Brock profs among researchers in national organic farming research cluster

Brock University biology professors are among a group of researchers participating in a Canada-wide research cluster aimed at boosting the nation’s organic farming sector.

As Principal Investigator, Liette Vasseur is working with fellow Brock Biological Sciences Professor Andrew Reynolds and research scientist Mehdi Sharifi, of the Summerland Research and Development Centre in British Columbia, to head up a project under the federal government’s Organic Science Cluster 3 (OSC3): Connecting Environmental Sustainability with the Science of Organic Production.

The group will develop and test out new strategies for improving soils and vineyards sustainability in British Columbia and Ontario. They hope the research will also be valuable to other wine-producing regions of Canada.

These strategies involve combinations of cover crops, rootstocks and irrigation. The group has partnered with Heather Laundry’s Vineyard in Lincoln, Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the BC Wine Grape Council to carry out the research.

“The ultimate goal is to enhance the resilience of this agroecosystem in the face of climate change and greater use of horticulturally sustainable practices,” says Vasseur of the group’s project, titled “Unique cover crops, rootstocks, and irrigation techniques for Canadian vineyards.”

She says many growers in Canada’s multimillion dollar grape and wine industry are looking to enhance their vineyards’ long-term productivity and protect the environment at the same time.

“Many questions remain, however, as to how to optimize the agroecosystem in a way that the soil remains healthy and fertile leading to grape productivity and quality, especially with concern coming from climate change and possibilities of increased extreme weather events such as droughts,” says Vasseur.

A sustainable agricultural system often contains the planting of cover crops. These are plants — sometimes known as “green manure” — that help retain water, prevent soil erosion, introduce nutrients into the soil, suppress weeds and pests, and otherwise protect and enrich the soil naturally.

Cover crops include certain grains, grasses or legumes. The group will be experimenting with crop species and combinations that best suit the soils in the vineyards of Ontario and B.C. to develop a list of potential species that can be more beneficial depending on conditions.

The researchers will also test the effectiveness of different irrigation systems at the various sites.

Rootstocks may become another challenge with climate change. A rootstock, the part of the plant that is underground, is the basis on which is grape wine is grafted.

“There is a need to examine which rootstocks can better perform under such adverse conditions and how irrigation can be optimized to reduce impacts,” says Vasseur.  “A limited number of rootstocks have been used in Canadian vineyards, and very little published research is available.”

Vasseur, Reynolds and Sharifi’s research project is one of 28 projects under the OSC3, which is supported by the AgriScience Program.

That program is located within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Partnership, an initiative funded by the federal, provincial and territorial governments and more than 70 partners from the agricultural community.

Federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay announced the OSC3 late last month at the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada based at Dalhousie University.

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