New University of Guelph prof focuses on northern and eastern regions

MacSon Professorship recipient wants to consult with farmers, agronomists

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The University of Guelph has acknowledged the special issues of agronomy in the northern and eastern regions of the province with the appointment of Joshua Nasielski to its MacSon Professorship.

In addition to his teaching role at graduate and undergraduate level, the position involves research and outreach on issues affecting the economic and environmental sustainability of crop-production systems in these Ontario regions.

Why it matters: Research specific to northern and eastern Ontario can boost sustainability, yields and farmer profits in those regions.

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The appointment took effect in April, right about the time Nasielski was defending his PhD on the application of nitrogen fertilizer on corn crops later in the season (past traditional timing) for greater efficiency.

As he worked on that process, he also began what he sees as a key duty for his new position: consultations with the regions’ growers that will shape his research and outreach efforts.

The MacSon professorship was made possible through a 2005 donation of land by Rodney Maclaren and his mother, Joy. The university worked with Maclaren’s son Geordie to develop the position.

As the first MacSon professor at the university’s main campus, Nasielski was asked what his special areas of focus for northern and eastern Ontario would be.

Joshua Nasielski.
photo: Supplied

“Coming up with really good research is very difficult, especially research that is relevant to these areas.

“I am committed to talking to the farmers and the agronomists in these areas. I didn’t want to come in with a research program without having consulted with these people about what are their major agronomic problems.”

Nasielski grew up in the Toronto suburbs, and never missed a Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. But it wasn’t those annual outings that set him on his career path. It was his father, who had a previous career in agricultural engineering (including such specialties as designing drainage systems).

He still did occasional consulting work, Nasielski recalled, and would often take his son along. These experiences were very much in his mind, as he looked ahead to university.

Having just completed his PhD at the University of Guelph, Nasielski also holds a masters-of-science degree in physical geography from the University of Toronto and a bachelors-of-science degree from Guelph in Environmental Economics and Policy.

“My eyes were opened because of my dad,” he said.

“I liked working outside, being outside.”

His life after university also helped shape his career direction, when he spent time in Cambodia doing economic research in an agricultural context.

“Farmers in Cambodia almost always grow rice. I worked on the rice-fish system,” he said.

A rice paddy has water and, due to natural cycles, fish often find their way into these rice paddies. But sometimes farmers dig their own aquaculture ponds and stock the rice paddies intentionally, augmenting the creatures’ diet with fish meal.

The fish help fertilize the rice crop, he said. There’s also the benefit that comes when the fish swim around and bump against the rice, which helps reduce the insect population.

Nasielski spent a fair bit of time canoeing in Algonquin Park and Temagami.

Temagami is near New Liskeard, where one of the three research stations he will work with is located — New Liskeard and Emo in the north and Winchester in the east. These are all operated under the Ontario Agrifood Innovation Alliance, and have benefited in significant recent upgrading by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario.

Nasielski sees two goals here. One is to solve problems associated with field-crop production. The other is to work with the staff at the stations to bring forward good agronomic research.

“What I really hope to do is to bring research that is going to be collaborative,” he said, naming a few research operations already in place, such as the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA).

In eastern Ontario, there is more emphasis on soybeans and corn as strategic crops that are not as common in northern Ontario. And of course, it’s a region where outreach is more easily accomplished.

For now, Nasielski is looking at two immediate projects for which available funding is promising.

The cover-crop project for eastern and northern Ontario focuses on those crops that are traditionally planted after the main crop is harvested (such as certain forage crops) with the aim of a specific result, such as reducing erosion or suppressing weeds.

A second project is being done in collaboration with fellow University of Guelph professor John Sulik, a precision-agriculture project for eastern Ontario that will research how to apply nitrogen more efficiently in corn, a good follow-up to Nasielski’s PhD work.

And starting in mid-June, once planting is done, it’s back to the grassroots for more consultations.

“This summer I am really going to talk with the farmers and the agronomic stakeholders to get a sense of their main agronomic challenges and coming up with a good research program,” he said.

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