Spark Award projects

Fifteen qualified donees received Spark Awards, which are intended to help innovators refine their concepts, develop their teams and prepare for the Shepherd Phase.

Investigators: Habiba Bougherara, PhD & Lesley Campbell, PhD, Ryerson University

Co-applicants/collaborators: AgricUltra Advancements Inc.

Canada is the 12th largest producer of raspberries in the world and yet, we are far less efficient than other countries, using more hectares to produce the same tonnage in berries. Our team’s innovative technology (a patented system called AMPL) is a self-enclosed, environmentally controlled UV-LED-based, vertical indoor platform that we will evaluate and modify for growing raspberries and blackberries.

To revolutionize this platform and adapt it to berries, we have two complimentary approaches: Mechanical and Horticultural. Mechanically, we will redesign the AMPL’s shelf height and air flow to accommodate cane crops and design an artificial pollination system.  Horticulturally, we will investigate the best light, temperature and humidity conditions for year-round raspberry and blackberry production. This innovation could revolutionize sustainable, local agriculture in Canada.

Investigator: Trevor Charles, PhD, University of Waterloo

Co-applicants/collaborators: McGill, École de technolgie supérieure (ETS), Vérité, Metagenom Bio Life Science

We’ll develop and demonstrate a system for optimized strawberry production that uses automated technology, leverages the strawberry microbiome, and incorporates improved system geometry, and ventilation to produce healthy, flavourful strawberries. On the automation side, we will develop imaging technology to reliably determine optimal picking time. Camera-mounted robots and environmental sensors will collect data on flower/fruit and disease development. This data will be used to develop computational models using AI, to evaluate and adjust inputs to optimize sustainable farming practices. On the microbiome side, we will pioneer the use of microbial technology to facilitate growing healthy, flavourful strawberries. We’ll isolate beneficial microorganisms such as endophytes (microbes that reside in the plant tissues) that produce compounds “fueling up” the plant’s metabolism to produce flavour compounds, antioxidants, and enzymes. In tandem, we’ll identify and monitor the optimal hydroponic strawberry microbiome giving rise to high-yielding strawberry plants that are robust against diseases.

Investigator: Yves Desjardins, PhD, Université Laval

Co-applicants/collaborators: Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Fraises de l’lle d’Orléans Inc, Star Produce

This project will produce high yields of top-quality strawberries and blackberries in state-of-the-art greenhouses to supply Canadian consumers year-round. Low electricity rates for lighting (0,05$/kwh), combined with low-cost energy for heating (0,01$/kwh) and other energy-saving practices (e.g., double energy screens, clean energy, waste energy recovery, automated climate management, etc.) will enable us to create an entirely carbon-neutral environment partnered with an industry producing waste heat.

Biocontrol of disease and insects, combined with sensor-based, automated pest management monitoring, will improve quality and advance Integrated Pest Management toward pesticide-free berries. Recuperation and recycling of fertilizers and growing substrates, complemented by compostable packaging, will eliminate negative environmental impacts. Worldwide evaluation of genetic selections will allow us to reach very high yields of tasty and health-promoting strawberries and blackberries. Robotics, artificial intelligence, and automated processes will be selected and implemented to reduce labour costs.

Investigator: Michael Deyholos, PhD, University of British Columbia – Okanagan

Co-applicants/collaborators: OUTFRNT Inc, National Research Council of Canada, Replic8 Technologies Inc

We will focus on developing a growing system for the alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca), a novel high-quality crop, which will be grown hydroponically in vertical farms within modified shipping containers in the Yukon. Our team of experts in engineering, plant biotechnology, and agribusiness will address the genetic, economic, and operational challenges associated with this system (including harvesting and pollination in rural and remote communities).

The proposed system will help to ensure food system resilience by mitigating supply chain and transportation disruptions from climate-related events. It will also reduce the carbon footprint associated with supplying fresh fruit to remote regions of Canada and contribute to nutritional sovereignty. Our team identifies and acknowledges the role we have in reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, and the traditional territories we are operating in. We are committed to consulting with Yukon First Nations throughout our research.

Investigator: Tony DiGiovanni, PhD, Ontario Horticultural Trades Foundation

Co-applicants/collaborators: Vineland research and Innovation Centre, OMAFRA, Berry Growers of Ontario, Fenwick Berry Farm, First Green Energy, Roxul Inc.

This project will develop a high yielding, energy efficient, fully integrated and scaled long-cane raspberry production system under protected environments. Solar panels will be incorporated into the production infrastructure that will shorten the return-on-investment period of the new system by offsetting capital infrastructure costs through income generation by net metering opportunities.

The most appropriate strategy for increasing raspberry production in Canada is to develop production infrastructure that can be combined with existing infrastructure through retrofit packages (i.e. integrated with high tunnel or retractable roof). The fully integrated controlled environment production is comprised of the following parts:

  1. Production infrastructure (retrofit options to high tunnel, RRG, and new standalone system) including solar panel integration
  2. Raspberry varieties optimized for protected culture
  3. Crop management of varieties
  4. Containerized production practices
  5. Integrated pest management (IPM)

Investigator: Mike Dixon, PhD, University of Guelph

Co-applicants/collaborators: Mucci Farms, Mucci International Marketing Inc.

Fresh strawberry imports account for nearly $475M annually. Given the short shelf life and favourable margins, there is a considerable opportunity for domestic producers. Mucci Farms, our industry partner, is already operating a successful strawberry greenhouse in Southern Ontario. However, berry yield in the winter is significantly reduced due to lower sunlight. The cost of production is also higher in the winter due to higher heating and labour costs.

We propose to develop a hybrid strawberry production system utilizing current state-of-the-art UGuelph Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology that is adaptable to greenhouse and indoor growing. The development of lighting and hydroponic production systems that improve winter berry greenhouse yields will empower Canadian companies to close, or potentially reverse, the strawberry trade gap. These innovations will also deliver fresher berries to Canadian consumers, especially those in the North that face higher risk of food insecurity.

Investigator: Marie-Hélène Fillion, PhD, Laurentian University

Co-applicants/collaborators: OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs), SNOLAB, MIRACO (Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation), Windsor Salt Ltd.

This project will investigate producing strawberries year-round in underground mines across Canada. The main limitations of growing strawberries during winter are heating and lighting sources. Underground mines have a free, reliable, year-round heat source and are located across Canada, including in northern areas where fruit and vegetables are expensive and difficult to source. They are also isolated from climate changes and pests.

First, a review of worldwide underground farming and key mine characteristics across Canada will be conducted, followed by an economic assessment of Canadian strawberry production. Two mine sites located in Ontario will be assessed for a small-scale demonstration, the SNOLAB laboratory located in Creighton Mine (Sudbury) and the Ojibway mine (Windsor).

Investigator: Xiuming Hao, PhD, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada

Co-applicants/collaborators: The Ohio State University

Canada imported $948 million worth strawberries and raspberries in 2020 because Canadian production cannot meet market demand due to low yield or high production costs. Only about 0.6 meter (one layer of crop) of a typical 7-meter-high greenhouse is used for strawberry cultivation, presenting an opportunity for our more efficient 3D solution.

We will develop and test a multi-layer strawberry and raspberry cultivation system with uniform vertical light and microclimate distribution, using top and intra-canopy LED lighting systems. The ‘waste’ heat released from lighting systems will be extracted/reused and leaching fertilizer solution will be recycled to reduce resource inputs. An AI-lighting control system will reduce electricity costs by factoring in electricity prices. Our solution has the potential to produce 2 to 4 times more strawberries than existing greenhouse systems and substantially reduce resource input per unit of berries.

Investigator: Johnny Kashama, Collège Boréal

Co-applicants/collaborators: Sault Ste Marie Innovation Centre – Rural Agri-Innovation Network, Smart Indoor Farming Solutions

We will develop a multi-tier strawberry greenhouse production system that will optimize crop health and production density, ultimately leading to increased market opportunities for small-scale farmers and increased access to local, high-quality strawberries for consumers. This will address difficulties for farmers such as length of the growing season, intensive labour and resource production requirements, and accessibility to rootstock.

To develop a successful system, the team will (1) identify a successful greenhouse day-neutral cultivars; (2) identify the growing requirements (e.g., humidity, etc.); (3) develop an improved IPM strategy using bee vector technology to target pests and diseases, (4) adapt vertical farming and hydroponic technologies to increase growth season and yield, (5) develop off-season technology and processes to produce a perpetual supply of rootstock to remove farmer dependency on third-party suppliers. Together, these activities will ensure that the new system allows small-scale farmers to reliably, sustainably and competitively produce strawberries in Canada.

Investigator: Rajasekaran Lada, PhD, Dalhousie University

Co-applicants/collaborators: VerFa Agrifood Innovations Inc, Brilliant Photonics Inc, EtGrow Inc, Fenwick Berry Farm

Our multi-disciplinary team consisting of Dalhousie university faculty and Canadian and international industry partners will design and develop a CAD drawing and prototype of an innovative, integrated, indoor vertical production system (3I-VPS) for efficient strawberry production. This system will include a multi-spectral, energy-efficient LED lighting system with heat capture and recirculation; sensor and imaging technologies, data capture and computation for growth and yield maximization; a temperature-controlled, UV and ozonation-integrated root aeroponic system; precise CO2 application system; and a “sonic bee” to facilitate pollination.

The entire system can be modularized in an innovative environment regulated, HVAC enabled, geo-thermal flooring (where available) under a double-layered shell or an insulated building that utilizes renewable energy sources. The geo-thermal and solar energy will be captured to run various energy dependent systems. A bioresource-based media will be used as plugs/growth media and biostimulants will enhance flowering, yield and fruit quality. This system will increase Canada’s food security and food system resilience.

Investigator: Jim Mattson, PhD, Simon Fraser University

Co-applicants/collaborators: BC Blueberry Council, Sky Blue Horticulture Ltd.

Our goal is to develop a year-round production system for blueberries in Canada using greenhouses, a more complex challenge with a woody perennial species versus simpler systems using strawberries. Innovative production systems (ex. high tunnels, growing in substrate) exist in southern countries, but Canada will require different solutions due to its colder climate. We propose to use a combination of plant genetics and production system innovations to solve the challenge of year-round production of blueberries in Canada. We’ll select plant varieties that are more suited to indoor environments such as greenhouses, and that have characteristics enabling the highest production volume and best quality. This will ensure a sustainable, secure source of premium fresh blueberries for Canadians and increased profit for Canadian blueberry farmers.

Investigator: Medhat Moussa, PhD, University of Guelph

Co-applicants/collaborators: OMAFRA

Out-of-season production of greenhouse strawberries is currently a niche crop in Ontario’s vegetable greenhouse sector counting for around 1 per cent of the overall sales. Widespread adoption faces multiple challenges such as labour costs/availability, different infrastructure and management practices, and lack of grower knowledge specific to strawberries. We propose developing an integrated automation system for greenhouse strawberry production that will address these barriers.

The system consists of two components:

  1. a mobile harvesting robot that also acts as a scouting robot
  2. a decision support and autonomy system that control the robot operation and process collected data to provide recommendations for best management practices.

This generates a multi-faceted value proposition that not only reduces labour cost but also enables near-autonomous operation. This is important to reduce barriers for small and medium-sized growers to adopt the technology and allow implementation in parts of Canada’s north where skilled labour and expertise are difficult to find.

Investigator: Yuksel Asli Sari, PhD, Queen’s University

Co-applicants/collaborators: Genoptic

A key challenge indoor farmers face when growing crops year-round is the ability to supply appropriate daily light integrals. The cost of building and installing lighting systems with a fixed intensity/spectrum limits the grower and can become obsolete as research progress creating a significant barrier to entry for farmers. The proposed solution consists of a health classification model to accurately diagnose diseases forming on the plant’s leaves which will allow the farmer to act sooner, potentially reducing the amount of chemical treatments required. It will also include an efficient LED capable of running lighting schemes designated by the grower in a mobile application. The dynamic lighting will enable the grower to specify and automate the exact intensity/quality of light the plants will receive and how it changes throughout the day, season and year to increase the yield and allow year-round growing.

Investigator: Praveen Saxena, PhD, University of Guelph

Co-applicants/collaborators: York University, Upper Canada Growers, E.Z. Grow Farms Ltd.

The crucial but currently missing step for achieving Canadian self-sufficiency in berry production is the availability of disease-free and vigorous planting material for berry growers. We will fill this gap by developing an Integrated Plant Production System (IPPS) that will provide virus-free micropropagated strawberry plants of desirable cultivars for greenhouse, hydroponics, and the field production systems. The plants will also be acclimatized under controlled environments with optimal light, nutrients, and stress mitigating compounds to ensure best berry yields for growers.

This project will also initiate a permanent germplasm repository to provide stock plants facilitating biotechnology and a breeding program for new cultivar development. The IPPS will be cost effective, allow year-round production of locally adapted varieties, and ensure a stable home-grown supply chain of quality plant materials for growers to enhance the productivity, sustainability and profitability of Canada’s agri-food sector.

Investigator: Megan Shapka, MEd, Lethbridge College

Co-applicants/collaborators: Meteor Systems, Sunterra Greenhouse

Lethbridge College, Sunterra Greenhouse, and Meteor Systems propose that creating a more efficient greenhouse infrastructure that maximizes grow area can increase production capacity potential. The team hopes to address food security and global climate change challenges by reducing reliance on import produce markets, especially during the winter months. The goal of this project is to innovate from the existing ways of growing strawberries, by creating a higher gutter density. One of the key factors to a successful winter growing operation is maximizing production output on a per square meter basis. Outside of substrate, plant density, variety and climate settings, the grow system is critical. Currently, five prototypes are proposed for exploration (three novel systems, never utilized in North America). During the Spark Phase exploration, we will narrow these options down to the most viable.