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Formula for Success 

The LUSTR Coop has a successful research formula: partner with a wide variety of stakeholders on seedling research projects. 


When Karen Watt isn't hopping on a plane to attend a conference in some faraway place to learn more about tree seedlings, she's in the bush doing a field trial or in the lab studying its results. As the CEO of LUSTR Coop-a one of a kind company devoted solely to tree seedling research-Watt is adding more and more forest companies to a membership list that includes seedling nurseries, silvicultural contractors, supply companies, research organizations and colleges and universities in northern Ontario. The not for profit research cooperative packs a lot of research punch out of a small office at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. By including as many stakeholders as possible in its research, the aim is to benefit all areas of the industry with an interest in reforestation. 

Karen Watt (right) CEO of LUSTR Coop says they include as many stakeholders-from nurseries through to the major forest companies-in their work, which is devoted solely to tree seedling research. 

The company is unique in that unlike many nursery associations that operate on a volunteer basis, research is done full time at LUSTR Coop. "We're very service oriented and it's totally client driven," Watt explains. And while the operation has only three full time staff counting Watt, the company has access to numerous resources at Lakehead University, including forestry science professors whom are "just down the hall", says Watt. Research is also farmed out to a small army of honours undergraduate and graduate students in the form of thesis projects. "It's a great way to get a lot of projects done and we like to collaborate with the professors," Watt says. "Being a forestry school really helps." Projects are often designed in-house and set up in cooperation with growers' nurseries. 

A forest company is also sought out to donate a piece of land for the tree seedling research. "They're actively involved and they have more ownership of the project this way," Watt says. After the crop is grown in the nursery, the following season it is planted and subsequently followed for a period of one to five years. In other cases, LUSTR Coop plays more of a coordinating role. One current project involves a University of Toronto professor testing a product through an independent trial process. LUSTR Coop simply connected the professor with three nurseries and their client forest companies to assist with the research. "A lot of our role is to just coordinate things and to connect up the right people," Watt explains. "It's not that we have to do all the research. Rather than us being experts on everything, which is not possible, we can find somebody and use their expertise." 

The company has done a lot of research in a number of areas, including the use of mycorrhizal fungi. Among the claims about mycorrhizae is that it improves the survival and growth of seedlings and protects them from disease. LUSTR Coop has run many tests on the fungi in response to demand from tree nurseries and forest companies. "It could result in an excellent end product that is going to make them a cut above everybody else," Watt says. Most of the company's research has focused on conifer species. There has been work done on hybrid poplar, however, examining different poplar clones and their suitability in northern Ontario as an alternate fibre source. Other research includes containers that provide root pruning for the seedling, either through chemical means (copper), or through slits in the container that allow air pruning for increased branching. 

A research team measures the progress of seedlings out in the bush. After a crop of trees is grown in the nursery, it is planted the following season and followed for a period of one to five years, depending on the research project. 

Coop members are also served through the gathering and distribution of the latest information on tree seedlings and reforestation in general. The company goes a long way, literally, for its members-attending conferences all across North America. "There are lots of very pertinent and interesting conferences, and members want to know what's going on," Watt says. LUSTR Coop sees its role as keeping members informed, which includes distilling relevant information from various reports and other scientific data for its newsletters. Shared information is also available on the company's web site which is updated regularly: http://flash.lakeheadu.ca/~lustr/ The company has also compiled a national Reforestation Growers Guide containing contact names in all areas of reforestation. It has also completed a new how to training video on tree planting that will be available to contractors and forest companies. 

As part of the Coop's community involvement, Watt visits elementary schools to teach kids about tree seedlings. The Coop also provides information, by request, on a wide variety of forest related topics. An example cited by Watt is concerns over inconsistencies in white spruce crops and the desire to produce a more even crop. "If we go to the literature and find there's no information on this, well then that's an excellent starting point for a research project." LUSTR Coop was born out of the Ontario government's bid in the early 1980s to privatize Crown nurseries- and later to get out of tree seedling research altogether. Nurseries were given funding to go elsewhere for research and the Thunder Bay Tree Seedling Growers' Association brought its money to Lakehead University where the coop came into being in the late 1980s. 

The coop was incorporated in 1993, and that move included a change in the group's relationship with the university. "Before, all the money used to go through the university, but now we're totally private," Watt explains. "We started out in the northwest, but now we encompass all of northern Ontario. It's a lot of ground to cover." The area served by the coop includes Kenora, Dryden, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and North Bay. Tembec Forest Products and Kimberly Clark, in northeastern and central Ontario, are members. Closer to home, Bowater, Abitibi Consolidated and Weyerhaeuser Canada are involved. 

The company moved off campus for a short period but has since been transplanted back to Lakehead University where it hopes to continue cultivating a close relationship with the university's forestry program. The university is renovating its greenhouses and has recently hired a new greenhouse manager. The facility will help LUSTR conduct more in-depth physiological research, Watt says. "It really helps, it augments our capabilities. The university has been good about giving us access to a lot of the facilities here." The company also has close ties with the Superior Woods Tree Improvement Association, Forest Genetics Ontario, and the Boreal Science Ecosystem Coop. LUSTR Coop defines itself as a "support entity" with a strict scientific focus. Watt adds the coop isn't a lobby group, like some nursery associations, and it doesn't get involved in industry politics. "We try to stay out of the political and business end of things because our members compete with each other. 

Different nurseries may be competing for the same client base." The Coop's research is determined through a committee and a board of directors. Groups can also pay to have a project done. "If LUSTR Coop is going to fund it, it can't be something that is only of interest to the growers," Watt says. "It has to be something that everybody is interested in, because everybody pays into it." The Coop has expanded its research on nursery management-from fertilization to irrigation and lighting-to include a greater emphasis on field-testing. "A lot of times now our projects are coming from the forest companies," Watt says, adding member forest companies have expressed an interest, for example, in tree seedling thawing times related to planting. Watt adds there's room for the Coop to grow its current list of 30 plus members and the company is currently exploring opportunities to expand into southern Ontario. 

As for a national Coop, Watt says for now at least the company's research will stay in the province, where growing conditions differ from those in, for example, British Columbia. The Coop receives funding from the Canadian government's FEDNOR and the province's Rural Jobs Strategy Fund. It is also supported by the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program. Attending and participating in conferences seems to be one of the best ways of keeping on top of developments in the field, which keeps Watt hopping on planes. "By attending conferences and meetings, we're trying to keep abreast of what are the cutting edge issues and what is the future of forestry," she says. "What direction is it taking, and how can we fit into that?" 


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