Building an Ecosystem Where Both Plants and Innovation Thrive

At Ontario Tech University, a team is developing an energy-efficient controlled-environment agriculture facility 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.

Brilliant Farm Project Plan

The emergence of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) has offered a myriad of new opportunities for growers—with a few significant obstacles. Indoor facilities stretch the growing season into the darker, colder months, which increases productivity and can reduce dependence on food imports in cooler climates. However, operating controlled environments requires special skills, adding labour costs, and these systems have high energy needs, especially in northern regions.

A team anchored by Ontario Tech University is developing an energy-efficient controlled-environment agriculture facility (EE-CEAF) that can meet these challenges head-on while outperforming traditional greenhouses in the production of strawberries—at scale and while extending the season. “We’re going to provide affordable agricultural products and showcase what innovation can do,” says Osman Hamid, who brought the team together. “Once we solve the energy-efficiency problem and labour problem, everything will be from farm to table in a very short time.”

“We’re going to showcase what innovation can do.”

Founding Director of Creativity and Entrepreneurship at Ontario Tech University, Dr. Hamid runs Brilliant Catalyst, the university’s “on-campus incubator” for innovation and entrepreneurship. Its programs support startups founded by university students, alumni, and faculty, including project partners Turnkey Aquaponics and Moduleaf Technologies. These are Canadian solutions coming from Canadian founders and innovators. “I have the privilege of being able to see all these creative ideas and the entrepreneurial spirit that comes from a bigger community,” Dr. Hamid says. “The Homegrown Innovation Challenge speaks to what we wanted to do when we created this ecosystem.”

Located at Willowtree Farm in Port Perry, Ontario, the EE-CEAF facility is a thermally-enhanced greenhouse with 350 square metres of dedicated grow space. It will be tested and optimized by researchers with a broad range of expertise, from artificial intelligence to aerospace systems engineering.

According to Dr. Hamid, “Traditional farming will always have a place because farmers are the most in touch with the land. With technology, things can become more competitive. Things are more accessible at affordable costs and open doors to people who might not have seen farming as a profession.” Alex McKay, co-owner of Willowtree Farm and a second-generation farmer, agrees, noting, “The next generation doesn’t see new technology as a threat. They see it as a way to further their legacies. That is the exciting part, being able to work with new partners and grow our networks.”


“The Homegrown Innovation Challenge speaks to what we wanted to do when we created this ecosystem.”

The complementary technologies at the facility include a combined cooling, heat, and power system (CCHP), a Waste Heat Dehumidification System (WHDS), and an Autonomous Intelligent Monitoring System (AIMS). The CCHP uses organic waste to generate heat and electricity. The heat can warm the grow space or power a heat pump to cool it. The CCHP will also recycle carbon dioxide and nutrients back to the plants. The WHDS runs on captured waste heat from artificial lights providing dehumidification. Lastly, if a plant begins to wane, the AIMS that monitors its health and growth will trigger early interventions.

“Having integrated solutions really provides a competitive advantage,” Dr. Hamid says. “Perhaps the best thing about the project is being able to fail quickly, learn quickly, and fix it quickly. I know it sounds weird to be excited about failure, but I think the process is going to be more than fast. It’s going to be hypersonic.”


Collaborators

  • Glenn Harvel, Ontario Tech University
  • Connor Loughlean, Ontario Tech University
  • Qusay Mahmoud, Ontario Tech University
  • Alexander McKay, Willowtree Farm
  • Craig Robinson, Turnkey Aquaponics Inc.
  • Jaho Seo, Ontario Tech University
  • Tony Veneziano, Turnkey Aquaponics Inc.
  • Nicholas Varas, Moduleaf Technologies
  • Michael Veneziano, Turnkey Aquaponics Inc.

Aeroponics puts a twist on conventional hydroponics.

This Quebec City-based team is developing an advanced aeroponic device incorporating 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.

VertBerry: Proof of concept of an integrated aeroponic system for indoor berry cultivation.

“The whole picture is important to us,” says Martine Dorais, professor of plant science and a researcher at the centre de recherche et d’innovation sur les végétaux at Université Laval. “We’re going to show the consumer that if indoor growing is well done, the quality will be there.”

Dr. Dorais has teamed up with long-time collaborator Steeve Pepin, professor of environmental plant physiology at Laval, and industry partner CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology, to pioneer an integrated aeroponic strawberry production system for year-round harvests. Aeroponics puts a twist on conventional hydroponics—where roots are immerged in water—by hanging plants and spraying their roots with nutrients. The team’s VertBerry system levels up this method, suspending strawberry plants on CycloFields’ rotating carousels that slide along overhead rails while sprinklers mist their dangling roots with water at regular intervals. The plants revolve around LED lights that have variable wavelength ranges and intensities with a well-designed HVAC system, which produces a more uniform microclimate, and therefore, fruits of higher quality. The growing walls can be easily moved into a central space for harvesting, cleaning, seeding, and transplanting.

The pesticide-free system has already proven effective for leafy greens. “Plants grow much faster than they do in hydroponic systems,” says chemical engineer Éric Deschambault, president of CycloFields, who co-founded the company with his son Antoine at the beginning of Covid. “You release less waste, and you can stack the plants higher.”

The Laval team, along with CycloFields’ agronomist Benido Claude Davy Belem, will study optimal growth conditions for plants, drawing upon the bioclimatology expertise of Dr. Pepin and Dr. Dorais’ decades of research into sustainable growing systems. Multiple strawberry varieties will undergo trials to perfect lighting, irrigation, biostimulants, and temperatures. Using high-performance F1 seeds—first-generation seeds after cross-pollinating two different parent plants—the team will also optimize plant traits, such as germination rates, photosynthesis, carbon partitioning, fruit yield, and nutritional quality. Root development and productivity of raspberry and blueberry plants under aeroponic conditions will also be studied.

The operation will use precision LED lights and an energy-efficient dehumidification system to minimize energy consumption. Aeroponics will ensure that a minimum of water and fertilizers are used to grow the pesticide-free berries. All those aspects, along with the use of green energy, will align the project with sustainable development. “The focus in agriculture used to be productivity and then quality,” Dr. Dorais says. “Now it’s also the environmental footprint of our system. We have to get to carbon neutrality or close to zero.”

“If we are able to do more, we can do less.”

Mr. Deschambault notes that learning how to grow strawberries sustainably indoors will develop tools that can be applied to a range of crops, many of which are less demanding. “My father always told me, if you are able to do more, you’re able to do less,” Mr. Deschambault says. “Strawberries are so complicated that if we can meet this challenge, we can do a lot of new things.”


Collaborators

  • Éric Deschambault, eng., CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
  • Benido Claude Davy Belem, agr. MSc, CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
  • Antoine Deschambault, CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
  • Christian Desjardins, CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
  • Vincent Fortin-Coderre, CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
  • Thi Thuy An Nguyen, PhD, Université Laval

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 the University of Guelph, 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.

Autonomous controlled-environment system for year-round berry production.

In an era where sustainable practices and technological innovation merge, a groundbreaking alliance between the University of Guelph, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and Koidra is setting the gold standard in sustainable berry production. Their aim is to revolutionize berry cultivation in controlled environments, making out-of-season production a sustainable reality.

This collaboration, an ensemble of academic wisdom and technological innovation, has brought to life the Digital Twin Model. More than a data-collection tool, this model captures the real-time nuances of the greenhouse environment and plants, transforming it into a dynamic AI-driven ecosystem. It fine-tunes parameters such as light, temperature, and carbon dioxide levels with unprecedented precision and speed, ensuring optimal growth conditions.

Dr. Youbin Zheng, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Guelph, sheds light on this intricate process, “Operating a greenhouse is like orchestrating a symphony. Every component must harmonize. And with berries, the stakes are higher. But through our shared expertise, we’re crafting an intuitive and resource-efficient berry-growing environment.”

The Digital Twin Model takes the guesswork out of monitoring plant health with real-time data from sophisticated biosensors. Every five minutes, the system updates and responds to data with adjustments to variables such as temperature and carbon dioxide concentration—a frequency that’s beyond the capacity of the average human grower. It also integrates and connects hardware and software that many growers already use, centralizing information and controls for greater efficiency.

“Using AI we don’t aim to replace farmers. We seek to elevate their potential to unparalleled heights.” Dr. Ken Tran, Koidra

Their combined efforts have been nothing short of stellar. Back in 2018, Dr. Ken Tran of Koidra and Dr. Xiuming Hao from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada clinched victory in an autonomous greenhouse challenge focusing on cucumbers. This victory was doubly sweet, setting an unmatched yield record and achieving the highest sustainability scores across all key metrics: energy, water, and carbon dioxide efficiency.

By 2022, Koidra had done it again. Another challenge, this time on lettuce, resulted in another victory, surpassing expert growers in profit by a staggering 27%, all while maintaining impeccable sustainability scores.

It’s not just about accolades and academic achievements: it’s about real-world impact. In recent commercial pilots, Koidra’s technology was a game-changer, boosting yields in organic eggplants and mini cucumbers by 27% and 20% respectively. A testament to the technology’s scalability and adaptability.

“We have climate change, more extreme weather, droughts, and more people to feed on the earth,” Dr. Hao says. “We can produce much more food per unit of land area. We can farm in the desert, near the North Pole, in remote communities, as long as we continue to develop controlled environment systems. And we can improve food security and quality.”

The strides made by this collaboration are not merely steps toward sustainable berry farming; they are giant leaps for the future of agriculture.


Collaborators

  • Fadi Al-Daoud, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Adam Dale, University of Guelph
  • Jason Lanoue, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
  • Kenneth Tran, Koidra Inc.
  • Ketut Putra, Koidra Inc.
  • Yun Kong, University of Guelph
  • David Llewellyn, University of Guelph

Pioneering greenhouse technology to feed communities.

AgriTech North has joined forces with Collège Boréal and the Rural Agri-Innovation Network 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.

Achieving sustainable and commercially viable greenhouse strawberry production in extreme climates with integrated and innovative infrastructure, equipment, and methods.

In Dryden, Ontario—halfway between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay—a vertical farm is producing two unlikely products for a subarctic climate: off-season strawberries and heat.

The farm’s operator, AgriTech North, has joined a research team assembled by Sabine Bouchard, manager of research and innovation at Collège Boréal, to help create a unique to Canada growing space with thermal management technology. Their goal is a scalable fresh-food production system that’s both economically viable and sustainable for northern growers, particularly in remote and Indigenous communities.

“Greenhouse envelope technologies haven’t changed in more than 50 years,” says Benjamin Feagin Jr., AgriTech North’s chief executive officer, referring to the physical components that separate the inside and outside of a building. “I was familiar with inflatable structures, like BC Place in Vancouver, and started thinking about their performance relative to their occupied space. I discovered they actually outperform existing technologies substantially.”

This revelation sparked the development of an inflatable greenhouse made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a fluorine-based plastic that resists corrosion and can withstand extreme temperatures. “ETFE also has high light transmission, which can reduce the need for artificial lighting,” says David Thompson, director of the Rural Agri-Innovation Network at the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre. “This leads to energy savings and a lower carbon footprint, too.”

Inside the greenhouse, a vertical farm designed by Truly Northern will employ water-cooled, programmable lighting and a hydroponic recirculation system that uses 95% less water and 60% less fertilizer than field production. Pests will be controlled through bee vector technology developed at Collège Boréal. “The bees live in a box hive,” Ms. Bouchard explains. “When they go out, they pass through a dispenser with soft pesticide that doesn’t affect the bees, and they take it to areas of the plants where a pesticide normally can’t reach.”

Even on frigid days, vertical farms require cooling systems to keep their indoor environments from becoming overheated. The greenhouse’s solar tri-generation system—which controls power, cooling, and heating—will reduce and recycle heat through thermal harvesting. “We’re combining a vertical farm that produces way too much heat and dumping that heat into an environment, like a greenhouse, that needs it,” Mr. Feagin explains. “That’s the power of combining multiple growing technologies.”

“This is regional food sovereignty.”

“In order to monetize the servicing of Indigenous communities that are at the far end of the distribution chain, every community in between will be served as well,” Mr. Feagin says. “That helps share the burden of distribution with many communities, so this is not just Indigenous food sovereignty, this is regional food sovereignty.”


Collaborators

  • Benjamin Feagin Jr., AgriTech North
  • Kerri Howarth, AgriTech North
  • Jean Pierre Kapongo, Collège Boréal
  • Sylvaine Beaulieu, Collège Boréal
  • Stephane Lanteigne, Smart Indoor Farming Solutions/Truly Northern
  • Daniel Leduc, Collège Boréal
  • Lauren Moran, Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre
  • David Thompson, Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre

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, in addition to supporting a “flower-on-command” approach.

CANberries: Year-round production of Canadian berries.

While traditional greenhouses may extend the growing season, they can also gobble electricity—energy that is often supplied by fossil fuels.

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 for local greenhouses. Led by Dr. Mirella Aoun, the team is partnering with Berger, a worldwide leader in the production of first-quality growing media, Les Productions Horticoles Demers, and family-run Quebec-owned agricultural producers Pouliot to grow raspberries all year. “In the future, we could be able to produce organic, out-of-season fruit,” Dr. Aoun says. “This is unheard of for raspberries and greenhouses.”

The team’s cutting-edge prototype will undertake multiple cycles of production during the off-season using different varieties of raspberries. “The most important breakthrough would be production in the fall,” Dr. Aoun says. “No one has done this yet because of technological challenges. Namely, the sunlight in the fall is not enough.”

“When we succeed and we have a breakthrough it means that Canadians will have access to locally produced, out-of-season fruit. They won’t have to rely on imports. Consumers will have access to nutritious local produce—grown with the most sustainable process possible.”

The solar-passive CANberries greenhouse design maximizes the use of available natural light and warmth, but what nature can’t provide is supplemented by agrivoltaic-aerogeothermal technologies. Crops are grown while an integrated photovoltaic system contributes to power the greenhouse’s artificial lighting, irrigation, and cooling systems. The panels can be opened to let in natural light or closed to supply shade. “A winter greenhouse can be used on any farm,” Dr. Aoun says. “However, we’re integrating these alternative energy technologies, so that we’re moving toward more sustainability.”

The project’s other resource-sparing methods include rainwater and evaporation collection, and solar-powered water treatment and storage at the Scaling Phase, which expand the circular design properties of the greenhouse. This circularity is a way to keep things as natural and ecological as possible.

The team’s agroeconomist will collect economic data to identify how these sustainable and environmentally-conscious growing practices can be adapted to best support producers, agricultural communities, and entrepreneurs. Success will place Canadians at the forefront of this agricultural technology, creating jobs, and shedding light on the necessity of cross-industry collaboration in the future for students and entrepreneurs. “It’s not yet possible to reach commercial productivity per square metre for raspberries,” Dr. Aoun explains. “We’re finding the best scenario for scaling up, not only at the technological level but also at the economical level.”


Collaborators

  • Leyla Amiri, Université de Sherbrooke
  • Darren Bardati, Bishop’s University
  • Andréane Gravel, Les Productions Horticoles Demers
  • Joey Boudreault, Ferme Onésime Pouliot
  • Stéphanie Forcier, Association des producteurs de fraises et framboises du Québec (APFFQ)
  • Izmir Hernandez, Réseau D’expertise en Innovation Agricole
  • Jane Morrison, Bishop’s University
  • Sylvain Nicolay, Université de Sherbrooke

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.

Carbon Neutral, Pesticide-Free Glasshouse Berry Production for Canada

Growers have been using greenhouses for centuries to shield plants from the extremes of climate and weather. Now, a team of academic researchers and industry partners seek to future-proof existing greenhouses with state-of-the-art technology—from a robotic pest management system to carbon-neutral energy storage. “We’re developing native resources to replace chemicals in the greenhouse,” says project leader Deborah Henderson, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) and Regional Innovation Chair at Innovate BC. “But it’s expanded well beyond that. We’re working with anything that makes agriculture more sustainable.”

The team includes researchers from KPU, Simon Fraser University (SFU), as well as several agtech SMEs, and Star Produce, one of Canada’s largest fruit and vegetable producers. Their determination to produce high-quality strawberries and blackberries out of season is matched by a commitment to using cost-effective strategies with small carbon footprints. “When we designed our research greenhouse, it included geothermal heating. I said, if it’s not a geothermal greenhouse, I’m not interested,” Dr. Henderson recalls. “It’s got to be a place where we can support energy work.”

“It gives me hope.”

Majid Bahrami, professor of Mechatronic Systems Engineering at SFU, is developing a thermal energy storage and heat pumping system that runs on waste heat produced by the greenhouse. The heating and cooling it provides will be managed by a climate control system designed by Argus Control Systems that will integrate microclimate monitoring data to achieve optimal growing conditions. This is complemented by a dynamic lighting system designed by Sollum Technologies, which can operate every light fixture separately and emit any wavelength, including deep red. “You could have a sunrise at five or six in the morning,” Dr. Henderson says. “It takes into account the light coming in from the sun and won’t add more than required, so it’s very energy efficient.”

A UV light robot from Alta Stream Energy will suppress powdery mildew, while robotic technologies created by Ecoation Innovative Solutions will use cameras, visual recordings, and geolocating to detect additional threats to plant health. Powered by artificial intelligence, the system can recognize pest and disease problems several days earlier than the human eye, triggering biocontrol recommendations: microorganisms that target or out-compete pathogens and pests, or predator insects that eat spider mites.

The project will also address labour shortages in agriculture through a combination of labour-saving technology and capacity building for the next generation of growers, particularly for remote and Indigenous communities. “As farm agriculture gets more technical, it is attracting the younger people,” Dr. Henderson says. “I work at a university where I’m privileged to see the determination of young people and the innovations that walk into my office. It gives me hope.”


Collaborators

  • AltaStream Energy
  • Applied Bio-nomics
  • Argus Control Systems
  • Ecoation Innovative Solutions
  • Li Ma, Kwantlen Polytechnic University
  • Claire McCague, Simon Fraser University
  • Qiano Biosciences
  • Andres Torres, Kwantlen Polytechnic University
  • Sollum Technologies
  • Star Produce
  • Vivent Sa

Boosting food productivity and power by optimizing the use of the sun.

This project truly revolves around the sun. A solar energy expert at Western University is applying proprietary 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.

Agrotunnel agrivoltaics hybrid for sustainable food production.

Western University researchers are devising an extraordinary twofer of technological advancements that could unlock an incredible amount of untapped potential on Canadian farms. Working with private partners, the team is coupling an indoor vertical farm with a shielded outdoor farm to create a low-carbon growing system that will extend the growing season of multiple types of berries. This dual-environment approach could one day even generate power for non-agricultural use and be attached to retail locations to provide a zero-mile food supply.

The key to increasing productivity in both indoor and outdoor growing spaces is agrivoltaics—specialized solar panels that both allow the transmission of natural light to plants underneath while also producing electrical energy—to turn solar energy into electricity on agricultural land. “It could be massively beneficial,” says Joshua Pearce, the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at Western University, where he holds appointments at both the Ivey Business School and department of electrical and computer engineering.

“A small percentage of Canada’s farmland turned agrivoltaic could take on all of our electrical needs.”

Five types of berries will grow outdoors under adjustable photovoltaic (solar) arrays, where plants will be protected from extreme weather and require less water than conventionally produced crops. Energy collected by the arrays will power the lights, water pumps, and heat pumps of the indoor vertical farm, decreasing energy demands and costs.

The vertical farm will be housed within an agrotunnel supplied by Food Security Structures Canada, a Métis-led controlled-environment growing company. The agrotunnel is a fully sealed chamber made of a lightweight fibre-reinforced polymer that can be above ground or buried to evoke J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginary hobbit houses when covered with earth and vegetation. Inside, blueberries and strawberries will be planted on grow walls, while raspberries, blackberries, and ground cherries are grown in bins along horizontal rows. “The density is crazy,” Dr. Pearce says. “It’s like walking into a library where every row of books is strawberries.”

The vertical aeroponic hybrid system uses peat cups and a coco-coir medium (which are pest resistant without the use of chemicals) and high-efficiency, spectrally optimized LED lights. Plant health will be monitored by open-source computer vision, machine learning, and artificial intelligence systems designed in the Free Appropriate Sustainability Technology (FAST) lab in collaboration with electrical engineer Soodeh Nikan. Raymond Thomas, Western Research Chair in the department of biology and the scientific director of the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Centre, will investigate the nutritional profile of the berries to determine how the growing methods influence food quality.

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. “It’s giant,” Dr. Pearce says, recalling his early research into agrivoltaics’ potential in North America. “It was like, ‘Guys, this is it. This is what we should be doing.’”


Collaborators

  • Shawna Ferguson, Western University
  • Janice Kelsey, SolarCities
  • Kim Parker, Food Security Structures Canada
  • Tabatha Siu, Vertical Green
  • Jody Spangler, Adragone Aeroponics
  • Greg Whiteside, Food Security Structures Canada

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.

True North Berries: Food sovereignty through additive innovations with a Canadian twist.

“What I really love are plants and microbes and studying how they interact with each other. It blows my mind,” says Allyson MacLean of her passion for the microbial realm.

Symbiotic interactions between plants and microbes—bacteria and fungi—have been the main focus of Dr. MacLean’s Symbiosis Lab at the University of Ottawa, creating a body of research that the lab is leveraging to advance biotechnology. “I try to tap into that knowledge in a way that benefits farmers and industry,” she says, “so it’s not just learning, but putting an applied angle on it.”

The project’s public-private partnerships bring together researchers from the University of Ottawa with Cornwall-based Fieldless, a controlled-environment agtech company that grows greens indoors 365 days a year, using renewable power and no herbicides or pesticides. Dr. MacLean met CEO Jon Lomow three years ago and they have been looking for a reason to work together ever since. “Jon is very pro-research and innovative. He is committed to applying cutting edge science to his farms and prioritizes sustainability.“

“There’s such potential for sculpting the microbiome to help plants grow.”

The True North Berries project takes a holistic, roots-to-shoots approach to growing strawberries by layering a number of innovations targeting each part of the plant’s functions. Starting at root level, specific microbes will promote plant growth and temperature resistance, a cost-effective way to boost productivity. Dr. MacLean will collaborate with Ceragen, a Waterloo-based startup focused on microbial inoculants for hydroponics. Together, they will explore how bacteria could serve as beneficial microorganisms that improve the productivity, taste, and health benefits of strawberries. “I am most excited to identify microbial inoculants that are specific to strawberries,” Dr. MacLean says. “What are they? Can they be leveraged to other crops? There’s such potential for sculpting the microbiome to help plants grow.”

Dr. Marina Cvetkovska, a colleague of Dr MacLean and a fellow biologist at the University of Ottawa, will help identify light recipes to improve photosynthesis in the leaves to promote faster growth under optimized conditions. Dr. Patrick Dumond in the faculty of engineering will tap into his expertise in vibration and acoustic design to develop a beeless pollination system—using mechanized vibrations to mimic buzzing bees—to lower the growing system’s environmental impact by easing the strain on pollinators, while also reducing costs. “The combination of these innovations can deliver the yields needed to achieve cost parity with imported berries all year long,” says Dr. MacLean.

Brussels-based Vertiberry is designing the project’s core growing system, adapting a proven vertical-growing platform that will harness the Canadian climate to maintain appropriate growing temperatures—a process known as free cooling. The system will also be equipped with carbon micro-capture technology developed by Amsterdam’s Skytree, which extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to deliver to the plants inside the farm and displace what would typically require a fossil fuel–based process.

The goal of the True North Berries team is to find a combination of innovations that will make indoor, locally grown, year-round strawberries able to compete head-to-head with imports across Canada. “We are running out of farmland and we’re a cold nation,” Dr. MacLean says. “Vertical farming and indoor agriculture are going to be play a significant role in the future.”


Collaborators

  • Jon Lomow, Fieldless
  • Danielle Rose, Ceragen
  • Marina Cvetkovska, University of Ottawa
  • Patrick Dumond, University of Ottawa
  • Skytree
  • Vertiberry

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 and BeriTech Inc. 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.

High-intensity production system to deliver local, off-season fresh blueberries at scale

Jim Mattsson, professor of plant functional genomics at Simon Fraser University, and his team are using a plant-centric approach to identify optimal environmental conditions and the best suited varieties for indoor blueberry production. The project also aims to use gene editing methods to adapt blueberry varieties to this new environment.

This is a collaboration between academia and the private sector, and the project takes a comprehensive approach to increasing blueberry yields by combining plant genetics, physiological manipulations, and precision-controlled-environment technologies. The goal is a high-intensity production system that will yield fresh, pesticide-free blueberries at scale outside the traditional Canadian growing season. Blueberries are the first target, eventually to lead the way to off-season, low-carbon-footprint production of other berries. Farmers will appreciate this opportunity to increase their revenue.

The search for suitable starting varieties was undertaken by team members Eric Gerbrandt, PhD, and Rodrigo Santana, managing partners of BeriTech Inc. They visited several blueberry farms and nurseries in Mexico and Peru, where blueberries grow under nearly ideal conditions, and studied how those conditions might be replicated and improved under a precision-controlled environment in the Northern Hemisphere. “We have to start with the plant,” Dr. Gerbrandt says. “And then we can tailor environmental conditions to what the plant needs.”

“We can perfect conditions to take full advantage of the plant’s genetic potential.”

Back in Canada, Dr. Mattsson furthered his research into the combined effects of genes and the environment on the physiology of older unpatented public blueberry varieties. He identified genes that enable blueberry plants to adjust to indoor growth, which can be targets for gene editing or be manipulated by altering growing conditions, such as lighting and temperature. These adaptations will alter the architecture of the plant to create more compact versions that grow faster, set fruit sooner, and have a higher number of fruit buds. “We’re not introducing anything,” Dr. Mattsson says. “We’re actually reducing the function of existing genes, which is no different from rice and wheat varieties that people have been eating for the past 50 years. It’s just accomplished with a more targeted approach.”

They will also be evaluating new varieties bred by leading global breeding programs to see which are best suited to indoor environments. Growth trials will test the productivity of two harvests per year during the off-season when local blueberry production outdoors is not possible. If successful, this scalable, plant-centric model could be customized and replicated to other crops. “We can perfect conditions to take full advantage of the plant’s genetic potential,” Dr. Mattsson says. “That’s what this project is about,” says Mr. Santana. “Leveraging blueberry plant genetics and ideal environmental conditions to optimize fruit yield and quality per unit space and energy cost.”


Collaborators

  • Clay Braziller, Simon Fraser University
  • Simone Diego Castellarin, University of British Columbia
  • Jeremy Dresner, BeriTech Inc.
  • Karla Garcia, BeriTech Inc.
  • Eric Gerbrandt, BeriTech Inc.
  • Terri Griffith, Simon Fraser University
  • Andrew Harries, Simon Fraser University
  • Matthew Jude, BeriTech Inc.
  • Jesús Morales Huerta, Fall Creek Farm and Nursery
  • Thorsten Knipfer, University of British Columbia
  • Patricio Munoz, University of Florida
  • Ivone de Bem Oliveira, BeriTech Inc.
  • Juan Rodriguez Lopez, Simon Fraser University
  • Paul Sandefur, Fall Creek Farm and Nursery
  • Rodrigo Santana, BeriTech Inc.
  • Sean Smukler, University of British Columbia

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.

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.”


Collaborators

  • 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