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Wednesday, 12 October 2011 15:28

New greenhouse opening at SPARC Oct. 20

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By Jessi Gowan
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The official opening of the new Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre (SPARC) greenhouse will take place on Oct. 20, from 1-3:30 p.m. The public is invited for a ribbon cutting ceremony and to tour the new facility.

It's an exciting development for the people at SPARC who have a lot on the go.

Wheat breeders at SPARC in Swift Current are always hard at work improving grain yield, food processing quality, straw strength, and disease and insect resistance to help keep Canadian farmers competitive in the global market. SPARC is part of a network of 19 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) research facilities that have been delivering new practices and products for Canadian society for more than one hundred years.

The initial mandate of AAFC's Research Branch, established in 1886, was to develop agricultural technologies that farmers could use to support economic activity.

Researchers in Swift Current have played an important role in helping Canada achieve such success in the global agricultural industry. They were the first to identify genetic resistance to the Wheat Stem Sawfly, and incorporated that resistance into a hard grain spring wheat to control the pest. The new solid-stemmed wheats were much more resistant to infestation, and one of the latest varieties was the most commonly grown wheat in Canada from 2007-2010, and was the second most widely-grown variety in 2011.

“That was a major breakthrough for prairie farmers,” explained Dr. Ron DePauw, Team Leader with SPARC. “We have since then continued to develop solid stemmed wheats at the centre in Swift Current.”

Another major example of SPARC's contributions to Canadian cereal production is the development of durum wheat, which is the most highly priced wheat in Canada. Canada accounts for about 50-55% of the world wheat trade in durum, and over 90% of durum wheat is based on varieties developed at SPARC.

“Durum wheat has been very successful in international markets,” DePauw noted. “It has a favorable clean, yellowish color, and has good al dente properties. Breeders at SPARC worked on developing durum wheats to meet the preferences of consumers, and 'Kyle' durum, one of our varieties, was recognized as seed of the year in 2008.”

SPARC has made a huge impact on the development of durum wheat as an extremely valuable crop, which now accounts for 800 million to one billion dollars annually. DePauw noted that this is much greater than other products, including wine and salmon.

The centre received another seed of the year award for the 'AC Barrie' hard red spring wheat  developed in Swift Current that is more water and nitrogen use efficient. By adding better photosynthetic efficiency and more functional root systems, breeders were able to build an entirely better plant. Using infrared technology developed at the centre to measure the protein content in the wheat, researchers developed a grain that contained more protein, but used the same amount of water and nitrogen as other varieties, resulting in a very popular variety, which was the most widely grown cultivar in Canada from 1998 to 2006.

“About 50% of all wheat grown in Canada derives from varieties developed at SPARC,” added DePauw. “The varieties that are developed at SPARC have what producers want, and so they are very marketable. At the end of the day, you have to be able to sell your grain.”

Part of SPARC's success comes from their locations in Swift Current, Indian Head, and Regina, which DePauw feels is the best research land in Canada. With the largest number of acres of top-quality land for doing research, breeders at SPARC have a distinct advantage over breeders in many other parts of the country. Partnering with farmers, government agencies, and seed companies has also been an important part of maintaining their success. Those investments allow SPARC to employ competent staff year-round, and provides them with access to the latest tools.

This year, SPARC is celebrating over 90 years of agricultural research. This anniversary coincides with the completion of a major capital project – a new greenhouse, which was funded by the Modernizing Federal Laboratories Initiative under Canada's Economic Action Plan.

“With the new greenhouse opening, that will be an important research tool to help with all of the research at SPARC, but it will help the wheat breeding program very much,” noted DePauw. “It will allow us to have some of the most contemporary tools for making varieties of wheat for producers and continuing to meet consumer preferences.”

Breeders at SPARC are continually working on developing new varieties of wheat to reduce production costs for farmers, as well as detrimental effects on the environment and on the health of the farmers handling chemical pesticides. The very low usage of fungicides and insecticides on wheat produced in western Canada offers a distinct market advantage in selling Canadian wheat. They are also concentrating on improving wheat quality, offering more efficient grains and responding to the needs of consumers.

Development of new breeding tools, such as DNA markers, enhances the speed at which value-added varieties can be put into commercial production, improving effectiveness and reducing the cost of selection. DNA markers are used to evaluate grain quality traits, as well as the grain's resistance to insect pests and diseases.

“Western Canada was based on a wheat economy,” DePauw explained. “The railroads, the little towns, the main streets – all because of wheat. The research that we do is a furtherance of that, building genetic resistance to disease, insects, and making the wheat more efficient.”

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