Our Farm

12 May 1886

It would hard to exaggerate the value of the Central Experimental Farm to the well-being of Ottawa, its residents, and indeed of all Canadians. The 425-hectare (1,050 acres) working farm established in the late 19th century, initially on the outskirts of the city but now long encircled by suburbs, constitutes the most important green space in the city. With free admission to its grounds, the Farm has something for everyone. Best known are its Ornamental Gardens, lovingly maintained by Farm gardeners, and volunteers, called Friends of the Farm. Beds of peonies, irises, and day lilies, as well as a host of annuals, attract residents and visitors alike, including newlyweds seeking the perfect backdrop for their wedding memories. In the spring, rows of lilacs and winter-hardy roses propagated by Farm experts delight the senses. The working dairy farm and agricultural museum provide Ottawa’s urban youngsters a year-round taste of rural living, while walkers and cyclists can explore the Farm’s treed lanes that divide research fields, free from city fumes.

Experimental Farm
Central Experimental Farm, Field of Sunflowers, 2014

Across the road from the Ornamental Gardens is the Dominion Arboretum, a 29-hectare park, home to more than 1,700 species of trees and shrubs. Each spring, its crab apple, cherry and pear trees come into flower, their pink and white blossoms perfuming the air. Stretching down to Dow’s Lake and the Rideau Canal, the Arboretum is a favourite of walkers, joggers, picnickers, and dog owners. In wintertime, outdoor enthusiasts toboggan down its slopes.

The Farm has, however, a far more important and serious side. Its fields and greenhouses are the home of the Eastern Cereals and Oilseed Research Centre for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, responsible for crop development in eastern Canada of corn, soy beans, spring and winter wheat, oats, and barley. It also has a national mandate “for assessing and utilizing biodiversity and environmental resources for Canadian agriculture.”

Established on 12 May 1886 by the government of Sir John A. Macdonald with the support of Sir John Carling, Minister of Agriculture, the Farm was the product of recommendations of a parliamentary committee chaired by Georges Auguste Gigault, MP for Rouville Quebec, which had studied how best the government could support and encourage Canadian farmers. Despite farming being then the mainstay of the Canadian economy, Gigault’s committee had discovered that farmers had little knowledge of the appropriate seeds to plant, did not systematically follow crop rotation, were unaware of how to improve soil fertility, and did not know how to effectively breed and raise livestock. Gigualt recommended the establishment of agricultural schools and model farms to which Canadian farmers could turn for advice.

With Gigault’s proposals favourably received, agricultural research facilities were subsequently established across the country with a mission to improve the crops and agricultural practices of Canadian farmers. The Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa was the crown jewel in the network, with other smaller research centres set up in Nappan, Nova Scotia; Agassiz, British Columbia; Brandon, Manitoba; and Indian Head, Saskatchewan. Today, there are nineteen such facilities across Canada.

In November 1886, an initial 188 hectares (466 acres) of farmland in Nepean Township was purchased by William Saunders, the first Director of Experimental Farms, at a cost of $120,000. Saunders, an eminent botanist, entomologist and agriculturalist, was attracted to the property by its proximity to Parliament Hill, only five kilometres away. Three years later, James Fletcher, the first Dominion Botanist, planted the first 200 trees and shrubs in the Arboretum. More land was purchased during the 1920s and in the 1940s to expand the Farm to roughly its current size, though some 38 hectares (93 acres) of surplus land was sold in 1988.

Saunders encouraged farmers, gardeners and horticulturalists to send samples of their seed to the Central Experimental Farm for testing of their vitality and germinating power. Subsequently, the Farm began distributing three-pound bags of high-quality seed to Canadian farmers for free through the mail. This highly successful program improved the yield and quality of barley, spring wheat, field corn, peas, and potatoes, thereby raising farm incomes.

The Central Experimental Farm’s national and international reputation was cemented by the development of the Marquis brand of wheat in the early 20th century by Sir Charles Saunders, the son of William Saunders. Marquis wheat matured seven to ten days earlier than Red Fife, the most popular grain grown at that time, had a high yield, and made excellent bread. The shorter growing period allowed farmers to plant further north, effectively doubling the amount of land that could be profitably tilled on the prairies. By 1918, close to 90 per cent of the wheat grown in western Canada was of the Marquis variety. While better wheat hybrids came to replace Marquis over time, virtually all types of wheat grown in Canada over the past 100 years are derived from it.

The Farm also made a name for itself in horticulture, developing fruit trees and flowers that could withstand the rigours of a Canadian winter. Of particular note, is the Explorer series of roses and the Preston lilac, Syringa prestoniae, a late blooming, winter-hardy variety developed by Isabella Preston during the 1920s. Eighty of her cultivars are recognized in the International Lilac Register.

In the Second World War, the Farm was mobilized to support the war effort. Among other things, it invented a process to preserve fruit that “the boys in the hottest and stickiest Africa will find hard to tell from the fresh produce.” It also developed things that we take for granted today, such as oil from sunflowers and rapeseed (canola). It additionally made parachute cords from flax, and researched rubber-bearing plants such as Russian dandelion and milkweed. During the Cold War, the Farm investigated how radioactive contamination could be removed from animal products, especially milk.

In the 1970s, the Farm’s help was also enlisted in the war on drugs. A three-acre plot of marijuana was planted for scientific purposes, mostly for studies to determine its cancer-causing properties rather than its medicinal value. The plot was surrounded by an ordinary farm fence, and was hidden by corn fields…until the marijuana plants grew 20 feet tall! With the marijuana field located off of Ash Lane, the road naturally became known as “Hash Lane.” Ostensibly, the field was secret, but it was widely known among university students.  As well, what secrecy there was would have been lost following a Montreal Gazette article in early 1971 titled “A ‘pot’ farm thriving in central Ottawa.”

The Central Experimental Farm has had a profoundly positive impact on the farming community and the well-being of all Canadians since its establishment almost 130 years ago. While agriculture is no longer the backbone of the Canadian economy, the Central Experimental Farm continues its important mission of improving Canadian agriculture. Over the past two decades or more, it has been working in the forefront of gene manipulation of crop plants. It’s also undertaking biosystematic (the study of biological diversity) research of vascular plants, fungi, bacteria and invertebrates important to agriculture, as well as studying the long run environment impact of agricultural practices. In recognition of its importance to the history of Canadian agriculture, the Farm became a National Historic Site in 1998, thus preserving it for future generations.


Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada, Central Experimental Farm, http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/offices-and-locations/central-experimental-farm/?id=1170701489551.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography, George Auguste Gigault, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gigault_george_auguste_14E.html.

———————-, William Saunders, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/saunders_william_14E.html.

Friends of the Farm, Highlights of the Farm’s History, http://www.friendsofthefarm.ca/highlights.htm.

Interview with Dr Ernest Small, http://www.druglibrary.org/olsen/hemp/iha/jiha6208.html.

Smith, H. 1996. Ottawa’s Farm, A History of the Central Experimental Farm, General Store Publishing House, Burnstown, Ontario.

 The Huron Examiner, 1891. “Seed Testing at the Central Experimental Farm,” 30 January.

The Montreal Gazette, 1971. “A ‘Pot’ Farm Thriving in Central Ottawa,” 2 March.

The News and Eastern Townships Advocate, 1962. “Central Experimental Farm,” 2 August.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1928. “Experimental Farm Extension,” 22 February.

——————–, 1936. “50th Anniversary, Opening of William Saunders Building in Memory of 1st Director,” 6 June.

——————-, 1946. “Need Larger Acreage at Experimental Farm,” 21 December.

——————-, 1986. “Experimental Farm, 100 years old, Research Centre Kicking up Heels,” 28 April.

The Sherbrooke Examiner,1887.  “Distribution of Samples from the Central Experimental Farm at Ottawa,” 22 January.

Image: Central Experimental Farm, Field of Sunflowers, 2014, by Nicolle Powell


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