OUTLOOK: Building better berries

UFV figures to be in the center of BC’s agricultural revolution for a long time to come.

In greenhouse conditions

Tom Baumann hustles up the doorway of the massive greenhouse and stops.

“You have shades right?” the University of the Fraser Valley agriculture professor says, pointing to your friendly neighborhood writer’s blue sunglasses. “You should put them on now.”

Wise advice.

As we step through the door our eyes are protected from the blindingly bright light coming through the white walls of the 12-metre tall structure, and Baumann starts pointing to this and that, wonders of agricultural science that he’s collecting under this roof.

He talks about the air control system above our heads that provides precision temperature control for the plants on the floor. Heat, humidity and carbon dioxide are all micro-managed by a sophisticated computer system. Baumann flips a switch for ventilation. Operating at full tilt, each of the surprisingly quiet overhead fans can extract the entire air volume of the greenhouse within a minute, each of them using just one amp of electricity.

A 15-foot tall banner hangs from the south wall. On it is a picture of Baumann’s next acquisition, which he hopes will arrive by late June/early July. It is a new concept, a 13-tiered vertical-growing system that he’ll use for strawberries. The walls of his greenhouse provide diffused, not direct light. That means each of the 13 levels, from bottom to top, will get equal amounts of light.

The system offers the potential for quicker, higher and healthier yields.

“Under normal conditions, with direct light and heavy shadows, it’s the leaves on top that are doing the heavy lifting,” Baumann elaborates as he points at some pepper plant leaves. “But in here, with light coming from all directions, the leaves on the bottom are all still green. We are getting full production. We had a Dutch consultant in not long ago who said, ‘You guys are now 10 years ahead of what we’re doing.’”

Usually it’s the opposite.

Baumann could spend hours talking about all the cutting-edge things going on in UFV’s agricultural department, most of which can be found at the back of the Canada Education Park on Keith Wilson Road. But this morning’s conversation centers on the Pacific Berry Resource Centre.

We retreat to Baumann’s office, which is tucked away in a nondescript building.

He shares this small space with a former student, Eric Gerbrandt, who works alongside him. Clearly, neither of them spend much time here.

Aside from two desks, two chairs and two computers, it resembles more of a store-room than an office. Boxes and binders here. A deep freeze in a corner and fridge on the far wall, both bursting with samples awaiting study.

“This facility enhances what we can do, but our lab is still in the fields of the growers,” Baumann says as he sits down. “We have a research station in Agassiz and a research plot in Abbotsford (at Clearbrook Road). We’re testing new varieties. We’re looking at disease and insect and nutritional issues. Whatever industry identifies as a problem, we’re involved with.”

The BC Strawberry Grower’s Association, the BC Blueberry Council, the Raspberry Industry Development Council and BC Cranberry Grower’s Association are key players in the partnership that was forged in October 2010.

Mark Sweeney, the BC’s Ministry of Agriculture’s Berry Specialist, is a driver on the government side, and Premier Christy Clark was in town not long ago to check things out. The PBRC works closely with the industry in Washington State, Oregon and California as well — places with similar climates and issues to overcome.

“We’ve got a variety of raspberry called Chilliwack that came out of here and is now internationally grown, especially in Australia and New Zealand,” Baumann says. “A variety called Tulameen, which is grown all over the world, emerged from the BC Breeding program and the Agassiz research station.”

The difference in varieties is in their adaptability to diseases, pests, climate and soil conditions.

And aesthetics.

“If it for the fresh market, then you want to have a really big fruit,” says Baumann, a 56 year old who started 33 years ago as a volunteer in the BC Breeding program. “If it’s for the processing market you don’t really care and it’s coloring and volume that matters. Either way, we want root-rot and aphid resistance. We have plants being grown throughout the Pacific Northwest now that don’t require spraying for aphids.”

In greenhouse conditions, Baumann and company can grow two generations of strawberries in a year, proving a quicker timeline to evaluate and produce new varieties. Raspberries take two years to produce the first generation and blueberries take the longest (five years).

In the meantime, they’re doing a lot of other things.

“Right now we’re looking at different pruning schemes. We’ve come up with plastic mulches with drip irrigation that runs underneath,” Baumann says. “We keep the fruit more clean, keeps slugs off and apply water and fertilizer directly to the roots. When we come up with a new method to save water, fertilizer or spraying, other areas are right on it. And similarly, when other areas develop something, we’re right on it.”

One of the most useful PBRC offerings is an extension service that sees Baumann, Gerbrandt and other ‘specialists’ going to industry to deal with problems and offer solutions.

“We go to conferences and bring that information to the growers to let them know what’s new,” he says. “We take the scientific gobbledygook and we make it accessible to them. And we trouble-shoot. A farmer calls us and says, ‘My plants are dying and I don’t know why.’ We go out there and tell him what it is. And if we don’t know we take a sample to the appropriate lab and we figure it out. We want our specialists to be doing that instead of having fertilizer companies telling growers what they need.”

UFV figures to be in the center of BC’s agricultural revolution for a long time to come. Other institutions will be involved, but UFV will run the show.

“As long as I live it will be done appropriately, and it will be done for industry,” Baumann says. “Universities miss this sometimes, working towards tenure and publications and the Ivory Tower academia sort of stuff. What we need is practical academia — people who can do the thinking and get their hands dirty.”

For the 30-36 students who figure to be involved in one way or another, the PRBC offers unsurpassed access.

“There aren’t a lot of jobs coming up in government, so most of them will end up in private industry,” Baumann suggests. “They aspire to be greenhouse managers and researchers. There are jobs galore and I’ve just heard you can make over $150,000 as a really good grower. In 2050 this planet is supposed to have nine billion people. The challenge for agriculture will be to feed them all, and while I’ll be long gone by then, I’m hoping what we’re doing now lays the framework for whoever follows me to meet that challenge.”

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