Category Archives: Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre

Current Opportunities: Renewable Energies course offering Energy Audits



Are you interested in having an Energy Audit conducted at your building? As part of our Renewable Energies Technician program, students have the opportunity to work with business and industry partners to utilize the skills they have developed.  With rising utility costs becoming a greater challenge for business, an energy audit might provide some useful energy information that could help your bottom line.

If you would like to discuss this in greater detail, would like to book your company in for the audit, or have any questions, please do not hesitate to email Elizabeth Best, Business Development Coordinator, at   


The Energy Audit will include:

1. A review of your company utility bills to quantify energy use in the building.

2. Site visits to conduct the energy audits, and interviews of the occupants to determine how and where the energy is used.

3. Potentially install electrical sub-metering equipment or conduct a blower door test. This step is site specific, and could potentially involve shutting down power for a brief period of time. The feasibility of this process and its necessity can be discussed as part of the audit.

Optional: written report of energy usage and potential saving measures. 

In order for our students to complete the energy audit, we need you to provide:

1. A minimum of 12 consecutive months of utility bill data (12-24 months preferred) for all energy sources at the site (i.e. electricity, natural gas, etc.). (Students sign non-disclosure agreements to ensure confidentiality).

2. Access to the facility as required for the students to conduct the audit process. Students would be obliged to adhere to all safety and organizational policies of your company while on site.

3. A contact person who can answer questions related to the building (i.e. occupancy patterns, familiarity with energy consuming equipment, etc.)

Co-ordination would then be expected to happen directly between the student group and contact person in order to encourage an authentic, real-world experience for the students.

Utility bills would need to be provided to the professor, Jeff Manser ( at the beginning of our academic term, as this information will be distributed prior to conducting the audit.

Profile: Sarah Lepp

Profile: Sarah Lepp

Like many, Sarah Lepp was bored in her high school geography class – not realizing until university that it did not have to be all about memorizing capital cities and world atlases.

While the St. Catharines native had always hiked in Short Hills Provincial Park, the discipline of Physical Geography at Brock gave her fresh eyes and a renewed appreciation for how the landscape was defined tens of thousands of years ago by glaciers and today by the physiographic variations.

She’s the type always inspired by both peculiarities and patterns so it wasn’t surprising she became involved in the study of fluviomorphology, the phenomena of how water carves out a new natural integrity. It would be the first of many proficiencies to come.

“Being out in nature has always and still does make me happy and peaceful; I always wanted everyone to have experiences like this.” It was in an effort to help keep the integrity of the environment that drew her initially to Niagara College some 15 years ago for a diploma in Environmental Technician Field/Lab before her foray into geography for a Bachelor of Science degree.

Yet geographers are a curious bunch; they need to make sense of the world, understand how things change over time and how this knowledge could help others. Still looking to find her own place in the world, Sarah arrived back at NC’s Research & Innovation division a decade ago and worked her way to Senior Research Associate while cultivating her own path.

Through her work at the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), she has become highly valued in the agricultural industry for her expertise in geographic information systems (GIS), field topography dataset analysis, precision agriculture data quality, and something called phytogeomorphometrics, the study of how plants interact with the land surface (the research team has done extensive work with quantifying landforms and how crop and crop health changes with landform types).

She’s known also for her ground-breaking work as co-architect of NC’s Crop Portal, along with Mike Duncan, PhD, the NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Precision Agriculture and Environmental Technologies, an interactive web software for farmers and consultants to access precision agriculture technologies.

The web software system is a major and ongoing project that houses and processes farm data, such as yield and topography, into visual digitized 3D maps, giving farmers and crop consultants detailed insight into their fields’ productivity variability.

Sarah is currently working on expanding the Crop Portal, which will allow farmers and scientists alike not only more flexibility to visualize and verify their data, but to also have the capability to manipulate their own algorithms.

“There is a lot of the same capacity of the initial Crop Portal but it’s a bigger, heavier program, and for much deeper analysis,” she explains.

“I’ve been able to explore and expand so much and I’ve been able to work with many different people in so many different fields.”

The Crop Portal is under the important umbrella of precision agriculture, of which NC has taken a leading role in developing tools to support and leverage technologies for the modern Canadian farm business to prosper.

It’s also an industry that has meant she get to know the growers, and other stakeholders, like agronomists, crop consultants, and government representatives and dive deep into the agricultural milieu in order to help farmers save money, and support environmental stewardship.

This broad insight has been valuable to doing data analysis and understanding the impacts of topography and soil in a farm field, says Gregor MacLean, Project Manager for AETIC.

“Sarah has excellent big picture awareness from the creation of soils that support modern farming, the complexity of farm business, and the need for precision agriculture in modern farming,” MacLean explains. “The mapping, data analysis, and thorough technical understanding Sarah brings to the team is unparalleled and enables the team to complete highly technical precision agriculture data projects.”

While the Crop Portal may be the most significant and time-intensive initiative, Sarah has been integral to a number of important projects with AETIC over the years. In the process, she has evolved as a project supervisor and leader to the many student Research Assistants and graduate Research Associates.

“Sarah provides excellent GIS, farm/field data and agricultural expertise/business support to students and graduates in electronics, computer programming, GIS and more,” adds MacLean.

She’s also been a main point person, nurturing critical relationships for key partnerships with the College. More recently, she was involved in a multi-year applied research effort in precision agriculture, the largest cross-sector joint initiative of its kind in the province. The Precision Agriculture Advancement for Ontario (PAAO) project was a collaboration between academia, government, and the farming industry to develop best practices for the industry.

“I’ve been able to explore and expand so much and I’ve been able to work with many different people in so many different fields,” she says about her experience with working at R&I.

However, her passion has driven more than a diverse perspective of the province’s agricultural evolution. She has developed a soft spot for the uncertain and highly regulated farming industry. In fact, she finds herself awake at night by thoughts of how farmers are misunderstood and misconceived. They’re a group she also calls the “smartest” she’s ever met.

“I’m working with this brilliant group of super important people and they’re not seen as any of those things, if they’re even thought of at all,” she insists. “I don’t think they get enough respect and what they do is really hard; they’re feeding us, they’re doing one of the most important things!”

“I don’t think they get enough respect and what they do is really hard; they’re feeding us, they’re doing one of the most important things!” 

She points to the diversity of what farmers need to balance: “they not only have to understand meteorology to know when to plant and harvest, they need to spray and fertilize, which means they need to know chemistry, and understand what reacts with what; and they need to also be accountants and economists,” she explains.

“It definitely bothers me a lot and it’s something that will just crawl into my head when I’m not expecting it.”

It’s also something that she’s not easily able to shut off even with her go-to de-stressors like knitting, hiking, or aerial yoga, something she swears by to help her neck and back from the constant computer work.

Despite any days spent out in the field collecting soil samples, Sarah’s work largely is done behind a bank of computer monitors and can take its toll both physically and mentally. Add to that the extra load this past year of working toward her Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences from Guelph University.

However, her gruelling schedule does have its advantages, as her research on her Master’s – updating Ontario’s outdated soil maps – relates to the projects she’s involved with at R&I.

For example, one industry partner currently collaborating with NC and could reap benefits of such accurate data is Ferrero (as in Ferrero Rocher chocolates), who are looking for a local supply of hazelnuts in Ontario, with a goal of 10,000 hectares to be planted in the next 10 years.

“So, it’s not just that I’m studying something interesting, this has other goals and knowing that I’m doing something specific that will impact different people, different organizations and different growers really helps.”

Indeed, any help she can contribute to the industry will also help her sleep easier at night.

Streamlining soil health mapping technology

Based in Tavistock, Ont., SoilOptix provides digital soil-mapping technology to the agricultural community, using a non-contact geological soil sensor to measure soil’s naturally emitting gamma radiation. The service also includes strategic physical soil samples. All data is calculated into a high-resolution soil property map that a farmer uses for site-specific applications.

SoilOptix uses a process to convert the readings from the field into a series of maps showing nutrient levels and/or soil health. The data analysis and processing work uses multiple pieces of software, and takes a significant amount of time (4-10 hours), for a field of any size, from 10+ to 100+ acres.

The AETIC team streamlined the data process, and programmed the primary production into a single, efficient system. The User Interface (UI) makes this process much faster by automating much of the work. With the UI, the SoilOptix Analysts are realizing a 6-fold increase in their ability to process a field.

Learn more about AETIC’s project successes here.

Custom software enhances farm operations

The AETIC team recently worked with CropPro Consulting (CropPro), a company that offers Mapping Agriculture Production Systems (MAPS) variable-rate services and Technology Enhanced Consulting (TEC) custom mapping and software. Good topography models are uncommon, and complex to build. Topography and field modelling for farms is often done in rural areas with minimal Internet/data connectivity, and it is important that the analysis can operate as part of a desktop (offline) software.

The AETIC team is collaborating with CropPro to further develop the land topography software called LandMapR, which was built by Dr. R.A. (Bob) MacMillan. This software analyzes field topography data and creates highly accurate field topography and water flow (hydrology) models, including capturing all the hills and depressions in a field. CropPro’s utilization of LandMapR topography and water flow tools will help provide valuable solutions that also support farm profitability, varitable-rate applications, and good environmental stewardship.

Learn more about AETIC’s project successes here.

Researchers from the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre provide expertise to federal committee on farming, agri-food exports

Niagara College’s R&I team from the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre. From left: Gregor MacLean, research project manager; Mike Duncan, PhD, NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies; MP Pat Finnigan, Chair of Standing Committee and Sarah Lepp, senior research associate. The research team showcased its work to the federal Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food recently.

A research team from the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre got the chance on a national level to highlight the work, progress and future potential in the agriculture and farming exports to federal ministers who shape the country’s future and policy.

Members of the Niagara College team—Mike Duncan, PhD, NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (IRCC) in precision agriculture & environmental technologies; Gregor MacLean, research project manager; and Sarah Lepp, senior research associate—appeared on September 18 before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food in Ottawa as part of its study of advancements of technology and research in the agriculture industry that can support Canadian exports.

The committee, which is looking at research, development and innovation with an eye to encouraging Canadian exports, is seeking to understand the challenges, problems and other factors that help or hinder the success of Canadian companies’ efforts to innovate. They invited NC’s Research & Innovation team as an effort to gather comments from industry stakeholders about the federal government’s role in the face of these challenges, or problems with respect to agricultural innovation and technology.

In his seven-minute presentation to the national members, MacLean showcased the efforts of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre’s students, graduates, staff, and faculty, including the unique and valuable offerings in precision agriculture that Dr. Mike Duncan brings to Canadian agriculture.

The research team from NC’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre provided expertise to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food.

The Agriculture & Environmental Technologies team collaborates with a wide variety of partners, including farmers, commodity organizations, agricultural consultants/agronomists, agricultural technology organizations, and food companies. And their partners support exports in many ways, adds MacLean.
“We believe our work and this technology is a critical part of the future,” says MacLean. “Farmer, agri-food and agriculture technology company collaborations in applied research will continue to play a role in supporting the farmers and Canadian exports, and we are fortunate to be part of that.”

He points to the collaboration with Ferrero Canada that is helping to develop a base of farmers growing hazelnuts in Ontario that will be provided to Ferrero’s Brantford processing facility, and then export and value-added Ferrero products, like Nutella and Ferrero Rocher.

MacLean also refers to the team’s partnership with Yellow Gold Farms in developing a web software that provides variable rate fertilizer solutions that are more profitable and sustainable. Yellow Gold Farms’ ReservoiRx data service can be exported to farmers and farm consultants around the world as a data service.

Additionally, the collaboration with SoilOptix is supporting the software and data processing of a soil health service. SoilOptix’s sensor and service is offered in continually more countries, including Brazil, China, Argentina, the United States and more,” explains MacLean. “This soil health service and data processing is a major data export, and all of the data processing is done by SoilOptix’s high-skilled team members at their offices in Ontario.”

MacLean says his delegation was fortunate to represent the College and the many partners and funders in Ottawa: “Without the team’s partners and our funders, this work would not be possible.”

NC’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre team works with private and public sector partners to develop innovative solutions to address today’s challenges in precision agriculture, GIS, computer programming, sustainable food production, plant growth, horticultural practices, greenhouse operations, aquaponics, environmental management and renewable energies. For info

~ With files from Julie Greco, InsideNC