DELHI, ON -- How long does it take to measure longevity? In the case of asparagus, a career lifetime.
Murray Porteous (L), asparagus grower and Dave Wolyn, University of Guelph, inspect new upcoming hybrids.
Just ask Dave Wolyn, a University of Guelph breeder, who along with technician Paul Banks, have spent 23 years bringing the aptly named Millennium asparagus cultivar to its current apex.
“We still don’t know the actual peak of Millennium after 13 years in commercial production,” says Wolyn. Where other cultivars have tailed off at seven or eight years, Millennium is still producing, tripling yields of the old open-pollinated varieties to 6,000 pounds per acre. Historically, asparagus stands are expected to have a lifetime span of 15 to 20 years.
“Longevity – you can’t short circuit that trait in asparagus,” says Wolyn. “How to find good parents, good crosses and good seed production, true to variety, is difficult.”
Millennium’s main selling points are longevity, but also yield and tolerance to replant which translates into tolerance to root diseases. The breeding team is looking to improve foliar disease resistance and spear quality when temperatures get above 30o Celsius. “That’s what the new cultivars need to have,” says Wolyn.
This genetic package has impressed not only Ontario growers but those in Michigan and other cool climate zones around the world. And so, the sales of seed have grown exponentially to $1.6 million in 2011.
That seed scoreboard has presented a dilemma for the Ontario Asparagus Growers’ Marketing Board, a non-profit organization. The Ontario Farm Product Marketing Commission has warned the non-profit status could be jeopardized with such a lucrative income and recommended an arms-length business arrangement.
It’s taken months of meetings to structure for the long-term, but the asparagus growers have just announced a new legal entity, Fox Seeds. Named after the well-drained soils of the Norfolk sand plains, this new company has its own board of directors. Jeff Wilson is chair and Jason Ryder is vice-chair. Just as importantly, Fox Seeds has a separate bank account from the association.
Here’s how it works. The University of Guelph owns the intellectual property for Millennium and subsequent breeding work for what could be called Millennium 2. The asparagus marketing board has access to Millennium seed as a licensee of the University of Guelph. Fox Seeds is the sub-licensee. This arrangement segregates seed sale revenues which can then cover costs such as royalties to the university, technician time, and equipment and land leases. It also allows a generous portion of funds to be plowed back into research to benefit the Ontario asparagus industry.
As Jason Ryder, vice-chair explains, “What this means is not necessarily more acres of asparagus, but more yield and saleable product per acre. It also means that our growers have access to local seed.”
“This is not a golden goose,” warns Ed DeHooghe, Delhi, Ontario asparagus grower. “There’s a lot of risk.”
What DeHooghe outlines is a disturbing pattern of closures. Memories are still sharp about the provincial government’s abandonment of a breeding site at Cambridge, Ontario 10 years ago which set back the breeding program by years. Asparagus crowns can’t be transplanted to a different site without compromising the scientific data, including the elusive trait of longevity. This year’s federal closure of the Delhi Research Station has renewed fears of similar pullbacks and what consequences might be in store if anything were to happen to the provincial Simcoe Research Station or its staff.
These negative experiences have informed a more commercial approach for Fox Seeds.An independently owned, five-acre site is currently being planted with crowns grown out by New Liskeard’s Superior Plant Upgrading and Distribution (SPUD) laboratory. This site, dedicated to producing seed, is overseen by a production committee consisting of Ed DeHooghe, Paul Banks and Bill Saunders.
In addition, a science, technology and innovation committee has been struck for long-range planning. This committee consists of Ken Wall, Charles Welsh, Gord Surgeoner and Dave Wolyn. Yet to be determined are members of a marketing committee.
“New upcoming hybrids that are soon to be released give growers a good commercial sniff of what’s to come,” says Jeff Wilson, chair, Fox Seeds, who recites a long breeding history in Ontario. “The biggest challenge is to determine the world market for Millennium seed,” says Wilson. “We really don’t know what that is.”
In the U.S., the states of Michigan and Washington are growing more asparagus, responding to a resurgence in consumer demand. Asparagus is becoming more of a mainstream vegetable with year-round availability from competitors such as Peru. Ontario’s breeding program is one of the few in a cool-climate zone and, as such, is of interest to similar latitudes in the United Kingdom, Germany and China.
If Fox Seeds is successful, as its growers aim to be, then $10 million in revenue is not unthinkable with two new cultivars. The ultimate score would be to sell to China, today’s global leader in asparagus.
While marketing will be challenging, Dave Wolyn insists breeding is still the nut to crack. And that’s why he’s excited about the stability that Fox Seeds provides.
“The reference genome for asparagus is expected to be published by an international research group within a year,” says Wolyn. “With molecular markers today, it’s cheaper and easier to identify the traits we want. We simply couldn’t afford to do this five years ago.”
This year’s asparagus crop is history with Ontario cornering the fresh market from May 1 to end of June. With a strengthening of consumer demand, the hope is that processors may come back too. This future scenario is hedged, if you will, by income from genetics that’s funneled back to research.
How long will it take to know if this business model works? Ask in 10 years.