Experimental farming flourishes at research station on Newfoundland’s west coast

Sabrina Ellsworth stands in the middle of a one-acre test field, surrounding by flourishing crops of canola, fava bean and wheat, admiring her hard work.

She is the manager of agriculture research with the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture and she has been weeding and tending to these plants all summer.

“All around us you will see 120 plots of different crops. There’s fava bean, canola, silage corn, oats and peas, wheat. There’s quite a bit going on here,” she says.

Wheat is just one of several crops that grew well in the research test field at Pynn’s Brook. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

The test field is down a bumpy dirty road at the Pynn’s Brook research station, about 30 minutes from Corner Brook on Newfoundland and Labrador’s west coast. Ellsworth and graduate students from Memorial’s Grenfell Campus are testing nitrogen stabilizer products in the soil of these crops.

They are testing nitrogen levels in fertilizer, attempting to keep nitrogen in the soil longer. The $1.3-million collaborative project is all to see what grows well in Newfoundland while also protecting the environment from greenhouse gases.

“Nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most expensive products for farmers in Newfoundland and globally. Nitrogen management is very tricky in when a lot of the nitrogen added can be lost to the atmosphere,” she says. “Up to 50 per cent can be lost initially depending on climatic conditions. Our goal with nitrogen management is to get it in the soil and keep it there as long as possible.”

Ellsworth says the longer nitrogen stays in the soil, the better. When it’s released into the atmosphere, it is a very potent greenhouse gas.

Canola grows well on Newfoundland’s west coast. The seeds are pressed for oil that is harvested and sold locally. Canola was one of the crops used in the test field to measure nitrogen levels in fertilizer. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

“It’s 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s contributing to global warming. We want to make sure we are farming in the most sustainable way possible,” she said.

This type of research and data collection has not been attempted in this province before. Ellsworth says it will help local farmers to know what types of crops grow well here, while protecting the environment and saving money.

“Nitrogen costs a lot and if its being lost, than they are wasting their money. How can we keep that nitrogen in the soil, protect the environment and help the farmers save money altogether?” she said. 

This one-acre plot test field has crops like wheat, canola and fava beans. Researchers are testing nitrogen levels in fertilizer, attempting to keep nitrogen in the soil longer. (Colleen Connors/CBC )

Ellsworth and the students collect samples from the soil each week. The data is sent away to be analyzed, and Ellsworth expects results back this fall or winter. 

One plant that’s done exceptionally well in the field and on the west coast over the past several years is the canola plant. 

Sweet Berry Farms in nearby Black Duck Siding is growing 10 acres of canola as part of the research trials. Once the trials are over, the farm will press the seed and sell the oil to restaurants and grocery stores in the area. The remaining canola meal will be used for livestock feed, instead of typical soy-based feed that is ferried in from other parts of Canada. 

“We see the potential in that crop. It’s viable, it’s lucrative, it’s something we have a lot of work to do on it,” says Ellsworth. “We know we can harvest it directly with our combine. It does need to be dried but that’s not an issue. The quality is superior.”

Ellsworth is already having another acre of land cleared to start more research projects at the Pynn’s Brook research station.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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Johny Watshon

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