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Passionate about plants

April 30, 2009  By Dave Harrison

For almost three decades, Dr. Mohyuddin Mirza travelled throughout Alberta helping greenhouse operators grow their businesses. He researched and helped introduce new technologies and production systems. He advised on pest and disease issues, and offered marketing suggestions. He helped organize numerous workshops and conferences, and was a founding member of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association (AGGA).

For almost three decades, Dr. Mohyuddin Mirza travelled throughout Alberta helping greenhouse operators grow their businesses. He researched and helped introduce new technologies and production systems. He advised on pest and disease issues, and offered marketing suggestions. He helped organize numerous workshops and conferences, and was a founding member of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association (AGGA).

Dr. Mohyuddin Mirza at home in a greenhouse.


And at last fall’s AGGA Awards Banquet, the industry gave something quite special back and presented him its highest honour – its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

Last fall, he retired from the Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (AAFRD) after 31 years, including 29 years with the greenhouse sector.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award,” said Dr. Ken Fry, an instructor at Olds College and master of ceremonies for the banquet. “He’s been a great mentor to me.”

Mohyuddin and Aneesa Mirza, with award presenter Michiel Verheul
Dr. Mirza led a bus tour during the Alberta Green Conference last fall. Among the stops was The Root Seller, with hosts Mike Collier, Chris Collier and Peter Oudijn. He’s been co-ordinating bus tours during Alberta conferences for many years.
Dr. Mohyuddin and Aneesa Mirza will be doing a little extra travel, thanks to a gift from the AGGA membership. Making the presentation is Michiel Verheul.
Growers Ron Prins (TR Greenhouses) and Joe Doef (Doef’s Greenhouses) led a humorous musical tribute to Dr. Mirza.

This is the latest of a number of awards Dr. Mirza has received. He is a two-time recipient of the AGGA’s Outstanding Service Award, and was honoured with the establishment of a scholarship fund in his name.

Michiel Verheul, of High Q Greenhouses, described it as “a special award to a special person, a very dedicated person.” He said Dr. Mirza has provided him, like so many other growers, “with a flood of useful information. He’s always steered us in the right direction, and has always been there for us without hesitation.”

Dietrich Kuhlmann, of Kuhlmann’s Market Gardens and Greenhouses, said Dr. Mirza “never shied away from giving advice,” and helped growers tap into numerous government programs. “Through Dr. Mirza’s efforts, we have all accomplished a lot.”

AAFRD colleague Dr. Nick Savidov said Dr. Mirza always displayed a great desire to help people. “He is a great example of what a teacher should be,” he said. “I’ve always admired his dedication to the industry.”

Dr. Mirza has published over 1,000 extension articles and more than 1,000 research papers in various local, national and international newsletters, journals and magazines (including Greenhouse Canada.)

Dr. Mirza was successful in raising external funds and developing partnerships to support research. Over the years, some $2.5 million was raised.

A sampling of his research over the years:
He conducted hydroponic studies from 1980 to 1984, helping vegetable growers make the transition.

He helped fine-tune crop nutrition and production systems for English cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers to Alberta conditions.

His research in transplant nutrition management and plug production systems – including disease, light and temperature management – led to an expansion of the province’s bedding plant and potted plant sector.

He assisted with the development of the Cobra program, a business tool for tracking finances, losses and profits in greenhouse production.

He assisted with ongoing research into alternative fuels.

He helped modify Alberta’s Environmental Farm Plant to better represent horticulture.

“Dr. Mirza has an insatiable appetite for learning,” said Dr. Fry. He is a patient listener who would always reply with sage advice. “He encouraged growers to try new things, to do something they haven’t done before.”

Dr. Mirza’s passion for agriculture was rooted in his childhood. In his native Pakistan, there were farm animals in his backyard, and he helped feed them different types of fodder. “I learned about plant communities and their habits,” he recalled, during an interview earlier this year. Tree-planting was also important at home and in the community. “This was how plants became ingrained in me.”

He recalls with great fondness his early mentors with AAFRD, scientists such as Dr. Ron Howard and Dr. John Wiebe.

When he began in 1979, all vegetable crops were grown in the soil and bedding plants were grown in soil-based media. Major challenges included nematodes, fusarium and pythium. Dr. Mirza helped launch a research program to develop protocols for soilless cultivation. “By 1984,” he recalled, “we had all the information we needed to help the industry switch over from soil to soilless cultivation.

Being able to combine his research interests with extension work was extremely rewarding. “What helped was the level of trust and confidence growers placed in me. They shared all their information with me, and I soon became a friend of the family.”

He understood the importance of growers working more co-operatively to advance their interests, and by May of 1980, he was a founding member of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association.

“The biggest change in the industry over the years was the transition from soil into soilless cultivation,” he said. Media choices over the years have included peat bags, rockwool, perlite, sawdust and coir.

The move from honeybee-pollinated cucumbers to seedless varieties was another industry milestone. “The Alberta industry is unique in that we grow more cucumbers than tomatoes, and it has remained that way for the past 30 years.”

Another major change was the industry’s adoption of biocontrols to reduce pesticide usage.

Energy prices have had a major impact over the past few years, prompting greater attention to conservation measures and alternative fuels.

Dr. Mirza’s career has included significant travel to other greenhouse regions for tours and conferences. He always made it a point to prepare a thorough recap of his trips to share with growers, emphasizing the growing practices and technologies that could be adapted for use in Alberta. He has also served as a consultant in many regions, including the Middle East and the Caribbean.

His AAFRD greenhouse newsletter was one of the longest-running publications of its kind in North America, if not the longest.

He is well known for his jokes on bus tours and in his talks. “I learned this from my father, who was a preacher,” said Dr. Mirza. His father always began his talks with a joke or two, and the audience laughed and soon relaxed to enjoy the rest of his presentation. “I saw this on many occasions and thought how wonderful it was.”

Dr. Mirza also learned to laugh at most problems. “Humour is a great tool with which to start preaching,” he said. “In my talks, I think I must have a preacher gene.”

His challenge, as an extension specialist, was to translate complex issues into concepts growers could easily understand.

“I believed that growers trusted me and respected me for the knowledge I had actually acquired from working with them. I knew that the information I was going to give them would be used. That is what I enjoyed the most about my career. My friendships within the industry have been most enjoyable.”

And on a personal note, I had to ask about his famous 7 a.m. morning session during each Alberta conference. I never missed one of these seminars, though I was always the most bleary-eyed member of the surprisingly large audience. (Thankfully, coffee is always available, and in generous supply.) Was this another example, I suggested, of the legendary Mirza sense of humour?

Not at all.

“It all started in 1986 when the Bedding Plants Inc. annual conference was held in Edmonton, along with the AGGA conference. BPI used to have these early bird sessions, and I thought of trying them with our own conference. They have been so well attended that we have continued them since that time, and will continue with them in the future. Greenhouse growers are early risers anyway, so we only want to give them the best information as early as possible.”

He was fortunate to have the support of his family throughout his career, despite being away from home or on the road so often. “I wouldn’t have been successful without them,” he said, noting it was difficult being away for extended periods of time. “My wife commented at my retirement reception that our family life is now starting.” He and his wife, Aneesa, now have much more time to spend together with their grandchildren, something that brings them great joy.

Though he retired from AAFRD last fall, he is now assisting the AGGA as director of education and extension. “In this way,” he explained, “I will be able to contribute to the continued development of the industry and keep in contact with the growers.”

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