Canada is taking a leading role in developing sustainable and scalable agriculture through a $33 million competition that has convened the nation’s brightest minds. Launched in 2022 by the Weston Family Foundation, the Homegrown Innovation Challenge has reached a pivotal milestone. Now entering the second phase of the Challenge, eleven Canadian teams have been awarded $1 million each to develop their bold ideas for extending the growing season of berries. Each team only has 18 months to build and test its proof-of-concept ideas before the next phase of the Challenge, which will see this group of eleven reduced to four teams.
This unique agtech competition aims to drive significant advances in tangible growing solutions that are both sustainable and cost competitive using advanced science and technology. Proposed projects seek to use aeroponics for berry production systems, develop pesticide-free-growing systems, and implement thermal-management technology to support production in Canada’s north. The eleven teams are tackling a myriad of challenges associated with growing berries out of season, such as extreme weather events, high energy requirements, limited yields, and short growing seasons. Their work will change the way we grow fresh produce both in Canada and around the globe.
Projects were chosen for their visionary concepts, practical plans for adoption and scaling, and their commitment to fostering collaboration. Represented in the competition are farmers, producers, engineers, agronomists, horticulturalists, AI specialists, and environmental scientists—to name a few. The Foundation received so many promising submissions, that eleven projects were funded, instead of the planned ten.
Meet the teams:
Renewable energy for year-round raspberries. Scientists from Bishop’s University and Université de Sherbrooke are aiming to reduce the carbon footprint of fruit production by developing on-site renewable energy. Revolutionary solar-passive greenhouses will address growth media, energy consumption, and water management—plus support a “flower-on-command” approach.
Pioneering greenhouse technology to feed communities. AgriTech North has joined forces with Collège Boréal and the Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN) to help create a scalable fresh-food production system that’s both economically viable and sustainable for northern growers, particularly in remote and Indigenous communities. This unique-to-Canada growing space is underpinned by a thermal-management technology and advanced thermal harvesting apparatus.
Future-proofing greenhouses for the next generation. Researchers at Kwantlen Polytechnic University are working on an advanced greenhouse system that relies on AI-driven robots to reduce both the cost of, and use of pesticides in, the production of strawberries and blackberries. State-of-the-art technology like lasers and other advanced optical sensors will also be heavily used to manage disease and treat biostimulants.
Building an ecosystem where both plants and innovation will thrive. At Ontario Tech University, a team is developing an energy-efficient, controlled environment agriculture facility (EE-CEAF) that will outperform traditional greenhouses in the production of strawberries—particularly during the winter months in Canada. They will be equipped with an Autonomous Intelligent Monitoring System to monitor health and growth, which will trigger early interventions if plants start to wane.
Variety is the spice of life, and it may also be the secret to year-round blueberry production. Like many crops, blueberry plants are highly sensitive to environmental conditions. Simon Fraser University, GreenTowers Systems, and AgricUltra Advancements are teaming up to apply advanced and proprietary technologies like airflow management to create the perfect growing conditions. Their plant-centric approach focuses on selecting blueberry varieties that are best suited to indoor growing and tailoring environmental conditions to drive optimal fruit yields and quality.
It’s time to reimagine the path of agriculture. A botanist and mechanical engineer at TMU are redesigning vertical technology originally developed for indoor cannabis production. Their pesticide-free system for raspberries and blackberries is a microclimate-controlled, multilayer growing system that actually helps plants take control of their own environments. Ideally, the innovative system will reduce the demanding labour and other burdens that cause many Canadian families to give up their farms.
Scientists who propose to grow food in space can use the same techniques to grow food In Northern Canada. Applying lessons learned from projects undertaken to grow food in space, the Seasonal Strawberry Optimization project out of the University of Guelph offers a science-based solution for high-density planting using an energy- and space-efficient indoor environment, and customized LED lighting. Their vertical-farm design accommodates both production and plant propagation, and will enable farmers to shift from quick-growing-leafy crops to more energy-dense crops, like berries.
AI Farming: digitizing the relationship between the greenhouse and the plants inside it. Artificial intelligence is poised to transform virtually every sector, and horticulture is no different. This team is housed at Guelph University, an ensemble of academic wisdom and technological innovation, and has developed a “Digital Twin Model,” an AI-powered autonomous farming system that will revolutionize berry cultivation in controlled environments, making out-of-season production a sustainable reality.
Turbo-charging vertical farms, and tailoring plant microbiomes. This team based at the University of Ottawa seeks to produce “True North Berries”, which can be grown anytime, anywhere in Canada. Key to the roots-to-shoots approach is a proprietary vertical-farm platform that is turbo-charged by the use of genetically-engineered microbes and a carbon dioxide micro-capture and use device.
Aeroponics puts a twist on conventional hydroponics. This Quebec City-based team is developing an advanced aeroponic device that incorporates CycloFields’ rotating carousels that revolves plants around fixed LED lights and water mists. The promise of this sustainable “VertBerry” approach is that it will dramatically improve the efficiency of climate control and light use in the production of all manner of fruits and vegetables—and the quality, too.
Boosting food productivity and power by optimizing the use of sun. This project truly revolves around the sun. A solar-energy expert at Western University is applying open-source photovoltaic technology to optimize the use of the sun’s energy to support both indoor and outdoor production of different varieties of berries. Modular and scalable, the production system can be adapted to growing conditions across Canada, including the north, and could ultimately produce enough energy to supply far more than farms.
Over the next eighteen months these grantees will collaborate closely with mentors, experts, and partners to refine and transform their concepts into tangible—and tasty—solutions. The Foundation will provide access to coaching and opportunities to network and share knowledge in keeping with the idea that there is room on the farm for collaboration between farmers, engineers, and AI specialists.
“At the heart of this competition lies the belief that the fusion of collaboration and broad expertise is the key to solving complex challenges in agriculture,” said Garfield Mitchell, Chair of the Weston Family Foundation. “Our grantees bring out-of-the-box, yet achievable, ideas to the table, and we are excited to see the innovations that arise from their shared passion and collaboration.”
The next round of the Challenge, the Scaling Phase, will commence in 2025, when up to $5 million will be awarded to each of the top four teams over three years to scale and then demonstrate a market-ready solution.
Stay updated on the teams’ journeys, the Challenge and news and insights on the latest and greatest in Canadian agriculture at https://homegrownchallenge.ca/.
Delivered over six years, the $33 million Homegrown Innovation Challenge supports the development of tools and technologies to enable Canadian farmers and producers to grow berries out of season – sustainably and competitively. We believe that by accomplishing out-of-season berry production, we can unlock solutions for myriad other fruits and vegetables.
ABOUT THE WESTON FAMILY FOUNDATION:
At the Weston Family Foundation (formerly The W. Garfield Weston Foundation), more than 60 years of philanthropy has taught us that there is a relationship between healthy landscapes and healthy people. That is why we champion world-class health research and innovation with the same passion that we support initiatives to protect and restore biodiversity on Canada’s unique landscapes. We take a collaborative approach to philanthropy, working alongside forward-thinking partners to advance Canada and create lasting impacts. We aspire to do more than provide funding; we want to enable others to find transformational ways to improve the well-being of Canadians.
Weston Family Foundation