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Farming the future

There's been a lot of change on the Bocock farm over the last century. The family has traded its horses for tractors, sold most of its dairy cows and added solar panels to its roof.

There's been a lot of change on the Bocock farm over the last century. The family has traded its horses for tractors, sold most of its dairy cows and added solar panels to its roof.

But perhaps the biggest change came three years ago when they switched from growing food to raising science.

The Bocock farm north of St. Albert became the University of Alberta's St. Albert Research Station in December 2007. Now, it's home to hundreds of experimental trials for peas, wheat, trees and more, the outcomes of which could revolutionize agriculture.

Farm science used to be all about chemicals and fertilizer, says John Bocock, a life-long farmer, but now it's started to turn a corner. "Academia is starting to look more at the basics of what we're doing and whether it's sustainable," he says — and he's looking forward to its results.

Old MacDonald had a lab...

The St. Albert Research Station consists of about 314 hectares of top-grade soil southeast of Highways 2 and 37, says Barry Irving, who manages it for the university. It now hosts about 10 projects on about 61 hectares of land.

The station came about as a happy coincidence, say Bocock and Irving. The U of A was set to lose its lease on its Ellerslie research farm in 2011 and needed a replacement. The Bococks, meanwhile, wanted to make sure their land was protected from development after they were gone. The two met through a neighbour and the Bococks agreed to turn most of their land over to the U of A.

This was an extremely important donation, says Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers, as it allowed the university to continue vital crop and livestock research. "If that land base goes, all that research dries up."

Canada is at a huge disadvantage compared to the rest of the world, Scarlett says — we're cold and our farms are far from the sea. "If Canada wants to keep up, we need crops that work best here."

Getting an edge

Finding those crops takes a lot of basic research.

Shirley Ross, a plant science researcher at the farm, scrutinizes some wheat as her team combines some nearby plots.

Farmers have long known that legumes can boost nitrogen levels in soil, she says, but don't know which combination of legumes and crops produces the most yield with the least chemicals. "We're past the peak of cheap oil," she says, "and we have to look at ways to grow food with less inputs."

Over the next three years, she plans to plant eight different crops on identical two-by-two metre plots in various combinations as part of a crop rotation study. After she harvests and analyzes each for productivity, nitrogen and protein levels, she'll compare the results to find the best rotation.

"What we're finding is some crops don't do so well following canola compared to peas," Ross says when asked about her initial results. This research could eventually use crop rotation to save on fertilizer, she says.

Nearby, Mark Olson of Alberta Agriculture is holding field trials on about 350 types of pea and fava bean.

"What farmers need are crops that stand well, yield well, [and] have good colour retention," Olson says. These trials test new crops so farmers and companies know how each performs.

Olson's team plants and harvests each variety in its own one-by-six metre row. Each is tested for yield, protein levels, shape, size and other traits with the information later released to the public.

That information determines what varieties get registered for use in Canada, Scarlett says, and which ones farmers decide to plant. These tests will become even more important as climate change and new diseases change what can be grown in Alberta, he adds.

New careers for crops

Derek Sidders, a forestry specialist with the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, walks through what looks like an ordinary poplar and willow forest on the farm.

All these trees are actually clones, Sidders says, specially bred to grow about five times faster than normal. These poplars were saplings just two years ago, he says, and they already tower over his head — a normal one might be at his waist by now. "When they're in year five, they will be about seven metres tall."

The farm has about 20 hectares of hybrid trees planted at different densities, Sidders says. Originally used as windbreaks, scientists now want to see if these trees can be used for wood, energy and carbon storage. "We call these short rotation woody crops," he says — they grow fast for frequent harvest.

Sidders steps between two thick walls of European willow. These have grown to about two metres from nothing in a year, he says, and are being studied as a renewable source of fuel.

"You'd be amazed at how much energy comes out of wood," he says. Carbon makes up half of wood's mass and carbon means energy. Initial research suggests they can get about 30 tonnes of fuel a year from these willows, he says, all of which can be used to make carbon-neutral energy.

Part of the forest is being used to study climate change. These hybrid trees are thought to store about 10 to 14 tonnes of greenhouse gas a year per hectare, Sidders says, but they have to verify that if Canada wants to use them for carbon credits. Right now the only way to know for sure is to burn them, which releases anything they might have stored.

Sidders crouches by a strange robot on the forest floor that could be part of the solution — a solar-powered carbon soil respiration monitor. Every two hours, it plops a mirrored cup on a swing-arm onto the forest floor to measure its carbon output. Another sensor, this one shaped like an antenna with two claws on the end facing each other, tracks carbon input from the air nearby. These sensors will help his team track how carbon cycles through the forest, leading to a model others can use to track storage rates without burning trees.

Farming ain't easy

Sidders says outdoor labs like this one give him the time and space his team needs to prove its techniques work in the real world. Most of these experiments will last 15 years and involve 20-metre tall trees, making them impractical to hold indoors.

Bad weather is always a risk, Olson says — frost, drought, wet or hail can cost them their crops and their results. Animals are another problem. He once lost a whole experiment a day before harvest to a herd of hungry cows. "Ducks and geese absolutely love peas," he says, and both are known to devour test plots.

These experiments are vital for the future of agriculture, Bocock says. "The population of the world keeps getting bigger and the amount of land we have to grow food on keeps getting smaller," he says. "Unless we keep becoming more efficient at producing food, we're apt to be a little short at some point."

Government support for basic agricultural research has dropped to $280 million from $458 million since 1994, according to Scarlett, with corporations taking up the slack. "We've lost scientists and the infrastructure that goes with it," he says. "We need to strongly reinvest so we can recreate all that."

Private companies don't always have farmers' interests at heart, Bocock says. "It behooves the governments we elect to support these universities to do the research so we're not entirely beholden to Monsanto to supply us with our seed and other inputs."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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