Pair of ‘mouse control technicians’ to lose their jobs when Ontario closes tree seed plant
Sammy the cat on patrol at the Ontario Tree Seed Plant -National Post photo
The concern of critics attacking the decision is not so much about the cats – Pepper and Sammy will land on their feet – as the future viability of native species of Ontario trees
By Jake Edmiston National Post
ANGUS, Ont. — At a government compound in rural Ontario, there are stockpiles of tree seeds, billions of them, all catalogued and tested and waiting to be planted. The threat inherent for this factory and its pine cones, acorns, fruit and seed is the vermin. So the provincial government has employed two cats.
Pepper and Sammy are paid by the taxpayers of Ontario in room, board and veterinary care. These “mice-control technicians,” as one bureaucrat called them, are the reason there is no rodent problem at the Ontario Tree Seed Plant in Angus, Ont., about 120 kilometres north of Toronto.
The cats are soon to be fired, however. The government will shutter the plant next September.
The chorus of critics attacking the decision is not so much about the cats as the future viability of native species of Ontario trees. Since the 1920s, the Tree Seed Plant has taken in various kinds of seed, each needing a specialized machine. Certain types of pine cones are tumbled in spinning kilns – like big clothes dryers – to shake out the seeds tucked inside. Cherries need to be macerated. The seed needs to be cleaned and tested to determine its germination rate and stored cold, in different fridges at different temperatures, depending on the species. The plant processes the seeds and sells them. It provides the same service to clients who bring in their own seeds.
The ministry says the plant is losing roughly $1 million a year, with losses projected to soon reach $2 million when aging infrastructure and equipment is considered. Operations have apparently declined since the mid-90s, which the ministry traces to the Progressive Conservative government, under premier Mike Harris, which privatized nurseries that purchased seed. The private sector has also started to encroach on the seed-extraction business.
“It no longer makes sense to operate such a large facility,” Natural Resources Minister Kathryn McGarry said during question period at Queen’s Park in October.
The government plans to open a “Genetic Seed Archive” instead. It will store seeds for native species, each collected from different parts of the province, but only 100,000 to 200,000 of each, not enough to provide to the forest industry for planting.
Opposition MPPs and conservation experts have accused the government of shortsightedness, since perhaps the only Ontario plant with the machinery and know-how to process seed for such an archive is the plant they’re shutting down. Barb Boysen, general manager of Forest Gene Conservation Association, said a colleague has likened the government plan to “closing the postal service and replacing it with a stamp collection.”
“I don’t think the MNR has a clue,” Boysen said. “The people who are making the decision have no idea how the reforestation sector works.”
Boysen is part of a coalition that is pushing the government for more time — at least three to five years. A year’s notice, they say, is not enough for the private sector to come up with an alternative. The fear is that without a plant producing high-quality tree seeds sourced from the same area they’ll be planted in, the urban landscaping industry will turn to seed from U.S. houses. The 50 million tree program – an Ontario government program bent on planting 50 million trees in the province by 2025 – will have to look elsewhere for 40 to 50 per cent of its seed, according to Forests Ontario, which runs the program.
The ministry, Boysen said, “is a 747 of biodiversity with no landing gear.”
“They talk a big story and in this case, they’re removing one of the best tools to make it easy for people to do the right thing.”
Ken Durst, the regional manager who oversees the Angus seed plant, was far more confident in the private sector’s ability to fill the gap. It already handles 80 per cent of seed extraction.
“At this point, they’re doing a good job of it,” Durst said. “We’re not a big player in this business.”
With the government no longer in the business of growing seed to meet market demands, it will be freed up to catalogue seed that will help government scientists analyze the effects of climate change, he said.
But the government plant was the only one of its kind in Southern Ontario, which has far more tree varieties than the north. So the six (human) staff at the plant are among very few with the expertise needed to process seed from those species, critics said. In some cases, seed collectors even send photos of pine cones to staff at the plant, since they’re the only ones who can tell if the cones are ripe, Boysen said.
Durst said none of the staff will be out of jobs. “We’re working in support of each of our staff as they think about their transition plans going forward,” he said. “At this point in time, there are no layoffs.”
As for the cats, their professional mousing is soon over. The ministry will find new homes for Pepper and Sammy, Durst said. It’s unlikely though, that those new homes will be like their last: 10 hectares of old government buildings, trees, mice and what must be a deep, humbling sense of civic duty.