Category Archives: Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre

Grow Up features NC speakers, education award for academics

Stanley Leggett, Laurie Zuber and Alberto Gerhke Hardt represented Research & Innovation’s Food & Beverage Innovation Centre at the Grow Up Conference & Expo on Sept. 11-13 in Niagara Falls.

Niagara College cannabis experts leveraged their learning at the recent Grow Up Conference & Expo, which took place Sept. 11 to 13 at the Niagara Falls Convention Centre. Besides presenting during a talk titled “The impact of cannabis research on developing cannabis technology,” the team took home the Cannabis Education Award, for the work being done through the Commercial Cannabis Production Program.

The talk was moderated by Laurie Zuber, technologist with the Commercial Cannabis Production program, and included a discussion by Peter Brewer, research associate with the Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC), which is part of the Research & Innovation division at Niagara College, and Daniel Lirette, CEO of GrowDoc. The two discussed GrowDoc’s successful collaboration with Niagara College in an applied research project to enhance the capabilities of a mobile app that helps address plant health issues.

To learn more about the Education Award, read the news release.

Learn more about the Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre’s cannabis research expertise in growing & edibles

Project helps company overcome pesky pests in cannabis crops

Finding a natural solution for one of the most challenging pest pressures in cannabis production fits perfectly with the mission of Koppert Biological Systems.

But Tom Groot, Koppert’s Manager of Research and Development, Macrobials, knows that asking growers to contribute their own crops to test biological controls against the cannabis aphid is a big ask.

They’re potentially putting their growing season — their livelihood — at risk for something that may or may not work.

So, when faced with finding a solution for what Groot calls “the hardest challenge” of growing cannabis in Canada, the team at Koppert knew it would need support from well-equipped researchers capable of working in a confined setting.

“In order to do pest control, you have to see it, you have to touch it, you have to see the results for yourself,” Groot said.

Thanks to Niagara College alumni working at the Canadian office of the Netherlands-based global corporation, Koppert found help through the NC’s Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC).

Led by researcher Sebastien Jacob, a faculty member and researcher, with his deep knowledge of integrated pest and disease management, the HESIC team started testing biological controls in the CannaResearchBunker in January. For four months, the team studied natural candidates that could take on the cannabis aphid and be a product that Koppert could then market to growers as a vital part of their integrated pest management plans.

By April, Groot and Koppert had valuable insight into which direction they should go in their pursuit of a game-changing biocontrol.

“It was a pleasure to work with Sebastien and his team. We were happy. They did an excellent job,” Groot said.

“In order to do pest control, you have to see it, you have to touch it, you have to see the results for yourself.” ~ Tom Groot, Koppert Biological Systems

Since the project with HESIC wrapped in the spring, Koppert has taken what it learned from Niagara College outside the lab to test in real-world growing conditions in an effort to confirm the findings of Jacob and team.

“That, I can say, is so far, so good. The lessons we learned (from Niagara College) really helped us a lot,” Groot said.

Koppert has even been able to start marketing the biological control to Canadian growers, who work in a highly regulated industry that emphasizes natural pest control over the chemical interventions used elsewhere in the world.

“I think you should consider that a compliment because from what I see, Canada has one of the most stringent controls on what can be used, especially what cannot be used on crops for pest control,” Groot said. “It’s a compliment but it’s also why this was a tough challenge to solve.”

And a challenge that Koppert is seeing in other cannabis-producing regions that are moving away from chemical pesticides. That means there’s a wide market for this new biological control beyond Canada.

“We are learning in Canada solutions that will be used in other places as well,” Groot explained. “That’s the great thing about Canada controlling what’s being used (on cannabis crops). It’s a brave move and Canada will be ahead of everybody.”

The great thing for Koppert and Niagara College is they now have a partnership that could one day lead to more critical industry-advancing research when the need arises.

“If there’s a good topic to work on, I’d be happy to collaborate,” Groot said. “They delivered more than we asked for.”

NC helps Quick Plug find best product for Canadian cannabis growers

It seemed like a straightforward operation when Quick Plug recently moved production of some of its growing media to St. Catharines from a facility in Portland, Maine.

Bill Maartense and his team in the Garden City followed the recipe to a ‘T’ to create a private label plug – a product used to propagate cannabis cuttings. They added the same ingredients at the same ratios and then incorporated the same binding agent.

But the growing plugs that came off the new production line in St. Catharines were “subtly different” and it didn’t go unnoticed by growers who relied on them to start and sustain new crops.

The growing plugs were denser than usual. There were also issues with how they held moisture and allowed air to move around plant roots.

Stable growing media is essential for plants to thrive, so the changes to a product that had been an industry staple for 10 years were a conundrum for the Quick Plug team.

“Our customers noticed it was slightly different so that inspired us to look at what we were doing,” Maartense said. “How do you maintain continuity for customers with a big SKU in our world? And how do you guarantee the same results with the same products? All the ingredients are the same but the cookie sheet is a little different and the cookies are a little different.”

To solve the issue, Maartense and Quick Plug, which also produces growing media for plant propagation in floriculture, greenhouse vegetable production and hydroponics, turned to Niagara College’s Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC).

The HESIC team had been on Maartense’s radar after crossing paths over the years at industry conferences. He knew its dedicated CannaResearchBunker was the right setting for his problem to be solved.

A team of researchers, including students led by Research Program Manager Kimberley Cathline, set about testing a few different styles of Quick Plug growing plugs starting last October. They looked at moisture content and how the growing media held moisture and air.

By January, they had results to offer Maartense and Quick Plug. The way in which the growing media was produced in St. Catharines was adding humidity to it.

That information enabled Quick Plug to make the changes needed to get production back on track.

“It guided us to know that if we go in this direction, it’s going to be good. If we go in this direction, it’s not going to be good,” Maartense said. “It pointed us to the light at the end of the tunnel because we were told there was a better product out there. That’s the way this company rolls. We’re always in search of the next best product.”

That didn’t go unnoticed by Quick Plug customers, either.

“The customers are now smiling again and the orders are coming in again,” Maartense said.

For that reason, Maartense would recommend others in the industry connect with Niagara College for help with production and other business solutions.

“The college has the resources for that, depending what the needs are,” he said. “They’re good people. They’re smart. They were professional. They were organized. They absolutely did what they said they would, so how can you complain?”

Recreational affection becomes career path for graduate

Peter Brewer’s fondness for plants runs as deep as a taproot on an unrelenting dandelion.

That affection and its accompanying curiosity about all things green and leafy makes him the ideal candidate for his research associate role at Niagara College’s Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC), where he assists on critical industry-advancing projects involving cannabis production.

It also made Brewer the ideal grandson.

Growing up near Ottawa, Brewer could often be found as a teen helping his grandfather, Pedro, in his garden. They grew spinach and other leafy greens in raised beds, using organic methods and forging a deeper connection to each other over every crop they harvested together, to share with family or charity.

“It was a great way to bond with my grandfather before he passed away,” Brewer recalled. “He was a strong believer that organic food was helpful for people with cancer and people transitioning into elderly life, for staying healthy and active.”

It would turn out to be helpful in carving a career path, too. So would experimenting with cannabis in high school.

What started as a foray into recreational cannabis use turned into an eye-opening experience for Brewer. He had trouble sleeping as a youth until he started consuming cannabis. Even his stress management improved.

That experience only solidified Brewer’s love of plants.

As further attestation, he enrolled in biology at the University of Ottawa after graduating high school. He continued honing his gardening skills while studying, this time growing cannabis as a hobby. Unlike edible leafy greens, however, getting a worthwhile cannabis crop proved a bit more of a guessing game.

“I found with cannabis there was so much information and so many opinions on how things should be done,” Brewer said. “There was room for improvement because the industry was so young.”

Brewer saw himself as part of that improvement. He put his biology degree on pause and switched his studies to Niagara College’s Commercial Cannabis Production program.

“It’s great for me, personally, to upgrade my skills and be adaptable for any type of job in the future.”

Brewer graduated in April, having worked part-time during his studies as a research assistant in the CannaResearchBunker on industry-driven projects. He was promoted to full-time research associate soon after graduation.

During his time with HESIC, Brewer has worked on projects testing fertilizer and seeking remedies against the crop-damaging cannabis aphid. His day-to-day work involves tending to plants, documenting findings, and lending his green thumb to all stages of growing and testing crops.

Much like his feelings for his subjects, Brewer is quite fond of his job.

“We find interesting things I wouldn’t have thought would happen,” he said. “It’s really expanded upon my knowledge. (The cannabis aphid) project, in particular, had very interesting results that were very different than I thought they would be. It was interesting to see things I thought were true, or that I thought were true but weren’t what happened.

“It’s great for me, personally, to upgrade my skills and be adaptable for any type of job in the future,” he added.

When he’s not getting his hands dirty at work, Brewer enjoys kicking up mud on hikes and taking in the natural beauty of Niagara. He also recently enrolled in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Of course, there’s growing things in his spare time, too, although not a vegetable garden because he doesn’t have the space. And no cannabis to avoid cross-contamination with plants at work.

Instead, he’s turning his attention toward another type of greenery no less worthy of his care and interest.

“I’ve always liked things you can eat or smoke but I do like flowers, too,” Brewer said. “So, I have a lot of houseplants that have become my hobby now.”

Innovation Centre re-name reflects emphasis on horticultural science

Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC)

To better reflect the evolution of applied research in one of our main research centres, we today introduce the Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC) at Niagara College.

Formerly named the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), the main goal hasn’t changed; the Centre continues to offer a variety of applied research services for companies who are close to commercialization, or who could benefit from our expertise in informing innovation and business challenges.

The change is more about turning our focus more concertedly on horticultural science, which has been evolving as a major specialization for the past 15 years already. The Centre concentrates its resources on performing growth trials with horticultural crops that evaluate innovations and improvements. Our expertise includes assessing technologies, production practices, packaging, media and pots, pest and disease control approaches and more, providing third-party research and development services to meet the needs of our industry partners.

“Horticulture impacts our lives in many ways, whether it is through the fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables we enjoy, the medicinal benefits many plants provide, or the aesthetic characteristics of flowers, potted plants and trees that decorate our homes and communities,” notes Kimberley Cathline, Research Program Manager for HESIC. “We wanted a name that reflects this focus. We are looking forward to working with many more businesses interested in moving their innovations toward commercialization.”

Each applied research project includes a team of researchers and technologies, including faculty from the School of Environmental and Horticultural Studies, and from several programs – including Greenhouse Technician (Co-op), Horticultural Technician (Co-op), Commercial Cannabis Production, Commercial Beekeeping and Environmental Technician – to provide a wealth of knowledge to industry partners, giving them a competitive advantage in researching solutions.

Projects are conducted using specialized equipment and facilities at the Daniel J Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake, including a 16,000 square-foot training greenhouse, an enclosed facility for licensed cannabis research, the CannaResearchBunker (alongside a similar academic cannabis facility, the CannaBunker), and specialized equipment – all dedicated to exploring forms of controlled-environment agriculture.

To learn more about the resources and capabilities, including growth trials and research done in integrated pest management, and to read more success stories, visit the Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre  on the Research & Innovation website.

R&I project time like long job interview for current position

Danylo Kukanova
Danylo Kukanov works remotely most days, but every so often he checks into the office of his employ-er, Soil Optix, in Tavistock, Ont.

Danylo Kukanov graduated from the Computer Programmer program in 2021, earning the Dean’s Award from NC’s School of Media for his efforts.  While working with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (now the Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre), Danylo worked on projects for Soil Optix, a company that was so impressed with his student work, that they hired him after graduation. 

Tell us about where you work and your position/title:

I work for SoilOptix Inc. as software developer and junior data scientist.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

Currently I am responsible for developing scientific applications for soil analysis. In other words, I translate scientific language to computer language.

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

While working at R&I we worked on soil analysis tasks, statistics and web development. This experience later was used as a base for my future employment.

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

While working for R&I I implemented soil analysis tasks using statistics and Python libraries. It opened the world of data science for me.

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

Since getting my BSc in Ukraine in System Engineering [from Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute], I wanted to further expand my knowledge in electronics and software. Niagara College looked like a good option to learn software development.

Most memorable experience at NC?

My most memorable experience at Niagara College was tutoring other students. I like learning and I was glad to share my experience with others. It was my first experience teaching.

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

There are a couple former members who boosted my skills and helped me gain a lot of experience. They are Sarah Lepp and Mike Duncan. I do appreciate their efforts.

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

Always look for new knowledge about your field of study, even if it is not covered by your curriculum. For instance, if you are working as a web developer, be sure you learn modern design patterns (like gang of four), SOLID principles etc. As far as I know they are not mentioned during your studies, but they are must-have knowledge for your future career.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

Primarily how to work in a team.

Proudest achievement since graduating?

Worked with Convolution Neural Networks during one of our work projects.

What are you passionate about at the moment?

I really want to dive deeper into data science.  During my work I realized how interesting this field of study can be.

Interests outside of work?

When I’m not working, I usually play the guitar and care for my little garden. In future I plan to start again playing with electronics and make my own microelectronic projects.

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

The more you learn, the more bizarre the world looks.