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.
Growing for the future: delivering an approach that supports continuous berry production in Canada and beyond.
“Everything Habiba and I are going to do over the Shepherd Phase is kind of like magic,” says Lesley Campbell, describing the groundbreaking growing system she is developing with Dr. Habiba Bougherara through their respective labs at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Dr. Campbell and Dr. Bougherara became fast friends when they originally teamed up to create an energy-efficient machine for indoor cannabis production. Their work was great, but their timing wasn’t: unfortunately, the project coincided with the cannabis crash. Enter the Homegrown Innovation Challenge. The botanist and the mechanical engineer took this opportunity to redesign their technology to produce a pesticide-free growing system for raspberries and other soft fruit. The result is the iGrow Platform: a microclimate-controlled, multilayer growing system—the start of something magic indeed.
The iGrow Platform’s self-monitoring, analysis, and reporting technology (SMART) is a key innovation; it actually helps plants control their own environments. The top and bottom of the plant are fitted with biosensors (produced by Vivent SA) that deliver signals indicating whether the plant is healthy and happy or under stress. A program customized by Argus Control Systems can trigger real-time responses to the plant’s needs, adjusting essential variables like light, water, and fertilizer. “We are going to find out what plants really want,” Dr. Campbell exclaims. “Our system will help us listen to plants and learn more about their fundamental needs, something they have never been able to communicate to us before, and will reduce nutrient and water waste.”
“If we listen to plants, we can change the world!”
The system will be powered by a triboelectric generator developed by Tricia Breen Carmichael of the University of Windsor. The generator harvests energy from static electricity, and may also be run on solar power systems and methane biodigesters.
These advanced technologies will help farmers overcome persistent obstacles to growing raspberries in northern climates. On a per-acre basis, raspberry wholesale prices outperform those of blueberries—Canada’s largest soft fruit crop—by 480%, yet Canada is the third-largest importer of raspberries globally. The iGrow Platform prototype addresses the major challenges faced by growers, including our country’s unpredictable climate, pest control issues, and high labour costs. Testing has demonstrated its ability to increase raspberry production per acre by as much as 350% and extend the growing season to 12 months. This increase in productivity would be life changing for farm families across the country.
Dr. Campbell and Dr. Bougherara see a path toward sustainable food production that also gives growers a deeper understanding of their plants. As importantly, their system could reduce the demanding labour and other burdens that cause many families—including Dr. Campbell’s—to give up their farms “Farming was my life growing up, and I couldn’t see my future in the family business,” she says, recalling the decision to let her family’s cabbage farm go after her father retired. “We need to humanize this. Even though we’re industrializing agriculture, there are still farm families behind it.”
- Geoff Crocker, Argus Control Systems
- Thabet Belamri, EASTechnology
- Nicholas Burgwin, Toronto Metropolitan University
- Tricia Carmichael, University of Windsor
- Brendon Falcon, Falcon Blueberries
- Line Lapointe, University of Laval
- Ahmed Naderi, LAW Consultants
- Greg Ogiba, GRO Advantage
- Carol Plummer, Vivent SA
- Tyler Smith, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada