Good soil, cheaper land prices prompt agri-research company to sink roots in Harrow area

HARROW — The largest fruit tree nursery in Canada is looking to expand its footprint in Essex County. Upper Canada Growers has already acquired 1,000 acres of farmland in the Harrow area and is looking to double that figure with more farm purchases.

The Ridge Road company moved to Essex County six years ago from the Niagara region.

“Essex was a big move for us coming out of Niagara; the land is good here, it’s cheaper and there is lots of it,” president Rob Haynes said Tuesday.

Haynes said the company is looking to establish itself as an agri-research centre specializing in turning tissue cultures into disease-resistant fruit and nut trees and vines for growing grapes.

The company has three million to four million fruit trees in the ground with a further planting of six million grape vines in the works.

“Farming is changing drastically. If I were to show my grandparents what we’re doing here today, they would think we’re crazy,” Haynes said at an event Tuesday designed to raise the company’s profile.

The apple trees propagated by UCG grow up rather than out, increasing the number of trees that can be planted per acre as well as boosting sun exposure which in turn boosts quality. “We used to grow 30 feet by 30 feet at one time, now we’re getting five times the production,” Haynes said.

He said boosting production in the agricultural sector is key to avoiding an impending global food shortage. And Canada — with its abundant supply of water and land — is well positioned to become a world leader in food production.

Rob Haynes

“Food security is the key going forward. It isn’t energy, it’s food. We have a shortage of food coming and we know it’s coming.”

Cornell University in the United States developed the technology of using plant tissue cultures to propagate disease- and virus-free fruit trees.

Haynes said global warming is making plants more prone to viruses and disease. The micro-propagation done at UCG aims to make a dent in that problem.

Kash Behravan, assistant manager of micro-propagation at UCG, said tissue cultures are taken from disease and virus-free plants supplied by Cornell and Guelph University to create root stock. The root stock is then grafted to twigs taken from various fruit trees varieties.

The result, Behravan said, is a fruit tree that has higher yield, better quality and uses less water.

Haynes said his company is also doing research into the “biosphere” of root systems. “It’s the fungus and bacteria that live on the root to make the root healthy … it enables the plant to fight diseases, it enables the plant to pick up the nutrients out of the ground a lot easier, it actually helps sequester carbon.”

Haynes said centuries of cultivation have damaged the root biosphere and the research at his company is hoping to recreate those lost growing conditions.

The company has 100 employees. Thirty work in plant propagation, 70 work in the orchards tending plants that will be later sold to fruit growers, vineyards and backyard fruit tree hobbyists. The company also has its own apple orchards. Haynes said finding skilled labour is always an issue.

Haynes said the federal government could help by shortening the time work permits are issued.

The name of the company — Upper Canada Growers — is a subtle reference to the Haynes family’s roots as United Empire Loyalists. His family fled the United States in 1784 after the American Revolution and settled in Jordan, near St. Catharines, where they were given a land grant of 100 acres.

“We’ve been in farming a long time,” Haynes said.

Workers propagate fruit trees at Upper Canada Growers.

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