A soil analysis technology and a pelleted insect frass fertilizer are among the 10 innovations that have received funding under a provincial program designed to find alternative fertilizer solutions for farmers.
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The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs launched the $2 million Fertilizer Accelerating Solutions & Technology Challenge last year. It provides companies with up to $200,000 in non-repayable grants to help them bring alternative fertilizer solutions to market.
Why it matters: The agriculture industry is looking to reduce its dependence on foreign fertilizer sources after prices skyrocketed last year following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a 35 per cent tariff applied by the Canadian government on Russian fertilizer imports.
According to Bioenterprise Canada, which ran the challenge on behalf of the department, the competition attracted 32 applications requesting just over $5.7 million in funding.
“The big focus was alternative fertilizer solutions, like biologicals, biofertilizers, composts, biostimulants and using different manure sources,” says Alexis Dempsey, program manager at Bioenterprise. “We also saw some precision and digital ag agronomy tools. We were excited to see such a response to this program.”
Woodrill Farms of Guelph was one of the successful applicants. It received funding for its soil analysis technology called GroundWork. After using it on its own farm for the last two years, Woodrill is rolling it out to farmers across Ontario.
“The whole idea behind it was trying to implement precision ag on our own operation and looking for the best technology to manage fertilizer, seeding and chemicals most effectively,” explains Caleb Niemeyer, agronomist and precision ag specialist at Woodrill.
“We weren’t satisfied with the existing solutions, so we more or less built our own system that lets us manage our soils based on soil type.”
Different layers of data are collected, including topography, LiDAR, satellite imagery, yield and electrical connectivity. This is matched with about 25 soil sample points per 100 acres, each going about four feet into the ground versus the traditional six inches.
“Measuring the depth of topsoil has a huge impact on nitrogen and seeding rates. Sand over gravel versus sand over clay influences water availability, for example, so it’s important to know what’s under the top six inches,” Niemeyer says.
“We’re literally digging deeper and looking into what the soil type is. I don’t think there is anybody in Ontario doing what we’re doing to actually map the soil types.”
Farmers using GroundWork will receive soil maps and variable rate fertilizer prescription files for their fields. The service is eligible for cost-share funding through local water quality programs and programs like the Ontario On-Farm Climate Action Fund.
“The funding has been really helpful to allow us to fine tune internal processes to make sure we’re providing most accurate data to farmers,” says Niemeyer. “We’ve had it (rollout) in our sights because we see the value in it, but the funding has accelerated it.”
SureSource Commodities of Petrolia, a company providing products and services primarily to organic farmers, received funding to commercialize a pelleted fertilizer made from cricket manure (called frass).
Most organic-approved soil amendments and fertilizers are byproduct based and construction of a new cricket-producing facility in nearby London is an opportunity for a sector challenged with a shortage of available nutrients.
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“Our big focus over the last few months has been on research looking at what specific or unique benefits insect frass could offer growers and to learn more about ideal application rates and nutrient release characteristics, etc.,” says agronomy sales lead Rob Wallbridge.
“We’ve got some product going out to growers this spring to try out in custom formulations in their fields.”
Early research indicates the polymer called chitin, found in frass, may also offer unique biostimulant properties that could boost plant health and protect crops against pests and disease. Chitin is found in the exoskeletons that insects shed as they grow.
Before insect frass can be sold as a standalone fertilizer, however, it will need to go through the registration process. That’s because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency doesn’t classify insects as livestock, notes Wallbridge.