There's Gold in That Black Marsh

‘World's smallest research station' supports Ontario's vegetable-growing powerhouse


This photo of the Muck Crops Research Station team was featured on the cover of Carrot Country earlier this year. From left are Kevin Vander Kooi, Catarina Saude, Shawn Janse, Prof. Mary Ruth McDonald, Michael Tesfaendrias and Laura Riches.
This photo of the Muck Crops Research Station team was featured on the cover of Carrot Country earlier this year. From left are Kevin Vander Kooi, Catarina Saude, Shawn Janse, Prof. Mary Ruth McDonald, Michael Tesfaendrias and Laura Riches. Photo Courtesy of Mary Ruth McDonald

That rich black soil in southern Ontario's Holland Marsh sprouts more than carrots and onions. Research grows here, too. This year, Carrot Country magazine based in Washington, D.C., featured a report co-authored by Prof. Mary Ruth McDonald, Plant Agriculture, on diseases and insect pests afflicting the fourth most valuable field vegetable in Ontario.

The report made the publication's spring 2008 cover, not bad for the carrot crew working at what's been called “the world's smallest research station,” located only an onion's throw from one of the busiest highways in the Toronto area.

Welcome to the Muck Crops Research Station, a science and field-testing lifeline for a multi-million-dollar industry whose roots trace back to U of G.

It probably goes overlooked by most of the motorists barrelling along Highway 400, about 15 minutes north of Canada's Wonderland. But this research station supports local growers who produce one-quarter of Canada's multi-million-dollar crop of carrots and onions. In those neat green rows on the marsh's signature black soil, U of G researchers test vegetable varieties, assess crop protection tools and monitor weather conditions to help local growers plan their field maintenance schedules.

This wedge-shaped four-hectare parcel occupies one of the most intensively cultivated parts of Canada. The 7,000-acre Holland Marsh — part of the 10,000-acre Bradford organic growing district — is the largest area of highly organic soil devoted to agriculture in Ontario.

“The reason we're here is the soil,” says McDonald. Holding the brim of her straw hat against a tugging wind one morning this summer, she bends her knees slightly to exaggerate the springy feel underfoot. “It's almost like farming on peat moss. It's great for vegetable production.”

Most ordinary mineral soils naturally contain up to five per cent organic matter. In the Holland Marsh, between two-thirds and three-quarters of that black crumbly cake is organic, or muck.

(Here organic refers to the soil's origins rather than organic production methods, although some researchers here have looked at sustainable crop production. “We do run into a lot of confusion about that,” says McDonald, adding that the station's name also trips up some people. Laughing, she recalls one letter addressed to the “Much Research Station.”)

Besides cultivating the research plots on site, station staff use two hectares of organic soil rented from a grower elsewhere in the marsh. Another two hectares of mineral soil nearby are also available for comparative field trials.

Many studies involve crop protection research on products and methods to control insects and disease. This year's Carrot Country article pulled together results of major research trials done at the station in 2006 and 2007 on such things as leaf blight, sclerotinia rot, carrot weevils and rust flies. Such diseases and pests can cause havoc in Ontario's carrot crop, worth about $19 million in 2006.

Researchers here have also assessed materials to deter downy mildew, botrytis, clubroot, onion maggot and onion smut. (The station's resident cat is named for the grey-black spores produced by the smut fungus, although Smut himself is more interested in another kind of pest, says McDonald. “He's our biological control for mice.”)

To find one of her pest management research plots, look for the coloured flags marking onion plants where she's buried mesh bags of slow-release fertilizer. She's studying plant nutrients related to disease resistance, part of her broader research on crop protection and management.

She's been working here since completing a master's degree at Guelph and landing a job as a pest management scout in the Holland Marsh in 1981.

Besides McDonald and the station's staff technicians, other faculty members and students from the departments of Plant Agriculture and Environmental Biology study crop protection here. In one plot for weed research by plant agriculture professor Clarence Swanton, for example, the onions are nearly smothered by potato weed, whose leaves and stems harbour Colorado potato beetles.

Tied to pest and disease research is another important function: disease and insect forecasting.

From a weather mast in one corner of the field to solar-powered data loggers planted on the ground elsewhere, the station monitors everything from air temperature to leaf wetness. The station plugs that information into models to predict which diseases or insects may thrive under various weather and crop conditions. (Those models were developed three decades ago by U of G researchers, including adjunct professor John Sutton, Environmental Biology, and Terry Gillespie, emeritus professor in the Department of Land Resource Science.)

That information goes to growers and the Bradford grower co-op to help them decide when and how to plant or spray their crops most efficiently. Disease management also involves non-chemical control methods. For instance, forecasting tells growers when to trim carrot foliage, an approach that was pioneered at the station.

“It's important to get information out to growers,” says McDonald, recalling a severe outbreak of onion downy mildew predicted by the station in 2004. “You can go from a healthy crop to complete failure in 10 days, depending on the weather. If you're doing well, you avert a catastrophe before it occurs.”

Funding for that forecasting service comes from a federal research program and the local co-op.

“If something is happening in the field, the first place the marsh grower calls is us,” she says, adding that the station also refers callers to the pest diagnostic clinic run by U of G's Laboratory Services.

The other main job here at the muck station is to test-grow new vegetable varieties for commercial growers and breeders to see how cultivars fare under local conditions.

Which cultivars yield the best produce? Which ones resist pests or disease? How well do varieties store? To answer these questions, station researchers grow numerous varieties of carrots, onions, celery and lettuce. The results show up in supermarkets all over, including the farmers' market just up the road from the station.

“I guarantee that every Ontario-grown onion and carrot variety you buy in the grocery store was tested here at the station,” says McDonald.

A recent arrival is Asian vegetables, including bok choy, Chinese broccoli and Chinese flowering cabbage. These account for a growing share of the estimated $50-million worth of produce grown every year in the Holland Marsh.

From Guelph to Growing

If your kids want to thank someone for the vegetables on their dinner plate, you can tell them about U of G's on-again-off-again connection to the Muck Crops Research Station — and about a physics professor from the early 1900s.

The Holland Marsh — an actual wetland — formerly occupied the area north of Toronto and west of Newmarket. Then as now, residents regarded the marsh as a source of food but mostly through fishing and hunting rather than vegetable growing.

In 1904, a resident asked William Day, a physics professor at the Ontario Agricultural College, to look at draining the wetland. Day tested the soil and tried growing vegetables before beginning operations to drain the area and divert the Holland River, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. That work was completed in 1930. Today his canal and dikes still divert water around the marsh area, including the research station established in 1946 by OAC's former horticulture department.

In 1970, the station became part of the Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario (HRIO) run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). It rejoined U of G in 1997 when OMAFRA transferred operation of the HRIO along with three colleges and their research stations to the University.

Day left Guelph to become a farmer in the Holland Marsh. A historical plaque erected by Simcoe County says he went to Bradford in 1924 and harvested his first crop four years later. He died suddenly at work in his garden in 1938.