Turf & Rec

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GTI celebrates 25 years


May 3, 2012
By Mike Jiggens


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One of the 20th century’s greatest contributions to the Canadian
turfgrass industry is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

The Guelph Turfgrass Institute, born from an idea expressed during the International Turfgrass Research Conference the University of Guelph hosted in 1981, marks its milestone anniversary amidst uncertainty about where it might be in the near future.robweb

The Ontario government, which owns the massive research property off Victoria Road, is looking to sell the parcel of land to the city for residential development, but GTI director Rob Witherspoon is optimistic that whenever and wherever the institute relocates, exciting new opportunities await it.

“There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into this place over the years, and it will be regrettable when we move off the location, but there’s also an opportunity to reinvent ourselves,” he said.

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In 1981, when the University of Guelph played host to the world’s leading turfgrass scientists, considerable interest in research related to turf management systems was expressed. Such Guelph notables as then soil science professor Dr. Robert Sheard, then horticulture professor Dr. Jack Eggens and then Ontario Agricultural College dean Dr. Clay Switzer helped conceive the idea for a world-class facility dedicated toward turfgrass research.

Witherspoon, who became the GTI’s first dedicated director in 1993, said establishing a research facility of that magnitude was a massive undertaking which involved several steps and approvals along the way. He said Switzer was the project’s “point man” while Sheard was the “pit bull” who drove it through.

Sheard was persistent in his efforts, and Switzer, who was on his way to becoming Ontario deputy minister of agriculture, had a lot of political influence to get the process started and secure the necessary seed funding.

During the GTI’s early planning stages, the Ontario Turfgrass Research Foundation had come into being. Initially, it was suggested the new facility be named the Canadian Turfgrass Institute, but it was decided soon afterward that its affiliation with the university be reflected in its name.

Although the concept was born in 1981, it took six years for the momentum to build and be worked through the university system. At the time, most turfgrass research work in the province was conducted at the Cambridge Research Station.
Witherspoon said once the university committed itself to the project, the turfgrass industry itself became engaged with Switzer playing a pivotal role as liaison. Key players including former Oakdale Golf & Country Club superintendent Paul Dermott and former Westview Golf Course superintendent Keith Nisbet, both of whom were founders of the OTRF, supported the idea of a real research facility that would be situated near the university.

With the industry coming on board, fundraising efforts were stepped up. Switzer had become deputy minister of agriculture in 1984 and was instrumental in getting the province involved.

“That was the key third component…getting the province involved,” Witherspoon said.

It was initially proposed the research facility be built on Stone Road on land owned by the university, but a serious look was given to property off Victoria Road that had served as a farm affiliated with a former correctional centre in the area. Crops had been grown on the site by the centre’s inmates, and the land had been considered for development. Because the university had used part of the land for agricultural research after the closure of the correctional centre, serious consideration was given to make it the new home of the GTI. The previously-considered land along Stone Road was later developed into a number of major commercial enterprises.

Although the GTI officially opened with a number of ongoing research trials in 1987 at its current location off Victoria Road, its physical headquarters didn’t come into being until 1993.

The G.M. Frost Research and Information Centre, named for Mac and Beth Frost of Stouffville, Ont., is a 7,600-square-foot facility which not only serves as a research, education and resource hub for the Canadian turfgrass industry, but is the headquarters for the OTRF, the Ontario Golf Superintendents Association and the Sports Turf Association. Additionally, it houses the office for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ turfgrass extention specialist and includes meeting and study rooms, a field research laboratory and a large conference and lecture room.

The Frosts had made the founding grant to construct the building at the 150-acre site. The couple were developers, owners and managers of golf courses and were supported in their efforts to fund the building by such other industry luminaries as Bill Campbell of Fairlawn Sod Nursery Ltd., Landscape Ontario, Des Rice of Weed Man, and Ron Craig of Turf Care Products Canada. OTRF co-founder Alan Beeney and then OTRF president Thom Charters were also instrumental in establishing a physical presence for the GTI, the latter of whom went on to become chairman of the GTI’s advisory board.

Led by the Frosts, a large sum of money was raised in short order to allow for construction of the building. The province’s key contribution was the land itself which includes 16 25-by-100-metre research plots, which are all drained and irrigated.
Prior to the opening of the Frost Centre, the GTI was without a physical presence. Lee Burpee, a pathologist at the University of Guelph, served as the GTI’s original director under a 10 per cent faculty appointment.

Witherspoon, who succeeded Burpee, was hired to help build the GTI and look for new opportunities on a full-time basis, but is now at 35 per cent appointment. He said the industry was astute in turning ownership of the building over to the province.

“They wisely sold the building to the government for a dollar with the provision they would have office space in there and that it would be used to support the industry and turfgrass research, and that the province would maintain it.”

The OTRF, which was instrumental in funding the building, wasn’t in the business of building management, and such ongoing matters as heating, maintenance and roofing became the province’s responsibilities following its sale.

Additional revenue towards the building’s operation is generated through the university’s turf managers’ short course, which has been operating for about 40 years, a share of registration fees from the Ontario Turfgrass Symposium, and rentals of the GTI’s conference space to outside groups. Witherspoon said renting space out has given exposure of the GTI to groups and organizations outside the industry which may know little or nothing about the turfgrass industry. Its setting at the highest point of land in the city, offering spectacular vistas over the municipality, helps give the GTI and the industry a higher profile and has instilled ideas as to how the property can be used for the benefit of the city.

More recently, the GTI has undertaken a new initiative, forming the GTI Solutions Group. The GTI has retained the Guelph-based Chimera Group to provide business development, marketing, communications and agronomic services directly to the GTI.

“The GTI Solutions Group will be the logical evolution of our efforts to provide consulting and professional development services to the Canadian turfgrass industry and will also formalize an entity that will help us achieve our goal of making the GTI financially sustainable for the long term,” Witherspoon said.

In addition to managing a rebirth of the GTI’s website and generating an improved awareness of GTI activities, the Chimera Group’s John Bladon is also serving as project coordinator and senior specialist on the GTI Solutions Group team. Bladon is a University of Guelph graduate with recognized expertise in turf management and agronomy and whose background includes a previous role as a golf course superintendent with experience in research, communications and business development.

OAC dean Robert Gordon said the GTI Solutions Group will further expand the GTI’s role within the Canadian turfgrass industry and provide a clear point of access to the scientific and technical expertise of University of Guelph faculty and staff.

“As an institute, our role is to both provide an access point for the industry to that information that is generated through research,” Witherspoon said. “We try to create an environment that encourages faculty from a diversity of disciplines at the university to do research that is a value to the turf industry.”

In addition to the various turfgrass-research projects being conducted annually at the GTI, which will be formally showcased this summer at a field day at the site, the GTI endeavours to continue promoting the positive messages of the industry to the various activists groups which persist on painting it with a black brush. Additionally, the GTI works with the media to get its message across.

Witherspoon said he believed the GTI played a key role at the turn of the millennium toward helping the University of Guelph retain its turfgrass diploma program at the main campus instead of seeing it relocated to satellite campuses in Kemptville or Ridgetown where other diploma program offerings had headed.

He said he made a pitch as GTI director to bring awareness to the fact that many of the people he interacted with in the industry were diploma graduates from the University of Guelph.

“My opinion at the time was if we shut down the diploma program at Guelph, we’re going to shut down that career path for individuals who want to work in turf. Not all of them are going to have the ability or interest to go to the degree level, so we made the pitch of having a specialized turf diploma here.”

Witherspoon said he believes that without the GTI’s presence in the city, and somewhat representing turfgrass interests within the university, in all likelihood there would no longer be students studying turf management at the diploma level at Guelph.

“There may have been opportunities at Kemptville and Ridgetown, but all the turf expertise within the University of Guelph was always here in Guelph because of the institute, so we have been able to build that program.”

He said he would like to see the GTI become more integrated with teaching. It is used for diploma teaching whereby students visit the facilities and use the grounds for hands-on learning.

“The students love the hands-on stuff,” Witherspoon said. “My mission for the institute building would be that it become more integrated, but like a dedicated turf classroom space on the university campus with the association offices here so that it remains a centre for the turfgrass industry in the province, but also that is has an even stronger educational role than it has now.”

He said he envisions the GTI becoming “hard-wired” so that it can provide access to educational resources beyond what is offered to residential students. This would, for example, allow a golf superintendent from well outside the Guelph area to tap into lectures and other educational programs through the facility.

“I’m pretty confident we’re going to stay in the Guelph area, and I remain pretty confident that, working within the university now, we can see whether there’s a location that we can integrate on campus.”

Some of the research may be conducted at various locations, including areas outside of town.

As part of its Greenbelt Act of 2005, the Ontario government has mandated that cities along the Golden Horseshoe area, and stretching into other areas including Guelph, intensify development within their current boundaries and not annex or sprawl out into other areas. Land currently occupied by the GTI fits in with the terms of the legislation.

In conjunction with the province’s outlook on the current GTI property, the city of Guelph went through a planning process which it initiated after the correctional centre was shut down. The city looked at the area and, under the province’s “places to grow” strategy as part of its Greenbelt Act, looked at options to intensify development of the site. Rather than building into existing neighbourhoods, the city carefully looked at the land currently occupied by the GTI, noting that it would be relatively inexpensive to develop and that the natural vistas would make it that much more appealing.

Witherspoon said the matter has been before city council for the past seven years, and the GTI has found it a challenge to make its case for turf research.

“Unfortunately, our efforts have fallen on deaf ears because all they see is the development potential.”

The city’s plan is close to final approval and would see 3,000 to 5,000 people living in the area that has been dubbed the Guelph Innovation District.

“We see ourselves as being a part of that, too, as the Guelph Turfgrass Institute,” Witherspoon said. “We’re certainly an innovation centre in terms of green space, and we’ve made a case for that and have got some recognition in terms of the development that there may be opportunities for us within this development.”

Unfortunately, he said, the GTI’s need for broader research capacity and the need for control over it research plots would be a difficult fit within an intensely populated urban area.

Because of the institute’s ongoing research trials, the GTI wishes to get in front of the matter rather than wait for someone to say, “Thanks for being here, but you’re going to have to move right now,” Witherspoon said.

He said he hopes the GTI will be given three to five years’ notice before having to vacate its current location. Such time would not only help secure a new location, but would help with establishing new grounds for trials.

Opportunities at relocation are being explored in hopes of keeping the facility as close as possible to the university campus. The University of Guelph is a significant land holder within the city.

“We may not have the expanse of turfgrass research lands that we have now. They might be more fragmented.”

Part of the search includes looking for a site for a new building that would be integrated with the campus.

Witherspoon said it took between five and 10 years at the GTI’s current site to develop good native populations of some of the pests being studied. Because of this significant time frame, it is beneficial to have ample advance notice before having to relocate so that turf plots can be established in new study areas. Disease study is somewhat different because plots can be inoculated, but it’s much more difficult and expensive to rear insects. When they’re put down in a particular area, they’re not necessarily going to stay.

Almost every fungicide, insecticide or herbicide registered for use on Canadian turf has made its way through the GTI at one point in time on its way toward registration in terms of the efficacy data required by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

“It would be difficult for a lot of those companies to get the necessary data they need to register these chemicals,” Witherspoon said in validating the important role the GTI plays within the industry, adding that it’s challenging enough to get products registered in Canada and would be even more so without the GTI.

The GTI has also played a key role in the development of biological products and National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) trials as well as early sulfur-coated urea research and research into lightweight mowing.

Since the Ontario cosmetic pesticide ban was officially enacted in 2009, the GTI has conducted extensive research into alternative products for use on sports fields, and research into thatch management has been helpful for golf courses.
Witherspoon said the industry’s support of the GTI through the years has been phenomenal with its contributions of equipment and supplies.

“We do a lot more here with a lot less than a lot of other research facilities because of that industry support.”

Hutcheson Sand & Mixes, for example, has provided material for the construction of the GTI’s research greens. Turf Care and Podolinsky Equipment have outfitted the GTI with new Toro and John Deere equipment, respectively, each year. The equipment is supplied as needed, and the companies have kept it maintained in tiptop condition. Other suppliers, such as Ontario Seed Company and Pickseed, have provided the GTI with materials such as seed and fertilizer.

The amount of industry support has kept the GTI’s capital expenditures minimal.

Key personnel within the industry have provided invaluable assistance when needed, Witherspoon said. In past years, if an irrigation fault occurred, either Dean Baker or Dean Cormack, respectively the former superintendent and former irrigation specialist at Glen Abbey Golf Club, would come to the GTI to rectify the problem. The DeCorso family, owners of the Victoria Park East and Valley golf courses a few kilometres down Victoria Road, have lent their support and technical expertise to the GTI over the years. Victoria Park East superintendent David DeCorso is currently chairman of the GTI’s advisory board.

The GTI is largely viewed as a university entity, but Witherspoon said he sees it as more of a partnership, noting the University of Guelph is responsible for its day-to-day operations, yet the facility really belongs to the turf industry, the province and the university. Each wants to ensure it is sustainable in the long run.

“The province has reassured us that from the sale of this land, the first use of the proceeds will be to ensure the Guelph Turfgrass Institute is relocated with as minimal disruption to activities as possible.”

Witherspoon said there will be challenges in relocating, but there will also be tremendous opportunities with improvements that can be made to research greens which have aged over the years and an irrigation system which has become outdated.

“There are lots of things I think we can improve on,” he said, adding the possible construction of a green roof atop its new building might help with the public’s understanding of the value of turfgrass.

Witherspoon said it’s important that, no matter where the facility will be located, the vision of the GTI’s pioneering founders continues.

In 2001, Canada played host to the International Turfgrass Research Conference for a second time, and arranged for the scientist delegates to break from the conference in Toronto and visit the GTI for a field day. Those in attendance said there is no other facility anywhere in the world like the GTI.

The University of Guelph’s Dr. Eric Lyons and Dr. Katerina Jordan, who are both American, were attracted to the area largely because of the GTI and the opportunity it offered to build their careers, Witherspoon said.

“The GTI is the incentive the university has to maintain individuals like Dr. Lyons, Dr. Jordan, Dr. (Tom) Hsiang and others who contribute to the education of young people coming into the industry and who go on and take leadership roles.”

If the GTI wasn’t there to sustain those faculty engaged in the education of students, the question as to whether or not the university would have maintained an interest in teaching turf might have been in some doubt, Witherspoon said. One of the GTI’s significant contributions to the industry has been its involvement in education, both at the diploma and degree level.