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U of G challenge teams take high-tech solutions to berry production

May 20, 2024  By University of Guelph

Strawberries are the focus of the challenge, but solutions could be applied to more fruits and vegetables. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Hollinrake.

Two University of Guelph-led research teams aiming to change the way fresh produce is grown in Canada have entered the second phase of the Homegrown Innovation Challenge. The initiative aims to find methods of growing berries out of season and at scale in Canada; the challenge, including the $33-million prize, is funded and delivered by the Weston Family Foundation.

Mike Dixon and Youbin Zheng, both professors in the School of Environmental Sciences within the Ontario Agricultural College, are leading teams exploring sustainable and cost-effective ways to extend the growing season of berries.

Their teams are among the 11 selected nationwide to develop small-scale, proof-of-concept berry-growing solutions. Figuring out how to grow berries out of season – sustainably and competitively – will unlock solutions for myriad other fruits and vegetables.


Applying vertical farming lessons learned in space

Dixon and his team have received $691,730 to develop a controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) system that manages strawberry production to meet market demands and consumer preferences.

“Consumers experience seasonal variations in strawberry availability, price and quality because throughout the year the Canadian market is served by a range of production options, from field to greenhouse, either domestic or imported,” Dixon explains.

Their system will combine state-of-the-art greenhouse practices with vertical farming methods in a hybrid production strategy, increasing overall productivity and stabilizing supply of both berries and plants.

“To stabilize these factors and reduce the variability in supply and quality, we propose to grow strawberries with solutions we’ve developed to grow food in space,” Dixon says.

Specialized LED lighting will be used to extend the growing season. Adjusting the light intensity and spectra, producers can enhance traits preferred by consumers, such as flavour and shelf life for strawberries, he adds.

The project team includes SES researchers Thomas Graham and Michael Stasiak and experts from Mucci Farms, North America’s largest grower of controlled-environment strawberries.

“My team brings valuable experience of how to make controlled-environment agriculture successful, and Mucci brings long-term experience with growing strawberries in greenhouses,” Dixon says. “Together, we’re creating a solution for year-round berries that is profitable for the producer and delivers a high-quality product consumers will love.”

AI conserves water, eliminates pesticides

Zheng and his team have received nearly $1 million to use artificial intelligence (AI) and smart automation to take the guesswork out of providing optimal growing conditions for berries.

“Growing berries in controlled environments requires balancing many interconnecting parameters, such as lighting, air humidity and temperature, root zone dissolved oxygen, water and nutrients,” Zheng says. “If one factor changes, the others change, too. It’s beyond the capacity of conventional greenhouse practices to manage precisely and effectively.”

Their system uses sophisticated biosensors to monitor plant health, measuring and fine-tuning parameters every few minutes to provide plants with what they need in the moment.

For example, excess water in the root zone can cause oxygen deficiency and promote the growth of pathogens. AI allows an integrated approach to managing fertigation, Zheng says, establishing an ideal root zone for plant growth, conserving water and fertilizers and eliminating the need for pesticides.

The system will provide producers better control over their costs – energy, water and nutrients – and minimizes wastewater and nutrient discharge.

“Reducing costs and growing high-quality, high-yield fruit means maximizing profits for producers,” says Zheng.

Zheng’s team includes AI engineers from Koidra, an intelligent automation company, and horticulturalists and engineers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

CEA technology moves beyond berries

While berries are the focus of the challenge, competitors’ solutions will also be judged on how they can be adapted to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Using CEA technology in harsh environments, such as the Canadian North or the hot, dry climates of the Middle East, can address the profound challenges of food security, says Dixon.

Zheng adds that CEA systems can also help protect the environment by reducing water use, nutrient runoff and CO2 emissions, while providing an alternative to traditional agriculture in the event of climate change.

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