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Research Centre Enters New Era

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On the grounds of Agriculture Canada’s Lethbridge Research Centre (LRC) stand two unique poplar trees representing the past, present and future of agricultural research in southern Alberta.

The sapling, planted three years ago, is a clone of the famous Fairfield poplar of 1906, one of the oldest and largest of its kind in southern Alberta. Named after William Fairfield, the first superintendent of LRC, the plains cottonwood poplar is a testament to a century of agricultural research.

Fairfield remained superintendent for 40 years, until 1945. One of his legacies is the introduction of alfalfa to southern Alberta. While he was operating a model farm for the Canadian North West Irrigation Company in 1901, Fairfield noticed that the local soils wouldn’t grow alfalfa. So he imported a few kilos of soil from an alfalfa field in Wyoming and scattered it at the farm, thus inoculating the soil with rhizobium bacteria. That soil was then used to foster alfalfa production in other fields.

LRC facts

Originally established in 1906 as a Dominion Experimental Station

The largest research centre outside of Ottawa

54 research scientists and 350 total staff

25,000 square metres of laboratory/office complex and 500 hectares of adjacent land

Insect-microbial containment facility

Greenhouse and controlled climate growth facilities

Facilities for dairy, sheep and beef cattle, including a research feedlot

Weather station with 100 years of climate records

Satellite research facilities located at Onefour (17,000 ha), Vauxhall (190 ha) and Stavely (400 ha)

Johan Dormaar, principal research scientist emeritus at LRC, says Fairfield’s contribution to alfalfa production was a defining moment in the history of agricultural research in southern Alberta.

In 1906, the research centre, then known as the Dominion Experimental Station, had one director and two or three research scientists, says Dormaar. Plant breeders were present from day one. Animal breeders, soil scientists and plant pathologists soon followed.

Today, LRC employs 54 research scientists with a total staff of 350. That includes post-doctorates, visiting scientists, graduate students, co-op and summer students and research participants.

Change of focus

Brian Freeze, research manager at LRC, says this past year brought about several changes in structure and focus. Prior to becoming research manager, Freeze spent five years in Ottawa and 20 years as a production economist at LRC.

Research will still follow the traditional areas of environmental health, animal science, plant science and food technology. There will be greater emphasis on national research related specifically to beef production, new technologies for sustainable crops for dry and irrigated lands, and breeding crop varieties (potatoes, wheat, beans and forages) with improved yield, quality and disease and insect resistance.

“There’s a shift in science connected to the value chain and commercialization of research, targeting the process along the chain as well as people using the end product,” says Freeze. Under Agriculture Canada’s “Growing Forward” program, 10 science directors will now each oversee two research centres. Jeff Stewart is the science director for LRC and the research facility in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

As for LRC itself, it is quickly running out of room, says Freeze, in spite of an addition built about five years ago. Since then, there are 10 fewer research scientists but more support staff. The main building, built in 1976, is set up so that offices are on the outside and laboratories are on the inside.

The majority of scientists is in the 45-to 55-year old range. There is no mandatory retirement and LRC is pushing for people to return on a part-time basis. “It keeps the expertise around because it can be hard to find new people in certain areas,” says Freeze.

Dormaar is one of those retired scientists who keep coming back. “I’m just not into golf,” he says. Furthermore, he enjoys the research and continues to work on projects about the history of LRC.

As the research centre enters its second century of agricultural research, Dormaar reflects on one of the last original buildings on site, an old paint storage shed which was torn down a few months ago. “It was all gone in less than an hour,” he said.

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