Category Archives: Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre

Alumnus lands position as DevOps engineer

Andrew Benton is a 2020 graduate of Niagara College’s Computer Programmer Analyst (Co-op) program. At the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, Andrew served as a research assistant for nine months in 2019, and as research associate for the year in 2020. He is currently employed with SoilOptix as junior DevOps engineer.

 Tell us about where you work and your position:

I work for SoilOptix. We are using technology to help farmers understand and improve their soil health to grow better crops and feed the world. I’m a junior DevOps engineer.

What is a DevOps engineer?

DevOps is a combination title and job path in the IT/Programming field. It is the combination of development and operations – development dealing with the actual programming and operations dealing with the IT side of things, such as running the various programs and servers that development requires for their applications.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

I am responsible for providing IT/Server support to allow SoilOptix to expand their customer base into more areas of the world. I’m also the lead developer on all web portals the company uses for processing data and making it available to customers. We are currently in the process of rewriting the original portal that does all data processing to make it faster and more flexible to add additional features. This new version takes advantage of advances in C#, Angular, and general programming best practices.

How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?

While working at R&I, we worked on processing and handling very large datasets with tens of thousands of individual data points. This required working on database optimization, filtering large amounts of information, and creating ways to allow clients to access these large amounts of data such as PDF files, heatmaps and simple CSV files.

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

While working for R&I, I was privileged to work on the initial version of the SoilOptix portal. This project gave me my first real experience with handling very large datasets and bug fixing on a live in-use application. The biggest lesson I learned from this was the absolute requirement of testing everything you possibly can before deploying any sort of modification, feature, or bug fix to a live, actively-used application. 

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

At the time I was stuck in a job I really did not enjoy. I always had an interest in computer programming since I was in high school. Looking around at the options, Niagara College was very close to where I live, and offered a program that covered a lot of what I wanted to learn. The co-op portion of the program was a great bonus, allowing me to experience what being a computer programmer was like and see if it was the type of career I really wanted to invest in.

Most memorable experience at NC?

My most memorable experience at Niagara College was the community sponsored project, part of our programming curriculum and is intended to give new programmers a feel for how programming in a business is likely to work. You have a team of fellow programmers, and you have a client that you have to communicate with. This provides the information and guidance that you will then use to create a working finished product.

This provided me with my first experience in communicating with a client on requirements for a programming project, as well as an introduction to working with a team of programmers. This experience shaped how I have approached client interactions and working with other team members and allowed me to grow as a person.

“Communication is almost more important than your actual technical skills. You can be the best programmer in the world, but if you cannot communicate effectively, your options will be extremely limited.”


Is there a particular mentor at either R&I or a faculty member who influenced you?

Alex Davis was the senior research associate at R&I when I first started working there during my co-op. He provided me with a lot of useful information and tips during the four months I was able to work with him.

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

Communication is essential regardless of what career you head into. Being able to talk, explain your thoughts and interact with clients will take you very far. Talk with your teammates and your boss whenever you can. This will result in you getting promotions and recommendations for new projects and help you vastly increase your abilities. 

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

Communication is almost more important than your actual technical skills. You can be the best programmer in the world, but if you cannot communicate effectively, your options will be extremely limited.  

Proudest achievement since graduating?

My proudest achievement is getting hired on as a DevOps engineer and having my input be valuable to the company at which I work.

What are you passionate about at the moment?

I am passionate about learning better options and systems to provide much higher performance for processing large amounts of data.

Interests outside of work?

When I’m not working, I play a lot of video games and enjoy hiking. If I could video game and hike at the same time, I probably would.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

Treat others as YOU want to be treated!

‘Pot prof’ leading trailblazing cannabis IPM research

In the world of insect biological control, the nearly microscopic Trichogramma wasps are the beneficial powerhouse in the parasitoid arena – destroying the eggs of menacing pests, preventing the devouring of entire crops. 

These natural control agents are also why Niagara College professor Sébastien Jacob remained in the entomology field, rather than following his second passion as an ice/rock climbing guide.

Fresh out of university, Jacob had accepted the first summer job opportunity as a field research assistant for a bio-control company producing “tricho-cards” to release these egg parasitoids into corn fields to control the European corn borer.

“These fascinating parasitoid wasps, although so tiny (0.15mm in length), got me hooked to biological control and integrated pest management,” he recalls.

So curious was he by the sexual behavioural mysteries of these wasps that he dedicated this his thesis topic for his master’s degree in Entomology-Biocontrol Science at the University of Quebec in Montreal (2004) and continued his research in the field of integrated pest management (IPM).

Before his arrival to Niagara College in 2018 to teach in the Horticulture, Greenhouse and Commercial Cannabis programs, Jacob had spent 20 years working in both research and as an integrated pests and diseases management specialist in a wide variety of crop systems, including training and teaching growers throughout North, Central and South America the art of implementing and maintaining a successful IPM program.

Jacob’s mastery of the intricate and highly-specialized field was a boon to the College’s new Commercial Cannabis program – the first of its kind in Canada – given the lack of general knowledge on applying critical crop controls of an industry only recently legalized in the country. 

“Few only utilize supplemental food for their beneficial organisms, or know the limit of temperature and relative humidity for various beneficial agents in their crop,” he explains, adding there’s a lack of familiarity with the negative impact of sprays intervention (for diseases and/or pests) on all beneficial organisms in the system.

“IPM is a systematic approach that encompasses all these factors together,” says Jacob. “Sadly, many growers still shoot themselves in the foot, by spraying either too much or at the wrong time, thus killing their beneficial insects, which increase IPM cost and sometimes leads to crop failures.”  

While there’s little surprise as to the lack of robust research and knowledge transfer on cannabis IPM, given it’s a new agricultural system, the pressing need remains.

Today, in addition to his teaching, Jacob works tirelessly leading class-based research for cannabis industry partners as a faculty research lead with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), part of the College’s Research & Innovation division. 

In assisting these industry partners, Jacob and his students have performed efficacy trials on new beneficial insects and biopesticides and phytotoxicity trials on various products against root aphids. His team will next look at the negative impact of low humidity and high wind speed on parasitoid efficacy against cannabis aphids.

“My favourite research projects bridge students’ interest and engagement in experiential learning with new cutting-edge IPM technology solutions.

Currently, research is conducted in the College’s academic CannaBunker, built to house the Commercial Cannabis program in 2018. That research will advance further with the addition of AETIC’s new Cannabis Production Research Chamber (CannaResearchBunker).

The two retrofitted sea containers were installed at the Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake in spring, next to the CannaBunker. Once fully operational, the dedicated cannabis research facility, with state-of-the-art equipment, will enable the testing and utilization of sensors, unique lighting arrays, IPM strategies and other innovative concepts looking for commercial adoption. 

“About only one new beneficial insect comes to market every 10 years in North America. Niagara College students do research on candidates that could potentially revolutionize this industry.”

Indeed, the importance of IPM – and its research – for the cannabis industry can’t be overstated.

“It’s a primordial lifeline,” insists Jacob.

“Current regulations do not allow growers to use chemical pesticides (insecticide and fungicide alike), other than five dozen biopesticides, soap and oil products, so they mainly rely on IPM strategies,” he says. “This is a good thing as it’s a consumable product. Even though I do not use cannabis products, I prefer my fruit and vegetables free of chemical residues, don’t you?”

It’s important to realize, stresses Jacob, that protecting cannabis crops isn’t just about releasing a biological control agent. Rather, it’s having the specialized knowledge to institute a multidisciplinary system approach

The integrative approach involves starting clean, with attention on prevention: Cultural control (eg. proper sanitation, climate control, resistant varieties), physical control (eg. quarantine of incoming plant materials, plant removal, screening, mass trapping), biological control, chemical control and monitoring with good historical record keeping, he explains.

“You must have a plan with everyone in the facility involved and aware amongst departmental groups.” 

His most popular class phrase: “you must be ahead of the train at the station with your ticket, don’t run after it.”

Early establishment of the beneficial organisms (insects, fungi and bacteria) is also a key factor and supplementing the ‘good guy’ with alternate food sources when their prey is scarce is critical to build your army, he notes.

Then comes the time to react against sudden invaders. “Now one must wisely choose the correct curative actions in the correct order – inundation biological control, spraying – but also know the negative effects of each curative action on each organism in the system is of prime importance.”

By imparting such crucial understanding of these practices to his students, Jacob is setting them up to be better equipped than many in the cannabis industry.

Equally important is the unique opportunity for the students to work on trailblazing real-world research for the AETIC industry partners and learn about cutting-edge innovation.

“Students have their hands-on research projects and findings for which the industry, some of their future employer, has yet no idea,” explains Jacob. “About only one new beneficial insect comes to market every 10 years in North America. Niagara College students do research on candidates that could potentially revolutionize this industry.”

Looking back, Jacob says never for a minute did he think he’d now have the moniker “Pot Prof,” but he couldn’t be happier. 

“I am loving every moment mentoring my students and gain satisfaction in developing their skills and appetite for always learning more.”

Growing up in Drummondville, Quebec, he was always fascinated with observing creatures in nature and could spend countless hours with a stick in the mud. 

“My favourite TV show, other than Goldorack was National Geographic,” he remembers. “As I grew up, I hesitated a lot between studying for a career in either biology, engineering or teaching math. I chose biology as I can’t stand being only inside and need to go out in the wilderness.” 

Indeed, given his confessed obsession for ice/rock climbing and mountain biking, the great outdoors has always called him.

“I always liked to teach, mentor and coach either soccer or climbing. I worked as a researcher and IPM specialist my entire career, and destiny brought me on this new career path that bridges most of my passions,” he adds. 

Jacob lives in Fonthill with his one son and his wife (who also happens to be in the biz. She has a PhD in Entomology and is a research scientist in biological control and IPM.) 

He is a dedicated soccer coach and also plays the sport. And he still climbs every chance he gets.

NEW POSITION AVAILABLE: Cannabis Research Assistant with our Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre team

Cannabis Research Assistant

Reporting to the Research Project Manager for the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, the Research Assistant will work with Research and Faculty leads, as well as the Research Laboratory Technologist, to assist with overseeing and establishing research experiments, to maintain plant growth, apply fertilizers/irrigation, etc., and to assess and measure plants both pre- and post-harvest. The successful candidate will collect data from the growing trials and will help to prepare update reports on project progress, as well as a final report and presentation summarizing the project results.

Learn more about the Cannabis Research Assistant job posting. To apply, please email your cover letter and resume to [email protected] and reference ‘Cannabis Research Assistant’ in the subject line.

The deadline to apply is Tuesday, September 7, 2021 at 12pm. 

We thank all applicants; however, only those qualifying for an interview will be contacted.

POSITION AVAILABLE: Greenhouse Research Assistant position available with our AETIC team

Greenhouse Research Assistant

Reporting to the Research Project Manager for the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), the Research Assistant will work with the Greenhouse Research Laboratory Technologist as well as Research and Faculty Leads to oversee plant growth, apply fertilizers/irrigation, etc., and assess and measure growth.

The successful candidate will collect data from the growing trials and help to prepare update reports and a final report summarizing the project results. Some duties will include: carefully observing plant growth progress, taking regular measurements and careful notes on plant growth progress, and reviewing and providing input on watering, lighting, and nutrient needs.

Click HERE to see the full job posting. To apply, please email your resume, cover letter, transcript and class schedule to [email protected] and reference ‘Greenhouse Research Assistant’ in the subject line. The deadline to apply is Monday, August 16, 2021 at 12pm.

We thank all applicants; however, only those qualifying for an interview will be contacted.

Validating vertical growing design for market

 

For more than 50 years, Beamsville, Ont.’s Zwart Systems has been designing and manufacturing custom horticultural technology solutions for the greenhouse industry across North America.

With the aim of expanding its product line to offer a lower-cost growing option for the microgreens, cannabis and vegetable industry, the company designed a vertical growing system and partnered with Research & Innovation’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) for research and validation of the system engineering and efficacy.

In an effort to grow more on the same footprint, the role of vertical farming is gaining in popularity. Vertical growing can take many forms, from trellising cucumbers to growing lettuce in PVC pipes, says Felix Pozojevic, a second-year student in NC’s Greenhouse Technician program and a research assistant for this AETIC project.

“Vertical growing allows for farmers to use other mediums for plants to grow in. This can include spun volcanic rock (Rockwool), coconut husks (coir), or even no substrate at all (aeroponics),” explains Pozojevic. “These growing alternatives are reactions to changing environmental conditions, lack of land access, increased food demands, and increased pressure for low food prices.”

Currently, the market believes that to grow floating lettuce requires 6″ to 12″ of continuously moving water. This is at great expense to the grower from a number of standpoints, water usage is chiefly among them. Other factors include the cost of the system infrastructure to achieve this water depth, as well as difficulties managing the wastewater.

Through the applied research project, the goal was to test the multi-tiered growing system for greenhouse application using various crops, in hopes the Zwart Systems growing rack could bring a new option to the market for floating lettuce growth, and other crops in a water depth less than the current market thinking.

Zwart Systems’ product has four levels, utilizing the bottom level for ebb and flood production – a technique to deliver water and nutrients to plants – while the remaining three levels are equipped with misting nozzles, ideal for seed germination or cutting propagation. The goal is to conserve water and space, as prices for both resources continue to soar for greenhouse operators.

“This project was instrumental in my understanding of how research operates, how to formulate and perform trials, record data, present my data in a professional manner for clients, and has increased my personal confidence in my growing abilities.”

Some difficulties with ebb and flow, notes Pozojevic, such as expensive initial cost, (although labour savings quickly cover the investment), and water-borne pathogens and diseases are easily spread throughout the entire crop through recirculated water. This means if water is not frequently tested, and diseased plants are not quickly removed, plants can contaminate each other very quickly.

The research team grew two main varieties of lettuce from seed, and propagated cuttings from peperomia (Peperomia sp) little leaf jade (Crassula ovata), monstera (Monstera adansonii), spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), English ivy (Hedera helix), and German Ivy (Delairea odorata). All of these plants were grown with corresponding controls, all located at the greenhouse at Niagara College’s Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Crop wet weight at harvest and dry weight were measured, as well as crop stretch at the end of the crop growth cycle before harvest.

Research reveals the multi-level growing system proves to be a successful design for lettuce seed germination and tropical plant cutting propagation. With structural and process changes, the ebb and flow bottom table has the potential to produce marketable lettuce in a recycling water system, using comparatively lower water levels than traditional ebb and flow or deep-water culture methods.

For Pozojevic, who is hoping to pursue a career in research, this was an “amazing” introduction project. “This project was instrumental in my understanding of how research operates, how to formulate and perform trials, record data, present my data in a professional manner for clients, and has increased my personal confidence in my growing abilities.”

This project received funding from the Ontario Centre of Innovation (OCI), through the College Voucher for Technology Adoption (CVTA) program, and from the Niagara College-led Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), backed by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).

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.

 

R&D solutions for greenhouse-technology sector

 

As Ontario’s greenhouse industry continues to grow, so too does the opportunity for small- and medium-sized greenhouse and related technology businesses to benefit from the research and development solutions at Niagara College.

The College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) – part of the Research & Innovation division – has been deeply involved in the greenhouse and technologies research space to encourage innovation in this rapidly evolving field.

And now, the AETIC team has expanded its applied research scope thanks to the recently-formed Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), an NC-led initiative that brings together research institutions and greenhouse and technology businesses to accelerate the development, commercialization and adoption of new technologies.

Greenhouse growers and technology providers can work with AETIC to access state-of-the-art equipment, services and expertise to develop, test, or implement greenhouse applicable technologies – all while de-risking innovation with funding opportunities. GTN funding is matched up to 1:1 on eligible industry partner contributions. That is, half the projects costs come from government funding, while the industry partner provides in-kind contributions such as time and materials, as well as some cash.

The NC research team (including faculty, scientists, graduates and students) has extensive experience in both high-tech and low-tech innovation, partnering with industry to either create the prototypes, and/or put those prototypes to the test in a greenhouse setting.

Industry partners have access to researchers who are well-versed in both the pre-market and commercialization sides of innovation, assessing technology, and focusing on proof of concept and validation, says Derek Schulze, a research lead with AETIC, faculty member with NC’s School of Environment and Horticulture Studies, and coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program.

“We can assess equipment/chemistries that are directly related to growing or enhancing the growth of greenhouse crops. These could include sensors, irrigation, lighting, media, nutrients, and more.”

Projects can be at any stage of development as the research team is well-equipped for short- to medium-length studies, such as weeks or months, adds Schulze.

“Niagara College has a niche place in the ecosystem that can be described simply as nimble: Small projects, relatively quick turnaround, for pre-commercialization, in a low-risk setting,” notes Kimberley Cathline, AETIC project manager.

“Niagara College has a niche place in the ecosystem that can be described simply as nimble: Small projects, relatively quick turnaround, for pre-commercialization, in a low-risk setting.”
~ Kimberley Cathline, AETIC project manager

Based on the needs and requests for collaborations that the College has seen from industry, innovation assistance requests in the greenhouse technology sector have evolved into projects with two main methodologies (innovation and product/growth) and around four main research streams (infrastructure, biologic, technology and climatic).

The end result of these partnerships is prototypes and products moving toward commercialization, or obtaining validation data for products, processes, recipes, etc. in the pre-commercialization phase, says Cathline.

On the innovation side, partners with an idea but not the know-how, time or funds, could engage with NC’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) to put ideas into action. On the product and growth side, industry partners collaborate with AETIC for validation data to assist with getting their product to market.

With the project streams, examples of applied research can include testing development in lighting or proprietary fertilizer, integrated pest management and developing and testing vertical growing systems.

In one recent project, Zwart Systems, a Beamsville, Ont. horticultural technology company, partnered with AETIC, with partial funding by the GTN, to research and validate its newly designed multi-level growing system in order for the company to commercialize the product.

Following a short-term growing trial, the company received the research results proving a successful design, along with recommended structural and process changes.

For information on partnering with AETIC to help support innovation development or technology adoption, contact Elizabeth Best, business development coordinator, at [email protected] or visit the website.

To learn more about the GTN and how it can help advance eligible technologies, including information on funding possibilities, see the website.