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The EATEN PATH: A look inside UFV's Ag Centre of Excellence in Chilliwack

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UFV's executive director of campus planning Craig Toews inside the tallest greenhouse in North America at the school's new Agriculture Centre of Excellence.
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson

Living in the breadbasket of British Columbia, it only makes sense that, in addition to growing the food we eat, we study how to grow it better.

On Friday, invited guests will get a chance to see the next place where academics and students will do just that at the University of the Fraser Valley’s (UFV) new Agriculture Centre of Excellence.

There is a feeling of excitement at UFV for the opening of this state-of-the-art demonstration barn and greenhouse, which will serve as an education hub for agricultural programs across B.C.

“It’s very exciting,” says Tom Baumann, co-ordinator of the agriculture department at UFV. “We’ve got a whole bunch of projects started now. There is a lot of collaboration going on.”

And what guests will see Friday is just the beginning: The first stage of the $3.5 million facility is more than 7,000 square feet of barn space, a greenhouse of more than 4,000 square feet, along with an animal area, crop fields, a community garden and other student facilities.

At 12 metres high, the greenhouse is the tallest in North America and is designed to be energy efficient while maximizing growing. During an exclusive tour of the new centre this week, executive director of campus planning Craig Toews explained that the greenhouse is tall for a reason. Typical glass greenhouses build up a lot of heat, which is then released using louvres. This also releases carbon dioxide, which the plants need.

UFV’s greenhouse has no louvres. Heating and cooling is controlled with reversible fans, and carbon dioxide is sent back down to the floor where the plants can use it.

The polycarbonate walls are designed to maximize light diffusion and maximize growing performance. And in an region where one day we are told to expect an earthquake, plastic walls and roofs are just safer.

“Acres and acres of glass is dangerous,” Toews pointed out.

On the other side of the facility, in the demonstration barn, students will be able to utilize individual rooms for chickens and swine.

“Each one of these rooms simulates a whole barn for that species,” Toews said.

For pigs, there are individual rooms for farrowing, growing and finishing, and there are multiple chicken rooms. The facility also has a large cold barn for horses and cows, as well as a milking station.

While the technology is state-of-the-art, one of the more innovative aspects of the program at the new centre, according to Baumann, is how institutions that fight for research dollars are learning to work together.

UFV has connected with schools from Vancouver Island University, UBC, Kwantlen, TRU, BCIT and Okanagan College.

Baumann said the type of reaching out they have done has never been done before. With the carrot of funding

and the stick of government direction not to duplicate, Baumann is confident the future of agriculture research will take place right here in Chilliwack.

“I think we are going somewhere,” he says. “I’ve only been at this for 23 years.”

Both Baumann and Toews emphasized that the new agricultural centre will focus on real-world research, looking at practical applications for industry.

“The berry, nursery, greenhouse and hazelnut industries have already made their interest known and are working with us on specific projects,” Baumann said.

The centre as it will be seen on Friday is advanced and sophisticated, but Toews said it’s just the beginning. The facility has room for more greenhouses and more of a focus on some of the high-tech needs in agriculture. From robotic milkers to sophisticated berry packaging equipment, there is a real need in the local industry in technical expertise.

This is how Toews says the school also wants to attract students to agriculture at UFV. He says they want to break down the myth that farming is just about muddy boots and financial struggles.

“There is so much more than just running mom and dad’s farm,” he says. “This is the state-of-the-art approach.”

For Baumann, who is a farmer himself and the director of the Pacific Berry Resource Centre at UFV, there is a need to translate the academic work being done to the grower level.

And while there is excitement about the greenhouse and demonstration barn at the Agriculture Centre of Excellence, Baumann says that is one of two components of the centre. The other is to serve as a hub and lead all the institutions of higher learning in B.C. with a focus on agriculture.

“To that end, the new Centre will provide facilities, specialists, employees and be a strong advocate for agriculture throughout B.C.”

• The public is invited to come and tour the centre Friday from 1:30 to 4 p.m. For more information on the Agriculture Centre of Excellence and the agriculture program at UFV, visit www.ufv.ca/agriculture.

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Check out next week's version of The Eaten Path for a look at Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, and how they are bringing freshness to a whole new level.

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