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Organic horticulture research: where are we now?


November 7, 2019
By Emma Geldart Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada

Topics
Current organic research projects include fertility and lighting in greenhouses to improve vegetable yields and best practices for managing Spotted Wing Drosophila.

As the demand for organic fruits and vegetables grows amongst Canadian consumers, organic farmers are eager to improve their production practices. Researchers across the country have been committed to investigating best practices for organic fruit and vegetable growers. So far, the results have been promising.

Since 2009, the Organic Federation of Canada (OFC) and the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC) have been working in collaboration to drive organic research, in the form of the Organic Science Cluster (OSC) program. The OSC facilitates a national strategic approach to organic science in Canada, bringing industry partners together to direct and co-fund the research. The program links scientists across the country, and communicates results to the people who can use them.

The current Organic Science Cluster 3 (OSC3) runs from 2018 to 2023 and has projects in the areas of field crops, horticulture, pest management, livestock and environment. While the Organic Clusters are cross-sectoral, significant research and development has emerged in the fruit and vegetable sector. The total 15-year OSC investment in organic horticulture research is $12.5 million. This is made up by funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and about 90 industry partners, who fund individual projects.

“With limited options for inputs in organic agriculture, the most common challenges facing farmers relate to managing soil fertility and dealing with pests,” explains Andrew Hammermeister, director of OACC. “Research activities under the OSC program relating to organic fruit and vegetable production have included sprout seed sanitation, weed management, biological control of insect pests, advanced greenhouse production, and participatory plant breeding programs.”

Facilitated through OSC2, Martine Dorais, former AAFC researcher and professor of sustainable protected crops and organic horticulture at Université Laval, along with her colleague Steeve Pépin, professor in the department of soil and agri-food engineering, looked at fertility and lighting in greenhouses to improve vegetable yields. To meet the Canada Organic Standard, organic greenhouses must have a soil-based growing system. Fertility management in these systems can be a challenge. The work was co-funded by Les Serres Lefort, Inc., and many of the experiments were done onsite.

Dorais and Pépin studied multiple factors within the greenhouses, seeking the perfect combination to produce optimal yields. Fertilization management, the use of biostimulants, and LED intra-canopy lighting were investigated in their multi-year study. They found that there was no difference in nutrient availability or fruit quality when applying solid organic fertilizers every four weeks, compared to weekly application. The scientists determined that less frequent applications of amendments were sufficient due to the high background fertility and microorganisms in the soil. They also found that the use of biostimulants, wollastonite and vermicompost, helped increase crop resilience. Intra-canopy LED supplemental lighting was also found to be beneficial, increasing crop productivity by 20 per cent. Tomato quality, colour, and firmness all improved with the intra-canopy lighting.

Current studies facilitated through OSC3 also investigate pest management in horticulture crops. Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD), a type of fruit fly, is a top priority for entomological and agricultural research programs because of its negative impact on global small fruit production.

Juli Carrillo, assistant professor in the department of applied biology at the University of British Columbia, and Annabelle Firlej, researcher with the Institut de recherche et de développement en agroenvironment (IRDA), are taking a closer look at managing this common and damaging pest. With support from six different industry partners and four research institutions, including Terramera and the B.C. Berry Councils, their research looks at best practices for managing SWD.

Organic berry producers currently have limited tools to manage SWD. Only a few pesticides are registered for organic use, and additional controls can be labour intensive and economically impractical.

The objective of Carillo and Firlej’s research project is to create multiple vectors of control, which will increase the likelihood of developing successful strategies for better SWD management. These results will also be of great benefit to non-organic growers.

These cutting-edge projects are just a sample of the scope of the OSC program. The organic horticulture research and development goes far beyond pest management and greenhouse lighting. Hammermeister is enthusiastic about the impact of the Clusters.

“The Organic Science Clusters have not only produced results that are relevant and impactful to stakeholders within the organic sector, they have also helped to train dozens of students to become new professionals with agro-ecological training,” he says.

Thirty-four horticulture projects have already been completed under OSC1 and OSCI2, and 10 are currently underway in OSC3. Organic producers can expect continued research and promising results in the years to come.


The Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, based at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture in Truro, N.S., has been co-ordinating organic science in Canada and supporting organic extension since 2001. The OACC focuses on facilitating science supporting organic agriculture in Canada by identifying research priorities and linking researchers with organic stakeholders. The Organic Science Cluster program is supported by funding from the AgriScience Program under Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Partnership (an investment by federal, provincial, and territorial governments) and over 70 partners from the agricultural community. More information about the Organic Science Cluster Program can be found at: dal.ca/oacc.