ALUMNI-IN-ACTION ORAL HISTORY
GARY R. JOHNSTON
Ontario Agricultural College, 1949 & 1951
Interviewed by Ed. Brubaker
December 16, 1997
EB This is an interview with Gary Johnston for the Alumni-in-Action Oral History Committee on Tuesday, December 16, 1997 in Gary’s home at 21 Division St. in Guelph done by Ed. Brubaker. Gary you were born and raised a few miles North of Guelph. Can you tell us a little bit of your background?
GJ Yes, I was born and raised on a farm just outside of the hamlet of Alma. It is in North Wellington County and I went to school in Alma and then to high school in Elora and Fergus. Following my graduation from high school, I went to Toronto Normal School and got my teaching certificate. Back in those days it was hard to get a job so I was out of work for a year and then I got a teaching position in North Wellington in a little country school. I taught there from, I guess it was 1936 to 1941 at which time I enlisted in the air force.
EB Gary do you remember what your starting salary was?
GJ I hate to admit that but it was $500 and I also had to do the cleaning and look after the stove and all those other duties.
EB And that was $500 a year?
GJ The whole year. But I finally got up to the great sum of $900 a year when I moved from the first school into a two room school in Alma and then it was during that period that I left the school teaching forces and went into the air force. Now I went into the air force as an instructor on teaching the students theory of bombing and gunnery and all that went along with it. From there I finally ended up in Newfoundland. In the meantime I earned my gunners wing and I was transferred to Newfoundland to a squadron there-10BR and that’s where my air force days ended. Now I know you probably wonder how I got to hear about going to college! Well, just by co-incidence, the education officer at Gander, Newfoundland had been my high school principal in Fergus, Dr. Bowers, and he said to me one day while talking, he said “You know Gary, I think you should seriously consider going back to college because the government with DVA are going to sponsor veterans who want to further their education”. So I got out of the air force. About the last day of August and I went up to OAC and the next week became one of those 350 ‘49ers.
EB Just in time to register to for the start of the year.
GJ Just in time!
EB What did you fly on in the air force as an air gunner?
GJ Well, we had the old bull and brokes in the training. Over in Newfoundland it had just changed into the big four engine liberators. I didn’t get to do hardly any flying because by the time I got to Newfoundland the war in Europe was over. My flying career was mainly flying with my students all those years that I taught the gunners and the bombers because I checked out every student on their air work.
EB So you totaled a lot of hours.
GJ A lot of hours but mostly in the training program.
EB Well that’s good. Why did you not even think of going to college in 1934. Why was it that you went to Normal School?
GJ Well, my grandfather had was a great advocate of education and he was a superintendant of the local school system and he kept telling me all the time that you should become a professional, you should become a teacher. If you don’t like the teaching it may lead or be a stepping-stone to something else. So, kind of reluctantly, a young guy at 17 ½, off to Toronto Normal School. But then in order to get ahead in the teaching business in the public school, one had to further one’s education and the ultimate, of course, was to get a degree. So I had started to work on my BA, to go every Saturday to Fergus to the school there and a professor would come up from the University of Toronto and you were able to take one or two subjects a year. So I had got started at least. So that sort of got me interested and, of course, when Dr. Bowers, the Education Officer in Gander, said “you can now go through and finish your education and rather than just go back to public school teaching, I did it.
I really enrolled at OAC in order to get my degree to go back to teaching. This time to go back to teach high school but I got sidetracked after the first two years. I was taking general as we all did but I kind of got interested in chemistry, so my last two years I took the chemistry option. And following that I got an opportunity to go for my Master’s degree in the old Field Husbandry. They offered me $2,400 a year of a Fellowship with the Maple Leaf Milling Company to work on winter wheat. So my thesis, of course, was on winter wheat under Professor Wadell. He was very good to put me right through the complete course of what you have to do in a breeding program. So I learned my breeding naturally with winter wheat and I’m not sorry for that because once you’ve learned that these techniques and all that has to be in the breeding program, you can really go to another program. However, when I graduated with my Master’s they offered me a Lecturer’s position in Field Husbandry. This time I was lecturing in, of all things, forage crops and silage to the students and doing a bit of research on forage crop breeding. In 1953, this was in ’51, but in 1953, Norm Thompson, I think he was a graduate of ’46, he’d been the potato man there, Federal. He decided to go to Michigan with a position in Michigan and, you probably recall Don Huntley he was then the head of the Field Husbandry, and he said would you be interested in possibly switching over to potatoes. Of course, he said, you’d have to then switch over to the Federal Government. So I decided well, first of all, its an extra $1,000 a year and so I made the switch and became a became a Research Scientist with Agriculture Canada with my headquarters, at that time, in Ottawa and I was, well seconded as it was, on loan, back to Field Husbandry to do my work there in Guelph. Later,
my headquarters changed to Fredericton but I continued there at Guelph on my potato program with breeding testing work for close to 30 years.
EB When did you start that program?
GJ I started my part of the breeding program in 1953. We had what was called The Old OAC Potato Farm out at Hespler. And then it later became the Cambridge Research Station. But I took over potatoes very easily because I’d had this breeding training in another crop and I found that I was very, very good at it and I enjoyed it and so after a period of time I started to turn out new potato varieties. During my tenure I named and released I think it was 16 new potato varieties. During that period of time also I either authored or co-authored 25 scientific research papers.
EB That went into refereed journals!
GJ Yes. Now when I was forced, of course, to retire at age 65, they weren’t able to get a replacement immediately so they asked me would I stay on and continue the program at Guelph for the Federal Government, which I did for a couple of years until another young guy, Robert Kaufman, who had graduated out of Guelph, took over. After 4 years he decided to go back to Prince Edward Island where he had come from, so, again, they didn’t have a potato breeder, so they asked me again and so for another, I think it was 3 or 4 years, I stayed on to carry on the program until this Dr. Ali Khan was transferred from Morden, Manitoba to Guelph. He is still there. Although I understand he is going to retire in three years. The rumor is that that that the program that was so successful at Guelph is going to disappear.
EB Or they may come back and ask you again.
GJ Too late now.
EB Specifically then, your work with Agriculture Canada was to develop new potato varieties and bring them into production?
GJ Oh yes. It was not only just to be the breeder, but also to do the potato trials, all the testing, for the Province of Ontario. And I pioneered a system of regional testing that is now used in many other crops using materials that either I from my breeding program or that I got from the Federal Breeding Program, a National Breeding Program, and put them out at at other stations like Thunder Bay, New Liskeard, and down in the banana belt there was Harrow and Simcoe and, of course, the main station at Cambridge, and then the East end, well first of all, up at Bradford on the Marsh and at Kemptville down south of Ottawa. So all of my materials were tested there and we brought all of the results together, analyze them and use that as a basis for recommending licensing new varieties.
EB So that meant a lot of traveling for you around Ontario here!
GJ A lot of traveling in summertime to go visit all these stations.
EB And did you enjoy that?
GJ Well, yes and no. It’s a lot of driving to Thunder Bay and a long days trip up to Cochrane, we had a trial up there too by the way, and I got to see a lot of the province too.
EB You sure did and it was all part of the job, wasn’t it?
GJ In the meantime, during that period of years, I became a member of the Potato Association of America and served for three years on their directorate and during that period I received an Honorary Life Membership from the Potato Association of America, for which I was highly pleased, not too many people get that.
EB It’s a good award isn’t it? Is there a Canadian Association that …
GJ No, it really takes in Canada, the United States and South America.
EB OK, now you developed one very, very popular variety of potato. Can you tell us about that and when it occurred?
GJ Well, first of all I’ll tell you probably why. A lot of our immigrants in those years following the war, were from Europe and they had been used to yellow flesh potatoes in Germany and Holland and Belgium and so on and I decided that, since we have a lot of people here in Ontario and Canada who would have liked to have had the yellow flesh, why not try to get them one. So I brought in some wild species from South America, mainly from Peru and Columbia, with deep yellow flesh and these were wild species or ones that Inca Indians down there were growing and started crossing them onto some of our domestic lines and I came up with yellow flesh seedlings. Yukon Gold happens to be a cross between a wild cultivar in Peru. Its Latin name is Yema de huevo, translated into yolk of egg, small, rough potato about the size of a walnut. I crossed it onto a very early, full-sized, round, domestic variety actually Nordak from North Dakota and out of that cross selected one which became Yukon Gold. Now in Canada we had a gentleman’s agreement in those earlier years that new varieties would be named after a body of water, like one of my varieties was Trent, another one was Huron and so on, and this time we just happened to pick on, well we thought of the Gold Rush and the Yukon River up there so we named it Yukon Gold. Of course, following it there has been a whole series of the the Gold varieties now out, Red Gold, Rose Gold, Saginaw Gold, Royal Gold, Ruby Gold, all came through my testing program.
EB About how long did it take from the time you decided you wanted to get a yellow flesh potato, finding the wild cultivars and getting it out to where you think, yes, this looks promising.
GJ That particular seedling that became Yukon Gold it was cross G66664Y and that was made in 1966. The actual cross that we made was released with the name and and license in 1980.
EB So that’s 14 years!
GJ Fourteen years. I think about the shortest period of time of any of them might have been my Conestoga in about 12 years. So it does take a lot of a lot of years.
EB The time you’re testing and trying to improve and trying to select.
GJ That’s right. Now I think the very fact that Yukon Gold is the only one of any importance at all that’s grown and marketed in Canada, by name, has been one of the greatest part of my success, plus the fact that I personally gave it a lot of publicity by writing articles for, oh like Harrowsmith, The American Vegetable Grower, to get the word around. You know, it was a strange thing happened, the First Lady of the United States, Hilary Clinton, when she was going to name a bunch of vegetables that were going to be featured at the White House kitchen, she chose Yukon Gold, I expect she thought it came from Alaska. But it’s been really, really increasing. In Michigan and California and just recently, as I think of it, I told you earlier, over the phone, Finland, and Sweden are now wanting to market it by that name for which I have given my OK.
EB Right. You hold the patent rights, is that what you call them?
GJ Unfortunately, Yukon Gold was released just a couple of years before Breeder’s Rights came in, so we can’t collect any royalties. So if it had been under copyright, the Department of Horticulture would have made thousands of dollars over it because for every bag of seed you sow, so much would have to come in, even I, as a breeder, would have gotten a very small percentage.
EB But it would have been useful to you, even a small percentage.
GJ Now these other ones I have mentioned like the Red Gold and Rose Gold some these are patented and eventually if some of them make the grade, good acreage, then there’ll be some money to coming in.
EB Right. OK, I guess you can look back at it though and say “so many people are eating this Yukon Gold now” that that’s really reward…
GJ That is my reward, to hear that so many people all around the world, by the way, Japan as an example, are growing it now and and it did win the vegetable of the year award back in, I forget what year it was.
EB I’ll read this, the award, a nice brass shield on the wall, roughly 9 inches by 15 inches and it reads as follows “Canadian Society for Horticultural Science – Outstanding Cultivar Award Presented to G.R. Johnston for the potato Yukon Gold at the 32nd Annual Meeting, August, 1987, London, Ontario.”
GJ That’s correct.
EB I can see why you are very proud to hang that in your home Gary.
GJ And there’s another one, just a photograph that I’m kind of proud of, to be in the same picture as the Great One, Burbank.
EB Luther Burbank.
GJ ‘Cause he is the world’s Mr. Potato.
EB Tell us a little bit about how you happened to be on the same publication.
GJ Well, the Agriculture Department of Ottawa, Agriculture Canada decided they would have in their Agriculture Museum a display on different phases of the potato work being done in Canada so they took some pictures of me and put them up on plaques or whatnot in a display in a museum. Now that museum has been taken out completely for now and re-established up on the Central Experimental Farm. So people can still go in and see the history.
EB And the plaques are still there!
GJ It’s still there. They’re they’re quite large, these are just photographs.
EB And I see another one here and I’ll read it “Gary Johnston is a Canadian potato breeder who headed a research team at the University of Guelph. In the 1960’s he cross-bred a bright yellow, wild potato from Peru” that you were talking about there “with a domestic variety. From the cross he developed Yukon Gold, now one of North America’s most popular potatoes.” Any do you know when that was done?
GJ I’m not just sure but I would gestimate 6 or 7 years ago.
EB Good. Well very, very nice indeed. And, there’s another one here that was also part of a display with your picture.
GJ Yeah, it was from the Star. This is in the Toronto Star.
EB In the Toronto Star. Possibly about 1995, and the question is “Which Spud is for You?” and a picture there of Gary with some quite a variety of potatoes in front of him. Now why did the Star do that Gary?
GJ Well, they were interested in doing something on the food line and potatoes being one of the staples, they sent up a person to interview me and take the pictures and whatnot and this one taken out at my own private greenhouse. I’m sure that one of those, that’s probably Rideau Red, that’s probably Purple Viking the one there in front of me, but the interesting thing to me as a breeder, of those eleven, the top four all came through my potato breeding programmme. Now Fredericton being the National breeding programme, I shouldn’t knock it but anyhow, they’ve only got one into the top 11 from their programmme and they had four potato breeders down there. So I guess I was a little bit lucky or had a green thumb.
EB You did something right, didn’t you? That’s very effective. Three top potatoes are the Red Gold, the Yukon Gold and the Purple Viking all part of yours as well as the Saginaw Gold came through your program, the top 4.
GJ I did something right. Actually, Saginaw Gold was a joint release between Michigan and Ontario. Michigan had sent me a single tuber of this before it was even named and I liked it and multiplied it. They dropped it but then we decided we should license it and so we did give them the credit of the name Saginaw from Saginaw Bay.
EB OK. That’s good Gary. Now, let’s go back a little bit to college days. What did you take at university that you think was particularly helpful to you in your work?
GJ Oh, I had gone there to get my degree and then to go to high school teaching but I wasn’t just too impressed with having to take the one that teacher’s all took, I forgot what option that was.
EB Agricultural Science.
GJ That’s right. And, so I opted to go to chemistry figuring that, well, it might be of some use to me in my future work but not knowing, of course then, that I was going post-graduate and and, actually a post-graduate not in cereal chemistry but in the field crops and, as I said earlier, I got lots of experience there and in working with crop plants, winter wheat and the forages. I kind of always had a hankering that I, as a youngster we had grown up on a farm where we grew quite a few potatoes and when that chance came along to switch into the potato crop I jumped at it.
EB Good. And it was a good a good jump.
GJ And it meant a lot of outdoors, which I enjoyed, and quite a bit of traveling, which I also enjoyed.
EB Do you recall any particular professors that were helpful to you or any particular courses?
GJ Well, I think Don Huntley, Dr. Huntley, was the professor that really did so much for me and gave some good advice but Professor Wadell had given me a lot of training in this breeding business, plant breeding and I think those are the two outstanding professors that really carved my future career.
EB OK Gary. Were you married before you went to the air force?
GJ Yes. I was married in 1940 and when I went into the air force well we had two two boys by this stage and while I was in the air force, and following while I was at university we had three more, two boys and a girl. So all my children were born either during the war or while I was at college, so with 4 ½ years at war and six years at college it was pretty hard on my wife raising then, but we managed.
EB Yeah, she had her hands full. And then at college you did you ever live in residence?
GJ I did my first year. I lived in residence and my roommate was Tom Angus whom you may or may not remember. He was a navigator in the air force overseas. One tragedy in the family, unfortunately, our oldest boy Richard was killed in a head-on accident six or seven years ago now. A car accident in the fog.
EB Yeah, that’s rough and he had some family…
GJ Head on with a young person in a truck who turned out to have been under the influence. But other than that we have a very close-knit family. We see them, they all live either in Guelph or close to Guelph and we now have 9 grandchildren and we have 5 great grandchildren.
EB Good for you. And did any of your children follow in your footsteps at university?
GJ Well, Richard, the one we lost, graduated from OAC. Wayne, our middle boy, graduated from OAC and is now a high school teacher in Guelph. Robert, the youngest one, went to OAC and then to McMaster and finally to the University of Waterloo. He actually graduated and worked in Archeology Robert now has his own woodworking factory in Paisley and goes around various sites to like Cathedrals and places like that where they have to replace certain of the windows or architecture and whatnot and he is terribly busy at that, very talented. He learned his woodworking all on his own. So the only connection between what he went to university and this is the fact that he learned about old architecture. Gary Jr. is a chemist with a company down in Ingersoll and I guess I have covered all of them.
EB Your daughter.
GJ Maureen, for twenty something years now has been a secretary at OAC, at University of Guelph I should say. She started off in Mac Institute and now she’s working in the Department of Human Relations.
EB OK. Gary uh you have been known around Guelph for many years as a very ardent curler. Can you tell us how you started curling and some of the things that you have done?
GJ Well, I started curling as an athletic option when I was at OAC. We used to curl once a week down at the old curling club downtown and then I didn’t curl again until after I had become a member of Agriculture Canada, that would be somewhere about 1954 and, up until a few years ago, I curled ever since then and I did a lot of committee work, went through every department in the curling club there was, I think, from publicity to curling captain and, eventually, I became the President of the Guelph Curling Club. I was that for three years. It was during that period I was a guiding light, I guess you could say, of building a new club. We managed to sell the old club to the city and build the brand new 8-sheet club. I really did enjoy competitive curling. We won a lot of trophies. We won a lot of district events. I think one of the highlights of my curling career, I don’t know if you recall the name Murray McGregor or not, but we went to a major Bonspiel in Niagara Falls and for five years in a row we won every game, we won 29 games in a row and finally lost our 30th. No other team has or ever will, win that many games in a row at a major curling event.
EB Gary, at one time you curled and eight-ender! How did that come about?
GJ Well, an eight-ender is something like a whole in one in golf. It’s rather rare but that kind of pleased me is that everybody used to want to beat John Eccles and this time I happened to be playing with him and we we threw an eight-ender against another OAC graduate, I’m sure you remember, Tom Lane, and he didn’t appreciate it too much. So, I have one eight-ender in my career.
EB And you still remember it?
GJ Oh yes.
EB Yeah, with pride!
GJ Yeah. We had to have a picture taken of course. Put in the Guelph Mercury. Well, I played a little bit of hockey when I was younger, a little bit of baseball, but other than those sports I did a little bit of fishing when I was a kid.
EB Gary you have a greenhouse attached to your house here and you have a garden out back, uh what do you do in those two places?
GJ Well, I built the greenhouse following my retirement or at least my first retirement and I like growing different kinds of plants and I thought well if I have a greenhouse I can start all my own tomatoes and so on and all of my flowers and supply my kids and grandkids with their plants as well. But, finally after I REALLY was finished at the OAC, Horticulture I decided well you’ve got the greenhouse why not carry on with some more potato breeding and so I have done that and I turn over the best looking of my new seedlings to the Hort. Department and Dr. Ali Khan now grows them out at the research station. I go out there and I have a look at them as they are growing and then be sure to be there at at harvest time and we between the two of us we make selections that might have a possibility. I think the main part of this program they carry on now have been dealing with a wild species and trying to, and fairly successfully, incorporate the wild species into our domestic lines because I feel that if we are going to make great gains in yields and disease resistance, insect resistance, we’ve got to go back to the wild species that survived over the thousands of years in, say, the Andes Mountains. I’m a little bit concerned about this new business of putting genes from some other species right into the chromosome or chromosomes of domestic varieties. I’m not just sure in my own mind that what we’re adding may not be good for the potato business in the long run, although, I admit, they put a gene from, I think its from a bacterium into a potato variety and that potato variety is practically immune to the pest, the Colorado Potato Beetle, which darn near put potatoes out of business a few years ago. But you wonder about what others things that go could go wrong. I shouldn’t mention that quite a few years ago I had gotten a variety from the United States and used it in my breeding program and I was guilty of doing a lot of my crossing, on a Sunday morning when I should have been at church, up in the greenhouse at the college. Its name happened to be Lenapy. Now, Lenapy, unbeknownst to to me, had contained a wild specie in it, a grandparent or great grandparent, called Chacowensi, Salenim Chacowensi and Dr. Bob Akeley, deceased now, but he had used that to try to get resistance to aphids and to the Colorado and whatnot. Now I should have maybe been suspicious if it, if the bugs don’t like the plant maybe then we shouldn’t be eating them. Anyhow, on a Sunday morning I was harvesting some of these Lenapy potato plants in the greenhouse up there and rather than throw the little tubers, because I was only interested in the in crossing the flowers, so I had a bunch of tubers oh the size of walnuts and it just happened that particular weekend Mrs. Johnston was away somewhere so I cooked them up for myself. And, oh about a few hours later I became violently ill. I got the shakes. I just didn’t know what was wrong with me. But, to shorten up the story, I was talking to Dr. Zitnak, who was the biochemist in Horticulture, one day at coffee break and telling him about how ill I had gotten and wondered if it was the potatoes and he he said “You know, I when I worked in Alberta we had a few cases out there of people being poisoned by eating potatoes that had been left lying out on the ground and then people came along and gleaned them”. So it started a whole research here in Ontario and in Canada and we found out that tubers that we use like the old Kennebec and
some of these we grow had about as high as ten, fifteen at the most, with alkaloids in them which gives them their flavor incidentally. This baby, Lenapy, was running in 60 something of alkaloids! And, of course, I had been poisoned. Now we started a national get-together. We met in in Guelph, we met in in Washington with the Americans, because it was an American variety. They wouldn’t believe it at first because they grew it all across the United States, we grew it again all across Canada, got all the results put together and the Americans had to take it off the market completely because it was poisonous. So since that time, all new varieties, all new seeding coming up for licensing, they have to check the total alkaloid content of the potatoes and if they are more than 15 parts per milligrams per 100 grams of fresh weight, they they they can’t be licensed.
EB Not an edible potato.
CJ They’re an inedible potato. We tried to keep the information under wraps as much as we could but the press did get a hold of a bit of it. We were really scared to death that people would stop eating potatoes. But, anyhow, we got by without too much damage. But the Americans ---America used to call me the alkaloid kid.
EB Poisonous kid? Or the poisoned kid?
CJ Well, like I heard em while I was giving a paper over in the United States, I sort of heard them in the background saying “Too damned bad he didn’t eat more then he wouldn’t be around again!”
EB OK. Now what do you do in your garden then?
CJ Well, I grow my potato varieties, the better ones, and I grow some beans and carrots, beets, the regular, tomatoes of course. I grow a lot of tomatoes and I’ve always been able to get out there with my hoe and Rotatiller and poke around. But now that I’ve kind of loss the use of my legs to a certain extent, my grandsons come in and do the gardening work for me. And then they share in the in the produce.
EB How do you keep the rabbits out of your garden from eating the carrots and and beets and other things, peas as they come up?
CJ Well, the rabbits do a pretty good job, I’m afraid, on my carrots and beets. It’s not too bad on the beans and all. We don’t have too many rabbits in this part of the city, we see the odd one but my son-in-law, out in the country, there are a lot of things he just can’t grow because the rabbits come along and eat them right off. Even last winter they ate the tops off of his raspberry plants. I never heard of that before. But I enjoy my flowers.
EB What species or varieties do you grow?
CJ Geraniums are the good old standby. I even have done some crossing with geraniums, they’re not too difficult. Petunias, snap dragons, that’s the main ones.
EB You’ve got a green thumb! And even 15 years after you’ve retired you’re still have your green thumb in the potato research and you’re growing these things that you enjoy.
CJ One of the real pleasant things of my day now is to go out to that greenhouse and, with all the greenery that is growing out there, as you are aware of course, there in the daytime they are giving off oxygen, at night they are taking in carbon dioxide, so it’s a very, very healthy atmosphere. As soon as you walk in there the air is different. The smell is pleasant!
EB OK, anything else you want to add, Gary that you can recall?
CJ I don’t think so. Curling was my sport and gardening and growing plants was my hobby. I still carry on with my potato breeding since I know how to do it and I won the jackpot.
EB And you’ve really lived all your life here in Guelph, since you came to Guelph in 1945.
CJ The ones that are not in Guelph, Gary Jr. and wife live in Tillsonburg and Bob, the youngest one, is in Paisley but they are all within driving distance so we get to see them fairly frequently.
EB And you’ll see them all this Christmas season?
CJ The whole bunch!
EB Ok, Gary, I think maybe that’s as far as we’ll go today. Thank you very, very much for your time and your reminiscence here. I found it very interesting listening to you.
CJ Before you go, if you have a few minutes, I’ll take you out to the greenhouse and show you what’s out there.
EB This has been an interview with G.R. (Gary) Johnston class of OAC ’49, a prominent potato grower, who worked at the University and lived in Guelph all his life.