In terms of seed, there's no place like home

Top Crop Manager
November 12, 2007
By Top Crop Manager
26aIn the search for competitive advantages, seed companies are looking for every boost to market and promote their products. Demands for improved yield and quality, disease resistance and tolerance are all on the 'to do' lists of seed companies and breeding programs.

But one characteristic that seems to be gaining prominence, however slowly, is location. More of the smaller companies in Ontario are developing or at least choosing their seed from sites closer to home. And if, in the case of corn seed, they are contracting selection programs and seed growers from across the border, many of those service providers are being found closer to Ontario as well.

One of the primary reasons for such a trend is the realization that Ontario is like... Ontario. No longer accepted as 'similar' to central Wisconsin or northeastern Iowa, Ontario is gaining recognition for its unique qualities, including climate and soil types. Companies seem to be demanding better accountability for the types of seeds being offered by US producers. Henry Olechowski, director of research with Thompsons in Blenheim, Ontario, agrees that the province, especially the southern and southwestern regions, are unique, with a series of characteristics all their own. "The big one is the Great Lakes effect and the buffering ability of the water," says Olechowski. "The other factor in the extreme southwest is that we tend to have delayed frost in the fall, so we can generally finish off the seed crop properly."

Two additional factors that separate Ontario from other regions are good to high soil fertility, if managed properly, and a wealth of skilled farmers capable of producing crops which require high management practices. If there is a problem here in Ontario, at least compared to regions in the US, it is in drought management. "If we come into a drought situation, we're not set up for irrigation, so if you're producing seed corn in southern Michigan, you irrigate regardless," states Olechowski.

Another hurdle hitting Ontario particularly hard is logistics. In corn, production is shifting to the US to take advantage of economics and irrigation (see page 10 for more details). "From a price comparison standpoint, US growers can be very competitive on the economic side because, often times, that is their only business," says Olechowski, but transportation costs for producing soybean seed in southern Ontario and shipping it west or east would be cost prohibitive. "For self-pollinated crops like soybeans and cereals, you want them grown and processed in the area where you're going to sell them."

Soybean production is on the move
That has been the case particularly with soybeans as their production area has shifted east towards Quebec and northwest in the eventual direction of Manitoba. Joe Hickson, president of Advantage Seeds and based near Lindsay, Ontario, acknowledges the movement further east of soybean seed growing operations and breeding programs. He believes there is a greater recognition of yield potential and quality characteristics being tailored to meet Ontario conditions.

Within the past several years, his company has screened and turned down varieties that were, in effect, unadaptable. In his opinion, the offering of the company involved was based mostly on latitude and a need to clear its inventory, instead of local Ontario agronomics. The trend now, especially in Ontario, seems to incorporate desired traits and characteristics for conditions here, instead of hoping for similar changes from a breeder in the US. "I would say, though, that the genetic pool south of the border has equal potential, but we've got to take the initiative and do the screening to find it ourselves," says Hickson, adding it is all the more reason to develop the breeding system for soybeans here in Ontario.

At present, he still believes there is the element of chance that plays into the breeding process, that 'Made in Ontario' varieties may or may not be successful, just as those from the US may not meet an Ontario grower's specific needs. "It's still a gamble," says Hickson. "Sometimes you have as good luck getting a winner out of North Dakota as you do out of an Ontario-based program."

Ontario soybean breeding must drive industry
Like Olechowski, Dr. Gary Ablett believes Ontario boasts unique qualities all its own, including proximity to the Great Lakes, as well as soil types and disease profiles. And he agrees that such factors must be and are being reflected in domestic breeding programs. He emphasizes the drive to develop specific varieties for the Ontario market must come from within the province, instead of relying on outside sources. Nowadays, there is the attitude that 'someone else' can provide a service or product, even if that 'someone' comes from outside of Ontario or Canada.

But like Hickson, Ablett contends that some varieties that do well in the US do not fare well in Ontario, and vice versa. On the domestic side, he can point to a success story like OAC Bayfield as an example of 'home-grown' excellence in breeding. "The best varieties for Ontario are likely going to be developed here in Ontario," says Ablett, acknowledging that it is not an absolute statement. "But it's important to have breeding programs in Ontario, both public and private, because that gives us our best shot at developing the best varieties for our conditions."

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