Taking APG’s Research Pulse

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(Photo courtesy D’Arcy Hilgartner)

Alberta Pulse Growers invest millions in pulse research. Where do those dollars go, and why?

As pulse acres in Alberta continue to rise, so does Alberta Pulse Growers’ (APG) investment in research, with $9 million tied up in more than 40 projects.

The province’s 6,000 pulse growers support the non-profit organization through a levy on pulse sales. The money raised is used to fund many initiatives, including marketing, extension, advocacy and administrative activities.

However, research is the organization’s cornerstone, says Leanne Fischbuch, APG’s executive director.

“Research is a key aspect of everything we do with our organization for our growers,” she says. “We’re focused on doing the right research — the research that will work for us and our industry.”

Research initiatives are aimed at growing genetics, yield and sustainability in pulse production, and crop utilization and health benefits are also focus areas. These five research divisions provide a balance of grower- and consumer-focused research, says Fischbuch, because building demand for pulse products is as vital as improving yields.

D’Arcy Hilgartner

The organization proportionately reinvests in the pulse crops Alberta producers are growing, says D’Arcy Hilgartner, APG’s chair. “We try to allocate based on where our levy dollars are flowing from,” he says. “Because we’re a producer-funded commodity commission, we try to be very reflective of the needs and wants of our producers.”

And as an Alberta pulse producer, Hilgartner has a vested interest in where APG invests its research money.

“It’s my money — it’s producer money,” says Hilgartner. “We’re all producers around that table, so we’re aware we need to be very responsible about how we spend our money. We want to give producers the best bang for their buck, addressing their concerns and their needs,” he says.

Growing Genetics

Many Canadian institutions and organizations are currently carrying out pulse research for APG, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF), University of Alberta (U of A), University of Toronto, University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC), Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Food Processing Development Centre, Farming Smarter and Western Ag Innovations.

According to Fischbuch, APG consistently funds research on genetic improvement, a top priority for the organization. At present, 11 breeding projects are being funded, worth 25 per cent of the total research budget.

For example, AAFC research scientists Deng-Jin Bing and Parthiba Balasubramanian are working on developing field pea and dry bean varieties, respectively, with improved disease resistance and harvestability as well as increased yields.

“These scientists are continually putting out fantastic genetics that are very Alberta focused. Our industry is seeing the benefits of those varieties. It’s exciting to see that work in commercial production,” says Fischbuch.

In the future, APG wants to see an increase in the number of varieties available to Alberta producers suited to the province’s growing conditions. Thus, the organization allocates generous funds for pre-commercialization research, says Hilgartner.

“That’s where companies tend not to put money in because they don’t see a [return] next year or the year after. If it’s a new variety, it’s ready five to 10 years from now. That’s where we thought we’d look at putting our support,” he says.

Last year, the APG board decided to end its agreement with Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG) whereby Alberta’s Select Status seed growers could access breeder seed through the SPG’s Variety Release Program.

“We were in that agreement for numerous years where we provided some funding that allowed [Select Status] seed growers access to that program. When the program was initiated, there were indirect benefits to APG members via the Select Seed growers, and recent evaluation determined the program was no longer meeting the organization’s objectives,” says Fischbuch.

“When we look at Alberta, we would like to see more pulse varieties targeted for Alberta growers focused on Alberta’s environment. So, testing in the province of Alberta and focusing on selections that would be key for our growers. We’re not the same environment as other parts of Canada,” she says.

Furthermore, Fischbuch says SPG is currently reviewing the way it commercializes its pulse varieties outside of Saskatchewan, and is exploring options for marketing those varieties.

“There will be opportunity to have varieties here from CDC and elsewhere. I think it’s all changing. There are many breeders out there and they’re producing great varieties. We want to see that benefit come to Alberta. And if there are CDC varieties that excel, that’s great — they’ll eventually be here,” she says.

Leanne Fischbuch

Fischbuch also believes the ratification of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV ’91) convention will also spur investment in varietal development.

“With UPOV ’91, I think there’s opportunity to move forward and see more companies bring their genetics here for testing and establishment. Look at the numbers of varieties that have been introduced since the legislation passed. You’re getting a whole bunch of plant breeders protecting their varieties now when they’re bringing them into Canada,” says Fischbuch.

“If the [varieties] are showing good yields, farmers will find them and use them. And we’ll continue with our investments in research because, really, that’s where we’re focusing and trying to make sure that our growers are able to grow their pulses, market their pulses, and really be profitable and sustainable for the industry.”

Growing Yields and Sustainability

Currently, 16 projects utilizing 36 per cent of the research budget is devoted to growing pulse yields in Alberta. And when it comes to boosting yields, work on pea leaf weevil is essential, says Fischbuch. “We’ve seen pea leaf weevil creep across the province from the south, moving northward,” she says.

AAFC researcher Héctor Cárcamo is assessing management strategies, such as cultural practices and insecticide applications, to control pea leaf weevil in field pea and faba bean crops.

Meanwhile, Maya Evenden, a U of A entomologist, has devised an early warning system using semiochemical-baited traps to monitor pea leaf weevil on the Prairies.

Funds have also been allocated for at least three separate studies on Aphanomyces, a soil-borne water mould that poses a serious risk to Alberta pea crops.

Aphanomyces could destroy our pea industry,” says Fischbuch. “This is going to be huge for our producers and we need to get a handle on it.”

AAFC researcher Syama Chatterton estimates Aphanomyces euteiches, which causes pea root rot, is present in up to half of Alberta fields, says Fischbuch. A leading scientist on Aphanomyces research, Chatterton is working on ways to address the issue through APG-funded studies, and further research is projected.

“Our continued work on Aphanomyces is a real priority when it comes to making sure we’re going to be able to have pulses here in the province of Alberta for a long time. The more we can learn about that disease, the better off we’ll be. It’s absolutely critical for us,” says Fischbuch.

Research that increases pulse crops’ long-term sustainability as a viable choice for producers has been allocated seven per cent of APG’s funds. Projects focus on capturing pulses’ rotational benefits, and fertility and water-use management attributes, and can be either producer or consumer focused. For example, an ongoing study is examining the agronomic and economic benefits of including pulses in a Brown soil zone crop rotation.

Utilization and Health

Utilization and health are both consumer-focused categories and are allocated 16 per cent each of APG’s research budget. These research projects raise awareness of pulses’ health benefits, such as lowering blood sugar and LDL cholesterol.

APG is also supporting the Change Cancer Alberta initiative, which studies the effects of increasing pulses in the diets of primary care patients. Fischbuch says growers may not realize how research is affecting pulse awareness and demand.

“One of the big messages we want to spread is pulses are healthy. There’s a variety of things that are different from what a grower might consider impacts him,” says Fischbuch.

Last year, 2016, was International Year of Pulses, and it proved beneficial in raising awareness about pulses’ health and environmental benefits. To celebrate, APG partnered with AAF’s Food Processing Development Centre and industry partners on a project called “The Alberta Pulse,” to create 10 prototypes of food products incorporating peas, beans and faba beans.

From ravioli to chocolate cake and dog treats, the food products were created to showcase the use of pulse ingredients to the processing side of the industry.

“Having these companies experience the use of pulse ingredients where they never thought of using them before was a real opportunity for us to raise awareness that these ingredients are out there now,” says Fischbuch.

Other utilization projects currently on the go include the development of pulse protein-based pet food kibble, a line of pulse-based gluten free ready-meal products and the use of pea flours in food products with improved nutrition and taste, among others. There will always be a market for pulses, says Fischbuch, especially through recent efforts to increase utilization.

And although there are many agronomic reasons for producers to add pulses to their rotations — for example, pulses fix their own nitrogen, make soil healthier by putting nutrients (including nitrogen) back into the ground, help break disease cycles in the field, and give yield boosts to canola and cereals planted after them — it’s the bottom line that counts. Producers will find that pulses pencil out.

“Pulses have been good business for many growers for many years,” says Fischbuch. “It’s a crop for which there is always a market, and it’s one we’re trying to develop more.”

National Alliance

To further increase the pulse market, APG has aligned its research efforts with the national pulse organization, Pulse Canada. “That’s to grow the industry; to add 25 per cent utilization of pulse ingredients by 2025 in areas where you may not have seen them before,” says Fischbuch.

Although the ways in which producers benefit from APG-funded research are many and varied, tangible outcomes are ongoing, says Hilgartner, such as better varieties, agronomic practices and recommendations. Also, he says, market demand for pulses has grown substantially over the last few years.

However, producers demand research that is broad in scope, from highly technical laboratory-based research to field trials where production is carried out under the same conditions growers experience, says Hilgartner.

“We try to spread our research across the board, so that it helps producers throughout the [entire] process. You can develop a product that works well in a sterile environment, but doesn’t work in a commercial setting — to the producer that has no value,” he says.

As demand climbs and producers increase pulse acres, APG is growing as well. Hilgartner says the organization is working hard to meet the needs of its members, and he encourages producers to be part of the commission and part of the process. He’s excited about his role in pulse production and the opportunities available to his fellow Alberta producers.

“I look at pulses, not only in Alberta, but Western Canada, as a great story economically and environmentally, as to what we can produce here and what we can provide, not only to North American markets, but to the world. A lot of that is because of the research and the high-quality products that come out of here,” he says.

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