Canada is known as a leading world producer of many staple crops like wheat, lentils, peas and canola, as well as a global exporter of animal proteins like pork and beef.
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The same can’t be said for many horticultural crops, except for greenhouse vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, due to nature of the climate.
Canada relies heavily on imports of fresh fruits and vegetables, and some statistics suggest Canada would run out of fresh produce in just 10 days without these imports. This leaves an important part of Canada’s national food security vulnerable to potential trade, political and economic shocks and disruptions.
The Weston Foundation wants to change that with its $33-million Homegrown Innovation Challenge. It is an effort to encourage innovation in domestic fruit and vegetable production.
The first step is focused on berry production with participants challenged to “… create and deliver a market-ready system to reliably, sustainably, and competitively produce berries out of season and at scale in Canada.”
Launched in February 2022, 15 teams were chosen as recipients of grants of $50,000 each to build their visions and lay out how they would scale up their concepts should they move to the next phase of the challenge.
Of those, 11 teams (seven from Ontario), were selected to proceed to the Shepherd Phase, which comes with funding of up to $1 million each to develop small scale, proof-of-concept solutions.
Professor Mike Dixon of the University of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility is one of those finalists. The now retired environmental science professor has spent his career working on how to grow food in space, and his team is applying those principles to grow strawberries in Northern Canada.
“Tech transfer to harsh environments is the main principle of what we do. Change is coming (to the north), but it is painfully slow. I’ve been talking about this for 30 years,” Dixon said during a tour of his lab earlier this year.
“If we can grow food in space, we can grow it anywhere.”
The Seasonal Strawberry Optimization project uses high density planting in an energy and space-efficient indoor environment, combining advanced greenhouse growing and vertical farming methods to maximize available sunlight during the traditional growing season and extending the season with customized LED lighting.
“With LED, we can control spectral quality and you need the right spectral quality to grow fruit,” Dixon said.
His co-applicants are Thomas Graham and Michael Stasiak, also from the University of Guelph.
Guelph Environmental Science professor Youbin Zheng is also heading a project in the Shepherd Phase of the challenge. His team, which includes representatives from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and smart automation systems company Koidra, is using artificial intelligence and automation to take the guesswork out of indoor berry production by monitoring plant health with sophisticated biosensors.
Every five minutes, the system automatically adjusts temperature and carbon dioxide levels in the greenhouse based on what the plants need. It is a frequency and precision beyond the capacity of most greenhouse growers.
Sudbury’s Collège Boréal is working with Sault Ste Marie’s Rural Agri-Innovation Network and Dryden-based vertical farm AgriTech North to develop an inflatable greenhouse that resists corrosion and can withstand extreme temperatures, while also maximizing light transmission.
At the same time, the goal is to use water-cooled, programmable lighting and a hydroponic system that uses less water and fertilizer than outdoor field production.
Other Ontario finalists include teams from Ontario Tech University, Western University, University of Ottawa and Toronto Metropolitan University.
The challenge’s international judging panel, which includes representatives from Canada, Germany, the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is chaired by Dominic Barton, former chair of Canada’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth.
Four successful teams for the final phase of the challenge will be selected next year, each receiving up to $5 million over three years to build and demonstrate their systems at farm scale in Canada. The overall winner and greatest breakthrough technology will each receive $1 million in prize money.