Agricultural Research Stations | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Agricultural Research Stations

For more than a century, the federal government has funded agricultural research through a network of research centres strategically placed in almost every province. This research program has played a major role in developing the more than $120-billion Canadian agrifood industry.
Central Experimental Farm
An air photo of the Central Experimental Farm (courtesy Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada).

Research Stations, Agricultural

For more than a century, the federal government has funded agricultural research through a network of research centres strategically placed in almost every province. This research program has played a major role in developing the more than $120-billion Canadian agrifood industry.


The first record of agricultural research was one of 3 attempts to establish an experimental farm. A dairy farm was set up in the Selkirk settlement (Winnipeg) in 1821, which was followed by a facility to demonstrate new equipment in 1831 and finally a sheep production experimental farm in 1838. These initiatives were all abandoned shortly after their establishment. In 1884 a select committee chaired by G.A. Gigault was named by the House of Commons to investigate the means for supporting and improving agriculture in Canada. The committee recommended the establishment of an experimental farm, where varieties of foreign grain, trees and fertilizers could be tested. The committee also recommended that samples of seeds and plants then be distributed throughout the Dominion by this experimental farm.

Parliament appointed Professor William Saunders from the University of Western Ontario in November 1885 to conduct studies into the practicality of establishing experimental farms. His report of 29 Feb 1886 was presented to Parliament and An Act Respecting Experimental Farm Stations received royal assent on 2 June 1886. Professor Saunders was appointed director of the new Experimental Farms Service on 12 Oct 1886. The legislation authorized the establishment of 5 experimental farms, with the Ottawa location for Ontario and Québec designated as the Central Experimental Farm. The other 4 stations were in Nappan, NS (established 1887), Brandon, Man, Indian Head, NWT, and Agassiz, BC (all established 1888). The priorities for these new experimental farms were the testing of crops, livestock housing, nutrition and management of animals, and the use of manure as a fertilizer. An integral component of the demonstration work was the planting of shelter belts at all farm locations and the landscaping of the grounds with trees, shrubs, perennials and annual flower beds.

Not until the turn of the century were experimental stations established in Alberta, at Lethbridge (1906), Lacombe (1907), Fort Vermillion (1907) and Beaverlodge (1917). These were followed in 1909 by stations in Charlottetown, PEI, and Rosthern, Sask, and in 1911 by Scott, Sask. The Rosthern Station had a relatively brief longevity and was closed in 1940. In the Maritimes, experimental stations were opened in Kentville, NS (1911), Fredericton, NB (1912) and St John's, Nfld (1950); in Québec, stations were started in La Pocatière (1912), Lennoxville (1914), L'Assomption (1928) and Sainte-Foy (1954), with a Food Research Centre in St. Hyacinthe (1988). For Ontario, Harrow (1913), Kapuskasing (1916), Delhi (1933), Thunder Bay (1937), London (1951) and Smithfield (1960) were opened in addition to the Central Experimental Farm. Manitoba saw the establishment of experimental stations in Morden (1915), Winnipeg (1924) and Portage La Prairie (1944). Saskatchewan has experimental facilities at Saskatoon (1917), Swift Current (1921), Regina (1931) and Melfort (1935). Alberta saw only the addition of one experimental farm at Vegreville (1957), which was closed in 1994. BC had an experimental station opened in Summerland (1914), Vancouver (1925), Kamloops (1935), Creston (1940) and Prince George (1940). Two experimental stations were opened in YT at Mile 1019, Alaska Highway (1945) and in NWT at Fort Simpson (1947); both stations subsequently closed due the lack of agricultural potential in the regions that they served.

In 1959 all agricultural research activities conducted by the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food were merged into one branch, the Research Branch, which survives to the present day. The Research Branch is administered by an assistant deputy minister who is supported by 5 director generals. Director generals have specific national program responsibilities for 4 national research programs (environmental health, sustainable production systems, bio-products and bio-processing, and food safety and quality). They are responsible for the future strategic direction of the 4 national programs, for building collaborative relationships with universities and the private sector and for developing scientific capacity to address new and emerging issues. The director generals are supported by 10 science directors with expertise in specific areas of importance. Operational management of the research facilities is done through research managers who are responsible for ensuring that resources are available at the local level to support the approved research programs. By the end of the 1970s, the Research Branch had more than 50 research locations, which were consolidated into 19 research centres or centres of excellence by 1995. The Research Branch employs approximately 2300 full-time employees (2007), of which 600 are scientists or other professionals (chemists, biologists). The Research Branch functions on a base budget of close to $200 million (2007-8) and that includes about $17 million available for matching support to allow industry projects to be conducted at its facilities. The Research Branch base budget includes salaries and operational funds to conduct research projects. It does not include the ongoing operational costs to run and maintain the research facility network across the country, which has a budget close to $90 million.

Achievements of the Research Branch

The federal investment in agricultural research has made a major contribution to the success of Canadian agribusiness over the last century. Agriculture not only supplies Canadians with a healthy, safe, nutritious food supply at one of the lowest costs in the world (only the US is lower), but it also generates about $17 billion in agricultural and food exports. When one considers the short growing season and long, cold winter typical of most Canadian agricultural regions, modern agriculture can be regarded as one of Canada's most important success stories.

Soil Research

Farming practices can have dramatic effects on soil quality, yet soil is a resource that must be maintained for use by future generations. Probably the best example is the dust bowl of the 1930s, where millions of tonnes of topsoil were blown off the prairies (see erosion). Farming practices of the time contributed through the common use of extensive cultivation that increased soil moisture loss. Strong winds and low rainfall combined with the excessive cultivation resulted in the dust bowls. Wheat yields on the Prairies dropped from 1.2 tonnes per hectare to 0.68 tonnes per hectare. Research conducted at Lethbridge and Swift Current found that the blowing of topsoil in dry years could be markedly reduced by farming narrow strips of land planted in a north-south direction with small strips of summer fallow left in between. It was later found that leaving a longer stubble (crop residue after harvest) would collect snow in the winter to provide moisture and also prevent the blowing of soil during summer fallow. These advances in soil management practices for the prairies, along with other advances (eg, cover crops, use of shelter belts), stopped the dust bowls of the 1930s. Other important work conducted by the Research Branch includes the value of crop rotations, the use of fertilizers and the treatment of salinity buildup in soils.

In recent years perhaps the achievement of most importance has been the development of new cultivation practices commonly referred to as conservation tillage. European farming practices that were imported by the early settlers called for the extensive use of the plough to maintain soil fertility and control plant diseases and insects. These practices contributed to a decline in soil health through loss of organic matter and often left the fragile topsoil without the protection of crop residues, thus directly contributing to loss of soil through the action of the wind and rainfall. Conservation tillage called for the design of new equipment that could plant seed directly into the soil without the need to plough the land. The residues of the crop (roots and stems) from the previous year were left intact over the winter and the land directly planted the following spring with minimal or zero tillage. While relatively simple in concept, the conservation tillage approach required a complete cultural change on the part of farmers, the development of new equipment and the adoption of new production practices. Conservation tillage has been adopted on more than 60% of the arable land in Western Canada (more than 30 million ha) as this practice is not only more environmentally sustainable, but also reduces costs for farmers (lowered fuel and labour costs). An added benefit of conservation tillage is that it results in a modest accumulation of organic matter in the soil over time and directly offsets carbon emissions. This has been recognized by the international community and in the future, Canadian farmers will make a direct contribution to reducing carbon emissions, which is one of the commitments Canada accepted under the Kyoto agreement.

Animal Research

Canadian scientists are regarded as world leaders in developing selection procedures to identify superior breeding animals (see animal breeding). Because this technology has been rapidly transferred and used by industry, Canadian livestock are highly regarded in world markets and millions of dollars in sales are recorded on an annual basis. The Canadian Holstein cow (dairy breed) is considered to be the best breed in the world for producing milk. Federal scientists were the first to evaluate a number of European beef breeds that were imported to Canada 25 to 30 years ago. Their results showed that crossing these breeds with domestic breeds improved beef productivity by at least 25% and at the same time produced the much leaner red meat that was increasingly demanded by the consumer. Today almost 80% of beef cows in Canada are crossbred using these European beef breeds as a result of this research. Other notable examples of livestock research include the recent development of alfalfa (a green forage) bred to be bloat-free (bloat is an accumulation of gas in the rumen of cattle that can cause death and is common when cattle are fed legumes), the requirements of farm animals for trace minerals, the control of mycotoxins in feed, the development of the Lacombe breed of hog and the breeding of disease resistance in poultry.

Crops Research

A major achievement of the Research Branch was the release of Marquis Wheat in 1909 by Charles Saunders, the son of William Saunders. Marquis was a spring wheat that was the first early maturing variety that also had high quality for baking and milling. By 1920, Marquis wheat was grown on more than 6 million ha on the Canadian prairies, about 90% of the total wheat acreage. While Marquis has long been superseded by superior varieties, the varieties currently in use are still largely the product of federal agricultural research centres (Cereal Research Centre, Winnipeg, Semi-Arid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre, Swift Current). Marquis established Canada as a world leader in producing high-quality wheat, a reputation that continues today along with billions of dollars in export sales. In addition to the early maturity that is so important in our short growing season, breeders have improved yield, quality and disease resistance (see crop research).

A second major achievement was the introduction of canola, an oilseed used to make margarine, cooking oils and salad dressings. The precursor of canola was rapeseed, which was crushed for oil since as long as 3000 to 4000 years ago. Rapeseed oil was used as a marine lubricating oil during the Second World War due to its relatively high content of erucic acid, a substance that made it unsuitable for human consumption. Much of the work to produce canola (very low in erucic acid as compared to rapeseed) was lead by Dr. Keith Downey of the Saskatoon Research Centre and the first variety was released in 1964. Since that time there have been many new and improved varieties, and by 1977 canola oil was approved as safe for human consumption. This was followed by a similar approval in the US in 1985. Today, millions of hectares of canola are grown in Canada, providing a new crop for farmers and value-added industry via processing plants.

Food Research

Canadian scientists have developed quality control or grading systems for many food products including beef, pork, lamb, poultry, vegetables and fruit. For animals, these grading systems have related market requirements back to the producer and have saved the animal industry hundreds of millions of dollars in feed costs through the identification of overfat carcasses. Other notable achievements include the improvement in flavour and storage characteristics of fruit juices, superior methods for the freezing of food and the preservation of chilled foods such as meats through innovative packaging techniques.

Future Plans of the Research Branch

While the role of the Research Branch is changing through its consolidation into 19 centres of excellence, its primary mandate is to protect the Canadian food supply from foreign pests and diseases and to ensure a safe and nutritious food supply for the country. Its role also includes a research program to ensure the resources used to grow food (soil, water, plants, animals) are maintained for following generations. Information technology, genetic engineering and biological control of pests and diseases will be key components in the research portfolio for the next century. With the expected wane of the petrochemical industry as known resources are exploited, agriculture will become an important source of renewable industrial chemicals, fuels and construction materials. Bio-fuels such as ethanol produced from grains and bio-diesel produced from oilseeds are an emerging industry in North America and Europe. The bio-economy will broaden the importance of agriculture on a worldwide basis but will also lead to conflict between the need to produce food and feed and industrial products. In the next 5 years, agricultural research centres anticipate numerous innovations, including the release of 15 to 20 new crop varieties; the impact of Canadian agriculture on greenhouse gases, water quality and soil; gene maps of cattle and poultry to identify sites that control important traits (eg, growth rate, feed consumption, taste) and disease resistance; and development of new procedures to evaluate, track and trace food products to improve food safety.

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