Building up the roots

Building up the roots

July 1, 2002

When you ask many Canadians about food products from the Maritimes, traditional staples like fish and potatoes might be the first things that come to mind. But now, as far away as the West coast, people picking up a bag of frozen carrots or tucking away a blueberry muffin could well be sampling East coast wares—sometimes without even knowing it.

In fact, the Maritime menu of products is growing larger and larger. Carrots and blueberries are now the region's leading agricultural commodities, together worth some $150 million a year. They're also responsible for (directly or indirectly) some 10,000 jobs in the area.

The volume of these crops has been growing steadily in recent years, and producers would like to continue this trend and expand into new markets. With that goal in mind, researchers at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (NSAC) are being asked by industry to take a look at what makes these plants tick—how they grow, what makes them grow well, and what could make them grow better.

"We needed to focus on our understanding of the basic biology—things such as when are the shoots, roots, and rhizomes growing," says David Percival , an Industrial Research Professor who chairs the Wild Blueberry Research Program at the NSAC. "There really wasn't a good handle on that."

Percival says that farmers and scientists are still answering some rudimentary questions about the nutritional dynamics of these plants, as well as the impact of fertilizers or pesticides. In the absence of such information, the push for even larger harvests could lead to serious environmental damage. This prospect is especially worrisome in the Maritimes where most wild blueberry farmland has poor soil structure, making it susceptible to erosion and leaching of inputs, including agrochemicals.

NSAC's Wild Blueberry Research Program is looking at how yields could be increased without compromising the long-term sustainability of the entire crop. In this way, the blueberry poses a particular research challenge since it can't be adequately raised in a greenhouse setting, where various features of the plant might be assessed under highly controlled conditions. Instead, Percival and his colleagues have to work directly in the many different fields across the Atlantic region where the berries grow.

In order to do this, researchers have acquired a specialized array of analytical tools that they can take into the field with them. The equipment includes weather stations to collect readings right where the plants are growing, as well as portable systems for measuring light-use efficiency, the movement of water through the plant, and its rate of photosynthesis and transpiration. After just a couple of seasons, the findings have been surprising.

"It's really opened our eyes with respect to the biology of the plant," says Percival, noting that the findings have shown how blueberries manage nutrients and remain drought tolerant. Trials are now under way to explore the possibility of keeping the nutrient level sufficient enough so that the plant will provide an output of berries annually, rather than every other year.

"We're essentially in an industry where one out of every two years you get a crop," he says. "We're beginning to think that you can manage the plant to get two successive crops off it. If that does pan out—and I'm confident that it will—the savings will be immense."

The future of carrot production in the Maritimes could be equally bright. In contrast to blueberries, the carrot crop can be studied in a greenhouse setting. This makes it possible to scrutinize the different factors that determine the quality of the produce. Rajasekaran Lada, who chairs NSAC's Processing Carrot Research Program, has designed an environmental chamber for manipulating these factors independently and observing the results.

The results of the observations? Lada says Canada's Maritime carrots have become widely popular because of a natural advantage: the relatively low growing temperatures make them sweeter than almost any other variety. He would like to see producers make the most of this advantage. Among the variables his equipment can examine are light intensity, humidity, temperature, and CO2 levels. The studies he and his team have conducted have already revealed the kinds of conditions the carrots prefer. "Carrots are light sensitive," he says. "If you have full sunshine, instead of helping the plants to produce more carbon, it probably inhibits them." He says a simple canopy erected over the carrots could adjust light to the best level for optimal growth.

Lada has also been able to make use of dendrometers, instruments that attach to root structures and take ongoing, real-time measurements of growth and development. "We can monitor growth, we can monitor volume, without destroying the plant and keep that monitoring facility going all the time," he says, recalling how even experienced growers were surprised to learn that carrot roots can extend as much as two metres beneath the surface.

The technology for collecting this kind of data was acquired by NSAC researchers with the assistance of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Oxford Frozen Foods Limited, a Nova Scotia-based company that distributes Maritime blueberries and carrots to markets across North America and around the world. In addition to the facilities that have been assembled to study carrots, CFI funding has also gone toward the construction of a new Wild Blueberry Research Centre, which is run in collaboration with the Nova Scotia Wild Blueberry Institute, the Wild Blueberry Producers Association of Nova Scotia, and NSAC.

For the investigators who are gaining new insights into plants that might seem all too familiar, such investments make good scientific as well as business sense. NSAC is helping to produce a new generation of agricultural researchers, even as farmers are trying to enhance a pillar of the region's economy. The key is ensuring that the crops at the heart of these initiatives become well understood. "You might have a good variety, but if you do not know how to optimize resources, you will not be able to maximize yield and quality," says Lada.

Benefits

Carrots and blueberries might seem to be well-entrenched crops whose features are well known to everyone who deals with them for a living. But those features can vary dramatically depending on where they are grown, and under what conditions. Researchers at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College are now using some of the latest technology to explore the factors that determine whether these crops will thrive.

The work has significant implications for the Maritimes, where carrots and blueberries represent a major portion of the regional agricultural economy. The volume of these crops has grown steadily in recent years. And now, producers who are already shipping to markets around the world would like to continue broadening their horizons.

Nevertheless, NSAC researchers caution that such growth should be based on optimal yields, rather than forcing output at the expense of the environment. The soil of Maritime farmland is already susceptible to problems such as leaching and erosion. The aggressive use of fertilizers or pesticides could make matters worse.

The work of NSAC's Wild Blueberry Research Program and Processing Carrot Research Program marks a comprehensive effort to understand these two plants in scientific detail. Researchers have assembled a unique collection of facilities and instruments for this task, which after just a few growing seasons has provided some surprising findings about these crops. After many difficult years in the Atlantic fishery, the success of this initiative should ensure the ongoing success of an agricultural enterprise in a region that could use this vital stimulus.

Partners

The leading industrial partner of NSAC researchers is Oxford Frozen Foods Limited, which touts itself as having "the largest fruit farm in the world." The company owns and farms more than 12,000 acres (6,000 hectares) of blueberry land between Nova Scotia and Maine—while managing approximately the same amount of land for independent growers.

Established in the small centre of Oxford, Nova Scotia in 1968, the company now employs as many as 2,000 people during its peak season. Its products include Individually Quick Frozen wild blueberries, carrots, and cranberries, as well as sugar-infused products, dried and canned products, and battered vegetable and cheese products.

David Percival and his colleagues also work with the Nova Scotia Wild Blueberry Institute, which was established in the early 1980s by the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Governed by a Board of Directors that includes an NSAC representative, the Institute oversees research associated with the province's wild blueberry industry.