Representatives from the horticulture sector in Ontario, Canada, say a recent federal government investment of $ 5 million (CDN) into automation-focused projects provides a much-needed opportunity to solve persistent labour issues.
Announced by Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the country’s national agriculture ministry, the investment is part of an overall $ 690 million, 5-year commitment to promote growth and the competitiveness of Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector.
While the initial investment focuses on issues specific to greenhouses, fruit and vegetable growers across Ontario think the initiative will bear positive spillover effects.
Robotic harvesters, wireless irrigation, moisture monitoring
Labour shortages have long been a depressive force on horticultural profitability; indeed, AAFC calculates the cost to be $ 1.5 billion in lost productivity and sales, with the greenhouse sector being hardest hit.
Dr. Tania Humphrey, chief scientific officer for the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre – a notable horticultural research institution in Southwestern Ontario, and the group acting as the administrative coordinator for the $ 5 million investment – says 3 projects have already been defined. All of them focus specifically on indoor horticulture:
- developing and testing robotic harvesters for greenhouse cucumbers;
- developing smart, wireless irrigation technologies for potted flowers and vegetables;
- developing state-of-the-art sensors that will help detect and monitor moisture levels in the soil and air.
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Increases in minimum wage
Jan VanderHout, a Hamilton-area greenhouse vegetable grower and board chair for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, his producer commodity group, reiterates that increases in minimum wage have been a particularly major issue for the horticulture sector as a whole. The investment in the 3 aforementioned areas, he says, will have a significant impact on the business sustainability of greenhouse producers.
Because of the greater degree of control afforded to greenhouse and other indoor growers, VanderHout says he views greenhouse-centred projects as the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of developing automation technology. Both he and Humphrey believe that, once these technologies exist for indoor growers, adopting them to other types of agriculture will be much easier possible – that includes vegetables and fruits grown outdoors.
“Sooner rather than later” solutions
VanderHout says developing automation technologies sooner rather than later is ideal, and believe it’s possible for some projects to bear workable results before the end of AAFC’s 5-year investment period. “We can either adapt or prepare to adapt,” says VanderHout. “We’ll be working with Vineland to make sure whatever they develop is commercially viable.”
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Labour shortages have long been a depressive force on horticultural profitability; indeed, AAFC calculates the cost to be $1.5 billion in lost productivity and sales, with the greenhouse sector being hardest hit. - Photo: Ton van der Scheer
Humphrey says the intention is to produce working automated prototypes in each project area by March of 2023. Having fully-commercialized automation equipment available for purchase by growers at that time is not likely, she says but not impossible. “These are pre-commercial development projects. Along the way we need to develop relationships with commercial parties,” says Humphrey. Public funding aside, privately-driven automation initiatives are also underway.
Opportunity to build community & capacity of ag-research
In addition to acting as the administrative coordinator for the investment, Humphrey says Vineland will take the lead on all 3 projects, each of which will have multiple components.
However, she says developing wider research networks with other agricultural sectors is also a significant component of this investment plan – and indeed, will help disseminate the developed technologies to other areas in need of greater automation.
“The cluster is almost like a seed fund for larger initiatives […] the opportunities go way beyond indoor horticulture,” she says. “Ultimately we would like to see projects led by people outside Vineland and in different parts of the sector.”