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Researchers studying native Cdn. grasses

Researchers studying native Cdn. grasses

REAP-Canada is a non-profit organization that uses social constructivism to find sustainable solutions for agriculture

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer
Farms.com

A Canadian research group is working domestically and around the world to connect the private sector with farmers and scientists to develop ecologically sustainable agricultural systems through social collaboration.

REAP is an acronym for Resource Efficient Agricultural Production. The organization is an independent non-profit that “actually grew out of a student group on Macdonald Campus at McGill University,” Roger Samson, the executive director of REAP-Canada, told Farms.com.

“Our basic aspirations are to create innovation that leads to agroecology as a strategy to mitigate poverty and provide environmental rehabilitation, restoration or regeneration,” he explained.

The organization started working domestically on sustainable agriculture in 1986 and, in 1997, expanded into international work, partnering with a Canadian-based Philippine organization. 

Since then, the organization has developed programs in the Philippines, China, and West Africa, and domestic programs in Ontario and Quebec.  Domestically and internationally, REAP promotes sustainable perennial production, altering the system depending on where they are. For example, they worked on sugarcane in the Philippines.

“Most of the work right now is in Canada on native grasses,” Samson said. “We have a production capacity in Canada that exceeds our ability, and the world’s ability, to consume all that food, so if we can put it into new markets, like biomaterials … it’s a way to absorb that surplus production capacity of the agricultural sector.”

Producing biomaterials may offer a solution for farmers, as well as help protect and enhance the environment.

“These native grasses are the most efficient way to use our less-than-best lands to produce bioproducts. This way, we’re not competing with food-producing crops, and we’re using lands that we can help restore that are often causing environmental degradation, like runoff, soil erosion, or loss of carbon from soils,” he explained.

“Our research program this summer will continue to further development of our new varieties of switchgrass and big bluestem, and to upscale seed production with up to five growers in Ontario,” he added. “We successfully applied to enter two of our new varieties of switchgrass into plant breeders’ rights protection programs. We are also working with our seed growers to sell up to 12,000 pounds (5,443 kilograms) of our new seed varieties this spring.”

REAP-Canada uses a social constructivist approach, which is based on the theory that development and knowledge-building happens through social interactions.

“Both our international and domestic program take the same approach. It’s participatory farmer-led activities. We innovate by having discussions with farmers,” Samson said. “It’s really the social interaction with farmers and scientists together that’s the most efficient way to create innovation.”

In Ontario, REAP works with the Biomass Producers Co-operative, Samson said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented some logistical challenges for research, but also highlighted some important markets for bioproducts.

“The main impact of COVID-19 has been to create increased interest in the use of switchgrass as a hygienic bedding source to replace wood shavings,” Samson said. “Farmers are urgently looking for bedding options in the poultry and dairy sector. There is limited demand for wood for building at the moment. Timber milling has slowed and less timber milling results in less wood shavings available as a byproduct.”   

Roger Samson photo

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