Back in 1886, farmers around here were suffering from drought, Prairie fires were a problem and frost had damaged wheat the fall before.
But there was good news too: Brandon was getting an experimental farm – one of five to be built across the country after the Experimental Farm Station Act received Royal Assent June 2, 1886.
Fast-forward to Aug. 11, 2011. A large crowd has gathered on a clear, hot, sunny day to celebrate the 125th anniversary of what is now the Brandon Research Cent re si tuated on 890 hectares of land, with another 445 hectares of leased pasture. There are 78 full-time employees, including 14 scientists, plus 38 summer staff.
The need for agricultural research is at an all-time high, Chris Kennedy, executive assistant to Brandon-Souris MP Merv Tweed, told celebrants.
“The Government of Canada has and will continue to support this research centre,” he said while bringing greetings on behalf of Tweed and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.
Much has changed in farming and research since 1886, but there are constants such as the vagaries of weather. An abnormally wet spring resulted in a record number of unseeded acres this year, including research plots.
SCIENCE OF SURVIVAL
The Brandon Experimental Farm’s original mandate was to identify practices and genetic materials that would help new settlers survive “in this relatively extreme climate,” research centre manager Byron Irvine told those gathered for the anniversary. Today the centre focuses on sustainable crop and beef production, environmentally responsible management of soil, water and air resources, reducing detrimental impacts of agriculture on the environment and breeding new barley cultivars.
Starting in the 1920s, the station has worked to find ways to curb soil erosion. That work continues, along with research into ways for farmers to cut greenhouse gas emissions and use fertilizer more efficiently, Irvine said in an interview.
“Half of our energy in our cropping systems pretty much comes from fossil fuels in terms of fertilizer,” he said. “We’re trying to build a better overall package.”
It was a much different world 125 years ago. The City of Brandon was just four years old with a population of 2,348, according to a 1963 lecture prepared by University of Manitoba geography professor, John Warkentin, published on the Manitoba Historical Society’s website. The Brandon region had a population of 11,500 and accounted for 17 per cent of the land under cultivation in Western Canada.
The area, with its light-textured soil, which was easy to break, already had a reputation for being a good place to grow wheat.
“In no other region was there such a high acreage of cultivated land per farmer,” Warkentin wrote. “In the municipality over 95 per cent of the land occupied was under cultivation and in another the average land cultivated was 125 acres per farmer. In 1886 almost a million bushels of grain were shipped from Brandon alone. Cattle were of little significance and oxen had been largely replaced by horses.”
In the beginning, the experimental farm had a wide range of livestock, including bees, Irvine said. Horticulture was important with 111,000 different shrubs and trees assessed for their hardiness.
“Back in those days farmers didn’t buy a lot of their groceries in town,” Irvine said. “If you could grow them that was a good thing.”
The experimental farm evaluated 40 wheat varieties for improved rust resistance and early maturity in its early years.
Before 1986 more than 50 per cent of the barley grown in the West and more than 80 per cent of the barley grown on the eastern Prairies, was developed at Brandon.
Over time, Canada’s experimental farms began to focus on fewer, but more complex problems. Accordingly the experimental farm became the Brandon Research Station in 1966. In 1994 the station’s name changed to Brandon Research Centre.
The centre has helped not only generations of farmers but also the City of Brandon, said Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst.
“Your research capacity has been an important component of our growth,” she said. “That research has allowed us to be a more prosperous community, a smarter community and frankly a richer community.”
Brandon is building to be a “smart city” and the centre’s scientists are contributing, along with Brandon University and Assiniboine Community College, Decter Hirst said in an interview.
The centre succeeds because it changes with the times, she said.
The biggest innovation to 19th century farming was the invention of barbed wire, according to Irvine. Farmers could keep their cattle and other livestock on their own property, which in turn made it more practical for more settlers to farm in an area.
Advances in agriculture in the Brandon region were apparent by 1886.
“Roads were good, barbed wire fences were common, farmers were planting shelterbelts, and journalists were commenting on the exceptionally fine farm buildings in the region, though there is little likelihood that the latter were very numerous,” Warkentin wrote. “But these advances had not been achieved without some casualties, because there were reported to be extensive mortgages in the region, as farmers recklessly embarked on great farm improvements.”
The biggest farm innovation in the last century was mechanization – the move from horses to automotive power, according to Irvine.
“Agriculture, like all industries, continues to evolve and research helps not only to create the change, but to put the pieces together,” he said.
Since then pesticides have been introduced and a long list of other innovations from zero-tillage and GPS to auto steer and biotechnology.
“I saw canola go from a crop that didn’t exist when I was in under graduate school… and now it is 20 million acres,” Irvine said. “We have to adapt to help the growers. Our role at the Brandon Research Centre will continue to change significantly as it has in the past. We’re trying to help farmers produce safe food in an environmentally safe manner and still make some money at it. So over the next number of years our research will continue to focus on this area of environmental health and sustainable production systems.” [email protected]