, they’ve been handed a pretty nasty situation,” NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton said Tuesday.
Hampton said that when the province moved all the agriculture colleges to the University of Guelph in 1996 and said they would provide a bulk sum of money for agricultural research, the writing was on the wall.
“The cost and the responsibility has been downloaded but not the revenue,” he said.
“The government wants the University of Guelph to be the bad guy, they have made them look like the bad guy,” Hampton added.
Meanwhile, a handful of concerned farmers met with Cameron Clark, the deputy minister of Northern Development and Mines, in Thunder Bay on Friday to see if that ministry could help save the research station.
Ron St. Louis, senior manager of communications for the MNDM, said Monday that his ministry will take their concerns and address them with OMAF.
However, he added they were not the lead ministry on the issue and that they were not in a position to offer any guarantees or pledges of action.
As previously reported, the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce is concerned about the economic impact closing the Thunder Bay research station will have on the north, especially by halting the hybrid poplar project.
The station was looking at acquiring land in Dryden, Kenora, and throughout the region to test the poplar breed.
“This would provide proof of the concept that the hybrid poplar will grow in a 15-year life cycle compared to conventional poplar which takes 40 years to grow,” NOACC president Tannis Drysdale of Fort Frances said yesterday.
Having this new poplar would mean the forest industry would have access to pulp much faster. She said it also would help to diversify the local economy.
Thinking back on similar discoveries by the University of Manitoba in creating canola, now a staple of Manitoba agriculture, Drysdale said closing the Thunder Bay research station would be a major setback to the north.
“By closing the research station, I am concerned we are closing the door on our canola and I find that scary,” Drysdale said.
There also are some concerns that the Emo research station is next on the chopping block if the one in Thunder Bay closes.
John Rowsell, head of northern research at the New Liskeard research station, agreed it would be a blow to the northern agricultural community if the Thunder Bay station was closed.
“I believe it is very important and a number of good things in Thunder bay have had a profound impact on the agriculture community,” he remarked.
For instance, Rowsell said a project to see if wood ash would neutralize pH in the soil saved farmers thousands of dollars.
In the past, they were using agriculture limestone to neutralize the high acidic level in the soil, which cost some families up to $8,000 to cover their 20-acre farms.
The station demonstrated that using wood ash was a viable option, and it would cost only $25 to access enough wood ash to treat soil for an entire farm.
Rowsell added research conducted at Thunder Bay was vital since growing conditions in southern Ontario or even Manitoba are so different.
“Climatically, Thunder Bay is very different. It is very heavily-influenced by Lake Superior,” he noted. “There are no influences as profound in nature in Manitoba and in southern Ontario it is much, much, much, much warmer.”
Rowsell added the soils in most places also are naturally neutral, which is the complete opposite in the Thunder Bay area.
If the research station does close, Rowsell said they will do everything they can to preserve this year’s data.
“When Thunder Bay closes, we will try to recover as much research information and communicate results with the community,” he said.
“We will try to do something with it at New Liskeard, but we’ve got a full slate here and it’s not as if anyone has reduced our workload,” he added.
Still, Rowsell isn’t giving up hope that a solution can be found.
“My philosophy is that it isn’t over until the doors are locked and the people are gone,” he said.