Category Archives: Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre

Research team in spotlight at OFVC

Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division was well represented at this year’s Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention in February. Known as Canada’s premier horticultural event, the annual conference brings together researchers, producers, industry experts, associations and educators. In its 18th year, the two-day event features world-class expert speakers, tradeshow exhibitors and network opportunities.

R&I had a number of experts speaking at the event: From the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), both Mike Duncan, PhD, and Sarah Lepp, senior research associate, presented thought-provoking information about weather, climate change and the resulting impact on soil. From the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre (CFWI Innovation Centre), Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, PhD, spoke about sustainable packaging for both consumers and commercial applications.

On the tradeshow floor, research team members from AETIC, CFWI Innovation Centre and also the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC), showcased the division’s resources and capabilities.

Read more about our featured panelists at OFVC here.

For more information on the resources and capabilities of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, visit the website.

Testing a pioneering organic silica product

Northern Hemp 1
(left) Greg Marsh, president at Northern Hemp Specialists, is with Laurie Zuber, horticulture technologist with NC’s Commercial Cannabis Program.

Northern Hemp Specialists is aiming to “greatly advance” the cannabis and hemp industries with its silica-based organic product. Once the growing trial by Niagara College cannabis students is complete, the Huntsville-based start-up is hoping to show significant improvements in nutrient uptake by the plants.

The post-graduate students from the Cannabis Production Science 2 class have been involved in an extensive growing study in the College’s cannabunker and greenhouse this past semester for the industry partner. The course-based applied research project is managed by Research & Innovation’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, and funded by the Ontario Centres of Excellence through its College Voucher for Technology Adoption program. 

Greg Marsh, president at Northern Hemp Specialists, says his organic silica-based biostimulant also acts as a pesticide for the cannabis and hemp plants, to increase pest resistance.

The class has been overseeing and analyzing the growth of cannabis plants, amended with the silica-based product against control plants. During the trial, researchers have assessed the nutrient composition of the cannabis plants by taking leaf samples of the most recently matured leaf (MRML) at two-week intervals. This gives an indication of the nutrient uptake of the plants in the different treatments.

The cannabis plants have been harvested, and the flower buds will be appropriately dried, and sent for analysis of the cannabinoid and terpenoid content for treatment comparison.

Marsh checked in on the growing trial results this month at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and reports a growth improvement to the treated plants to date, compared to the control plants.

“We are hoping the trial will prove that we can increase the absorption rates of silica in cannabis and hemp plants from three percent to 60 percent,” explains Marsh, adding that his pioneering approach – which has been five years in development – should strengthen plants, enabling higher yields of both flowers and leaves, reduces transplant shock and is more pest resistant and efficient through the added strength created in the root zone.

“A 15 percent increase in yields can translate into millions of dollars of extra revenue for growers and producers,” he predicts.

“One of the most important benefits of using our process is that it’s 100 percent organic,” says Marsh. “We have this product that’s two-in-one; when it spreads over the soil, not only does it stop pests from coming through the soil, it also stops them from going from plant to plant on the ground.”

Northern Hemp 2
Northern Hemp Specialists is pleased with the visual growing results so far. The cannabis plant on the left, showing a larger yield, has been treated with their organic silica-based biostimulant product, contrasted against the control plant on the right.

For the burgeoning commercial cannabis growing industry, one of the most significant issues in scaling-up quickly has been combatting disease and controlling pests, says Bill MacDonald, coordinator and professor of NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production (CCP) program, started in 2018.

“You’re extremely limited in your toolbox of pest control products you can use,” says MacDonald. “Growers have to follow Health Canada regulations and, of course, since it is a consumable or inhalable product, it has to be grown and maintained as organic.”

A lot of what MacDonald and his faculty team are teaching in the one-year CCP program is environmental control – learning how to control the environment in terms of heat, humidity and light as well as biological control – which is using “good” bugs to control the destructive pests.

Marsh says his company uses a proprietary mixture of specially engineered bacterial and fungal inoculants, mixed with the silica flour. The product is soil soluble, enhancing the root, stem and leaf strength of cannabis plants, coupled with the ability to resist soil-based pests, such as gnats, borers, snails, aphids and others.

“This product could revolutionize this part of the business and give stronger, pest-free plants, with better yields,” adds Marsh.

“We have found Bill MacDonald, Laurie Zuber and the Niagara College students very knowledgeable and extremely helpful in setting up and administering the project.”

For more information on projects conducted for industry in partnership with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, visit the website.

‘Unique’ climate data can help farmers prepare: NC researcher

If sophisticated weather data analysis is any indication, Mother Nature does not have a farm-friendly forecast in store for Southern Ontario growers.  

Instead of historically predictable weather – one reason Niagara has flourished as the fruit belt – one high-tech projection is calling for more significant, more extreme, and more variable rain rates. This according to forensic weather data processed and analyzed by Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) team and led by Research & Innovation’s Mike Duncan, who has his PhD in Agricultural Physics. 

“Instead of being even and reliable, it will be heavy and sporadic, which is not crop or soil friendly,” says Duncan, who is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair for Colleges, specializing in precision agriculture and environmental technologies.

His team is looking at two data sets; the first is a forensic, or very detailed, recreation of the weather in the farming areas of Southern Ontario for the between 2000 and 2018, and the second is based on the IPCC RCP(6.0) climate change scenario for the years 2030 to 2048, covering the same area. 

“The second data set shows a snapshot of what ‘might happen’ if CO2 levels keep increasing,” says Duncan. “It is unique in the sense that there are very few realizations of climate change data that show what might happen at the ground as the climate evolves.” 

Duncan and his team wanted to look at what farmers might face in a changing climate and he says the positive news is that the growers can be prepared.

“This data doesn’t lie … I’m not showing probabilities; I’m showing raw data. I’m not predicting that the rainfall in 2017 is going to flood the Great Lakes … it did.”

The 2000 to 2018 forensic meteorology data was generated using a numerical weather model operating on a global data set called ERA-Interim, which can re-create the weather over the last 18 years in Southern Ontario at one-hour intervals. This expensive data set was purchased as part of an industry partner project looking specifically at weather statistics for growing tree crops.

The state-of-the-art model generates 140 weather variables at more than 30,000 grid points across the farming areas of Southern Ontario, to allow the Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to make very accurate maps of suitable growing areas for a given crop.

“It’s $155k worth of knowledge that nobody else has,” says Duncan, adding that the detailed weather data can re-create the growing conditions for any crop and offers a look at what’s happening at the ground level.  

“It also allows us to evaluate whether crops that currently grow in the area will be able to grow given various warming scenarios resulting from climate change,” he explains.

The data shows that while the summers aren’t getting any hotter, they are extended, and winter temps are rising, to the tune of one degree Celsius every year. 

The research team also found 2014 to be a pivotal year in our area. Before that year, rain fell like clockwork; there were very few droughts or deluges. Then it all changed, says Duncan.

“We had a rain rate that was pretty much constant up to 2014, and then it dropped in half, and then it doubled … and that is typical of systems becoming unstable.” He notes that while there have been erratic temperatures previously, it hasn’t before been in concert with fluctuating rainfall. 

“This data doesn’t lie … I’m not showing probabilities; I’m showing raw data. I’m not predicting that the rainfall in 2017 is going to flood the Great Lakes … it did.”

And while the forecasted increase in temperatures may be concerning, the water – the amount and variability – is what’s most important to agriculture. With higher temperatures and a longer summer, it also means a greater chance for pest survival. Couple this with crop stresses from variable rain rates, it only worsens the potential for disease, explains Duncan.

It’s a high-risk combination for growers because with low rain rates, the land becomes extremely dry and hot, and then when increased rain hits, the ground won’t soak up the water, and the soil/seeds can get washed away in an afternoon via erosion. 

Duncan’s team took this 2000 to 2018 data set and created a climate change scenario for 2030 to 2048. And he calls the projection data “depressing.”

“Rain rates will be 10 to 25 percent higher than what they have been historically – at least prior to 2014.”

The rain will come in higher rain-rate clumps, and the variability rate will also climb, he says. “Rain rates will be 10 to 25 percent higher than what they have been historically – at least prior to 2014.”

Duncan recently shared his findings at the annual Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention (OFVC), Canada’s premier horticultural event, in Niagara Falls, and also with local stakeholders, including Vance Badawey, MP for Niagara Centre. 

“I don’t think it’s a complete disaster, but there’s going to be a big change,” says Duncan.

It won’t be just farmers affected either; urban infrastructure won’t be spared, Duncan warns. “The urban effect can be huge – commensurate with the agriculture effects.”

‘I’ve seen high rain rates before and the effect can be stunning in an urban environment,” he says, adding industries such as insurance, farming banks bankrolling crops, and construction will all be affected.

The good news: such simulation data can help farmers prepare, and his AETIC team can help provide specific weather analysis. “Growers and other urban industries need to implement water management strategies, which means local reservoirs and pools. They need to have tools in place to deal with high rain rates and have a plan to manage how the water either pools or runs off their property.”

While there are still questions to be answered, Duncan says his team is open to work with growers or other industries who would like specific data analysis.

Niagara College’s AETIC team works with private and public sector partners to develop innovative solutions to address today’s challenges in agriculture, local and sustainable food production, plant growth, horticulture practices, greenhouse operations, aquaponics and environmental management.

For more information, see the website.

Empowering farmers with high technology, low cost

Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered multispectral imaging camera sensors are revolutionizing the modern agricultural landscape. With specialized remote-sensing technology, farmers have even more visual information to monitor crop anomalies and manage their fields more efficiently.

Multispectral imaging – whether aboard an aerial drone or land robot – provides precise, targeted information that the human eye is incapable of seeing by capturing different bands of light.

This technology of image detection, which digitally manipulates several bands of optical frequencies by capturing several visible wave lengths and invisible (infra-red) images of crops and vegetation, uses those images to compare with a known database for the identification of diseases and pests.

While it can be an indispensable farming tool, at upwards of $25,000 for a complete system, it can be out of reach financially for many struggling growers.

Enter Fabio Lopes, a computer engineer at Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), who is changing the game. Lopes is developing a system with an entire software suite, for less than $2,000, and Research & Innovation will soon be accepting interested partners with whom to collaborate.

“These multispectral images are produced by proprietary multiprocessing equipment with lenses and specific optical mechanisms,” Lopes explains further. “The images can be integrated into a complex external software system and local and remote hardware, generating digital information on different aspects of culture with greater precision, using green, red-edge and near infrared wave bands.”

The benefits for farmers and the surrounding environment are significant: in addition to increasing crop yields, such technology can minimize the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water waste.

While the hardware Lopes is using to make the product cost effective may seem unelaborate, it’s the entire suite of algorithms that Lopes is designing that are highly sophisticated.

“My motto is although simple is difficult, it is cost effective and allows more people to receive help.”

In addition to capturing images in different spectral layers, the equipment has some algorithms and sensors capable of distinguishing movement and interpreting the vegetation scenario. The data of the images stored internally are combined with other data from sensors that will allow the creation of orthomosaic models in 3D.

Fabio Lopes, a computer engineer at AETIC is developing a multispectral imaging camera sensor, complete with a suite of algorithms. While a complete system can run upwards of $25k, his can be made for less than $2k, allowing farmers to affordably receive more visual information to monitor crop anomalies and manage their fields more efficiently.​

A mature student in NC’s Computer Programming program, Lopes has more than 25 years’ experience in software and hardware development for technology industries. While he has a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Brazil, he needs certification in this country.

Lopes left Brazil 18 months ago for Canada to provide a better life for his two children and wife, a neurosurgeon. He also left the successful business he cofounded and, as chief technology officer, was responsible for the development of technology prototypes for embedded navigation systems.

The researcher and inventor also holds two patents in projects and implementation of aerial protection systems using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with cutting-edge technology.

Lopes is working with Mike Duncan, PhD, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (NSERC-IRCC) in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies at the College.

Duncan is recognized as a world leader in variable-rate technology and has worked with the College in commercializing research in and developing market-ready prototypes for precision agriculture – and environmental remote sensing.

“Down the line we will be looking for somebody who might want to partner up on this low-cost multispectral camera project,” says Duncan. “This could include either collaborating with the development of the hardware or as a technical service in the use of the device in a project.”

He said the imaging camera sensors can be used either on UAVs or aboard AETIC’s advanced, rugged land rover, called RoamIO Jumbo – technology made possible from an NSERC grant through its College and Community Innovation program.

“What we’re developing right now is using the camera to detect disease or detect crop anomalies. We can look at the leaves, at the fruit and any aspect of the plant,” says Duncan, adding that initially trials will be done with vines using the College’s own vineyard at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Niagara College’s AETIC team works with private and public sector partners to develop innovative solutions to address today’s challenges in agriculture, local and sustainable food production, plant growth, horticulture practices, greenhouse operations, aquaponics and environmental management.

For more information, see the website.

NC experts plant research seeds at OFVC

OFVC 2020

Flooding, severe storms, shorter winters, droughts – all of these weather conditions can have a significant impact on crops. Agriculture meteorologists offer specific weather forecasts to help farmers make decisions regarding their crops, or even preventative decisions if necessary.

What if looking at weather data differently allowed growers the opportunity to determine crop suitability according to their region? And what does the data show for Niagara?

Niagara College’s Mike Duncan, PhD, is a featured panelist at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention (OFVC), to answer those questions over the next couple of days. Duncan, who is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair for Colleges, specializing in precision agriculture and environmental technologies, leads a thought-provoking discussion on crop suitability during climate change, at the OFVC, taking place in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Feb. 19 & 20.

Hailed as Canada’s premier horticultural event, the convention brings together researchers, producers, industry experts, associations and educators. In its 18th year, the two-day event features world-class expert speakers, trade show exhibitors and networking opportunities.

Duncan shares an overview of the expensive datasets purchased a few years ago and the results of his team of computer analysts processed through a “very sophisticated interpolation engine.”

“It’s $155k worth of knowledge that nobody else has,” explains Duncan, adding the detailed weather data can re-create the growing conditions for any crop in Southern Ontario in the last 18 years. And it will offer a look at the ground level.

“The summers aren’t really getting any hotter, but we’re having longer periods of summer than we’re used to and we’re seeing higher temperatures in winter.”

To elaborate on how things look from the ground, Sarah Lepp, senior research associate with AETIC, is discussing the resulting impact on soil. An expert in environmental science, Lepp has experience in geographic information systems (GIS), field topography dataset analysis and creating the framework to improve and update existing soil property maps in Ontario.

The panel also includes a number of R&I industry partners in the precision agriculture field. Not only will the R&I team have an interactive display on the trade show floor, featuring products and innovations in the agri-food space, but several staff are also invited speakers in several sessions.

At the panel “Food Innovation: Trends, Opportunity, Adaptation” and co-chaired by R&I’s Elizabeth Best, business development coordinator, a featured speaker is Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, PhD, senior food scientist at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre.

There is growing interest in sustainable packaging for both consumers and commercial applications, that is functional, cost effective and energy efficient. Vega Lugo discusses various packaging innovations and how the agri-food industry is adapting to this change.

NC’s winemaker and instructor Gavin Robertson is co-chairing the panel: “Oenology” that looks at the current research in the grape and wine industries in the country.

For more information about the OFVC click HERE.

Derek Schulze: Cultivating a scientist

It may seem to the casual observer a big leap between human cardiac research and molecular screening of plant cell cultures. But like every other living organism, the cell is the basic building block – and the study of both comes down to basic science for Derek Schulze.

The biologist carried out research in both fields before arriving at Niagara College in 2016 to teach for the School of Environment and Horticulture Studies. For the last year, he’s also been the coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program and has served as Faculty Research Lead for several course-based projects for NC’s Research & Innovation division.

The molecular study of human blood cells is, in fact, much easier than plant study as plants have so many other chemicals that get in the way, explains Schulze. “Other than that, it’s really the same thing in terms of applying science.”

He has gathered the evidence, tested and analyzed in both disciplines, first in the medical domain and then in the plant world.

Interestingly, while he and his family owned and operated a commercial greenhouse for more than a decade prior to his role as educator, he did not possess a life-long passion for the floriculture world (although he did specialize in botany during his undergraduate Biology degree.)

In fact, growing up and before earning a Master’s degree in Biophysics and Molecular Biology from the University of Guelph (1996), Schulze was undecided about which field of science to pursue.

 “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I just loved everything about science.”

Yet he was curious and had the creativity to take on the enigmatic mysteries of the natural world. In university, he developed his critical and pragmatic way of thinking. He then spent his career applying these principles to various realms of science.

Schulze started his field of work researching plant tissue culture and molecular screening using flow cytometry (FCM) – laser-based technology used to analyze cells. From studying plant cells, he aptly transitioned into a medical laboratory studying human cells for the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s University. He has also worked in electrophysiology – the study of the electrical properties of cells –conducting cardiac research.

No matter the discipline, it’s all science, he explains.

“When you’re trained as a scientist, you’re given skills on different levels. So there are specific skills like how to operate certain lab machinery,” he says.  “But the broader skills are learning how to ask questions, determining what questions are good, which ones are not and discerning what’s good information in order to formulate your plan to tackle the next question.”

This type of knowledge is universal and can be applied to any context – and something he now imparts on his students.

“That’s because the same principles exist, and a scientist needs to be able to understand how data collection works, how to mix chemicals and build a study and then implement and execute it.”

While at Queen’s and immersed in embryonic stem cells, Schulze used his free time to build a small greenhouse where he grew and sold bedding plants. This without any prior knowledge about growing plants on a scale larger than a window sill.

“I didn’t know anything about it … I just learned it.”

Schulze and his wife Karleen, who was a biostatistician for the radiation oncology unit at the University, eventually decided to leave Kingston, put their academic research careers on hold and head to Vineland to purchase and operate TJ Greenhouses.

“[Working for Research & Innovation] is a big thing on their resume and it really does carry some weight. Greenhouses are always doing miniature trials; they’re always tweaking things, so if they have someone who’s done that, it’s awesome.”

The business supplied 156 major grocery stores throughout Ontario with high-end bedding plants. The couple also operated their own hydroponic lettuce business.

After 13 years, the family sold the business when Schulze accepted a full-time position at Niagara College, and his wife went on to McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute.

Soon after arriving at NC, Schulze assisted his colleague Bill MacDonald in creating the Commercial Cannabis Production program, the first post-secondary credential of its kind in Canada. He also taught a number of courses including Cannabis Crop Methods, Cannabis Production Science and Technical Analysis of Cannabis.

Executing a cannabis program had certainly never entered his radar.

“I didn’t know anything about the stuff … never used it, never grown it on my own,” he says, adding he just viewed it as another crop and learned everything he could and applied basic science principles.

He has since left the cannabis program and returned to the NC greenhouse teaching a full schedule of courses to Greenhouse Technician students. Forever the scientist, Schulze has made a point to include applied research learning into his greenhouse classroom.

During one course-based project, Schulze’s students trialed a Jiffy® pre-manufactured propagation pellet and used different recipes of organic fertilizer, premixed, compressed and dried. The class grew tomatoes, peppers and lettuce in various pellets, measuring fresh weight, dry weight and then sent a final report to the company.

That report turned out to be very useful for Jiffy®. Says Schulze: “Three months after we finished the trial, I got a call from a lettuce grower wanting clarification on something because Jiffy® had used our report to sell their product to that company.”

As for the students, it gave them a chance to learn about organic methods, a medium that proves challenging to teach hands-on in class, given the complications with growing and lack of control over the nutrients.

Most recently, Schulze’s class has undertaken a project with Walker Industries to help determine alternatives to the waste issue of rockwool, a mineral wool product that is typically used as a growing medium for hydroponic vegetables and is not biodegradable.

Students are conducting a growing trial to test the quality of different finished rockwool (Grodan/compost) blends to provide a better understanding of the quality of blends and how they can be used in growing.

“It’s interesting and the students like it because they are very conscious about being environmentally responsible,” he says. “The Walker project is all about trying to do something constructive with the waste product from the greenhouse industry.”

In working on these types of applied research through the College’s Research & Innovation division, Schulze says students who are involved with these projects definitely have a leg up when starting their careers.

“[Working for Research & Innovation] is a big thing on their resume and it really does carry some weight,” he notes. “Greenhouses are always doing miniature trials; they’re always tweaking things, so if they have someone who’s done that, it’s awesome.”

When he’s not at the College greenhouse or teaching, Schulze “gets his thrills” flying radio-controlled airplanes – a hobby since he was 10 years old. He also restores vintage cars and during nicer weather, can be found on the water in his sailboat.

He and his wife live in Vineland with their two children and dog.