Category Archives: Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre

Technologist spent early career exploring genetic building blocks of plants

While Branka Milunovic, PhD, likes to describe herself as a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ her resume and recent accomplishments would indicate otherwise.

As the research laboratory technologist for the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), Branka manages all horticulture and greenhouse research labs and equipment. She collaborates with students and graduate research associates to support the success of applied research projects, mainly funded by the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), a Niagara College-led initiative that brings together research institutions and greenhouse and technology businesses to accelerate the development, commercialization, and adoption of new technologies.

As a plant molecular biologist, Branka brings more than two decades of experience in research, field trials project management and expertise in a GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) microbiology lab. After receiving her doctorate in biology from McMaster University (2011), Branka managed the operations of a research lab as a post-doc scientist at McMaster University and later worked in research for the University of Saskatchewan. She recently served as a research technician for the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, applied genomics group, and Platform Genetics Inc.

Most of her research career has been focused on plant molecular biology. She has had a keen interest in the microbial world, or what would be described as the building blocks of nature: “I was floating between two molecular biology fields: plant molecular biology and microbial molecular biology. I was always focusing on the research at the gene level,” she recalls. “The main difference was that half of my career was dedicated to the gene functions in the plant material and a half was focusing on the role of different genes in nitrogen-fixing bacteria.”

What she calls the golden time of my career was dedicated to a project of defining the minimal number of genes that will be sufficient for the normal functioning of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which develop a symbiotic relationship with plants. Her work was recognized by her peers, with publications in several scientific journals, including PLOS Genetics, Environmental Microbiology, Genetics, and Journal of Bacteriology.

Her Canadian research career started when she moved from Serbia to Ontario two decades ago, to continue her education in the graduate program at Western University, in London, Ont. After she obtained a master’s degree, she moved over to McMaster in Hamilton for PhD studies, working on “Deletion analysis of Sinorhizobium meliloti genome.” While great experiences on their own, Branka points to the next chapter in developing her love for this country.

“The best four years of ‘Canadian Experience’ my family had was during my second postdoctoral fellowship, in Saskatoon, Sask. During that time, I was involved in the development of microbial products that addressed the significant need for improved yield, water use efficiency, and heat-stress tolerance in major crops in Canada and around the world, including wheat, canola, maize, soybean, barley, and pulses.”

Today, she and husband Milan, and teenage sons David and Matia reside in Niagara, recalling their time in the prairies with fondness and waiting on the days when they can return to even more exploring of this country and others around the globe.

“Each project is different from the other. All members of the research team are always exposed to a new set of needs from the industry partners, and this makes research work exciting and thrilling for all of us.”

In the meantime, her workdays have shifted from an intense focus on plant molecular biology to an outward focus on applied research streams in service of industry partners who form partnerships with AETIC.

“Each project is different from the other. All members of the research team are always exposed to a new set of needs from the industry partners, and this makes research work exciting and thrilling for all of us.”

Branka notes that there is no “typical” day as a research technologist; that it is never predictable or repetitive, as her daily work could involve any combination of turning part of the project budget into equipment, materials, or supplies; writing a daily schedule for each of the research students; setting up experiments for a certain project; and collecting, discussing, and summarizing results of the project.

“Upon joining the research team at the college, I was pleasantly surprised with the number of friendly people willing to help and share knowledge and their experiences.”

When not considering the microbial implications of genome sequencing, of stress tolerances in major Canadian crops, or devising and supervising applied research projects in the NC greenhouse, you might find Branka seeking the slopes for alpine skiing in winter or hiking in summer. While she enjoys travelling with her family and exploring new places in Canada and around the globe – when it’s safe to do so – she says her No. 1 choice for relaxing these days is doing yoga. Namaste.

Mobile app in development to address plant health issues

GrowDoc

GrowDoc is a mobile app company utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) systems for rapid identification of causes of unhealthy cannabis plants. Whether a plant is wilting or showing symptoms on the leaves, the New Brunswick-based company wants its products to be able to determine the cause and tell the user what needs to be done to fix it.

In order to develop the GrowDoc mobile application, the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) supported a course-based project led by Bill MacDonald, course coordinator for the Commercial Cannabis Production Program at Niagara College. The research team, which included students from the Cannabis Production Science course, along with technologist Laurie Zuber, and technician Stanley Leggett, determined that photo and video documentation of common nutrient deficiencies would be required to help elevate the usability of the app.

To produce these images, nutrient deficiency studies were conducted in a controlled environment (the CannaBunker), while documenting the procedures to allow these studies to be replicated in the future. During the course of one term, the team conducted growing trials, removing only one nutrient at a time – either nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium – from the nutrient solution, and then observing and documenting how the cannabis plant reacted. Visual changes in the plant were documented using photos and video on a weekly basis. The images and videos collected will allow GrowDoc to improve their application AI accuracy and therefore create an improved product.

“GrowDoc is extremely grateful to be a part of this project, which will help us build first-of-its-kind cannabis technology, right here in Canada.”
~ Daniel Lirette, CEO, GrowDoc

Such trials would have been challenging for GrowDoc to conduct in-house, as they require substantial equipment and processes to ensure the experiment is controlled with minimal variables. Niagara College was able to provide the equipment, processes and personnel at just the right time.

“GrowDoc is extremely grateful to be a part of this project, which will help us build first-of-its-kind cannabis technology, right here in Canada,” notes Daniel Lirette, CEO of GrowDoc. “We were deeply impressed by the effort and quality of the experiments conducted in Niagara College’s ‘CannaBunker.’ The result was an extremely informative and well-executed study we integrated into our work.”

Lirette added that is was a pleasure to work with the whole team: “The benefits of having access to an educator like Bill Macdonald and his award-winning Commercial Cannabis Production program are difficult to put into words. The data we received proved how much passion and work ethic his students have to track, document, and share data in a timely matter.” 

To learn more about GrowDoc, visit them on the web at growdoc.net

To learn more about project successes for the AETIC group, visit the ncinnovation website.

 


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, visit Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Centre.

“Pivotal” research for new market

Bill MacDonald, coordinator and professor of NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production (CCP) program, and Greg Marsh, president at Northern Hemp Specialists, inside the CannaBunker at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Agricultural company Northern Hemp Specialists Ltd. works with clients on finding organic solutions for growth and pathogen resistance for all plants, trees, ornamental flowers and even vineyards. More recently, they’ve found a customer base from medical and recreational cannabis growers, a sector that requires chemical and solvent-free organic soil products.

Today, the Toronto-based company is intent on revolutionizing the horticultural and agricultural industries with its latest technology. Named Mor-ganics, Northern Hemp Specialists describes the living soil products as “100 percent organic and which significantly boosts plant yields and eliminates pathogens,” says Greg Marsh, Northern Hemp Specialists president.

And while Northern Hemp Specialists is successfully selling Mor-ganics in Canada, they have their sights set on the growing United States market and beyond. First, they needed a thorough understanding of various growing markets and looked to the Business & Commercialization Solutions (BCS) team at Research & Innovation for in-depth market research.

“We needed to assess the risk of doing business in the United States and beyond, and to determine the viability of distributing our Mor-ganics in the U.S., by doing a detailed market analysis of the organic soil supplement industry for all types of agriculture,” explains Marsh.

He points out that because his Mor-ganics brand is unique to the agricultural and horticultural industries, a marketing plan was “pivotal” to help prepare for the next goals and strategies for a U.S. or international product launch.

The BCS team completed extensive research, first tackling a competitive analysis to understand how the company’s product would adapt to the competitive landscape. They also assessed risk factors, geographic trends, and completed a targeted market analysis after an environmental scan.

“The energy and positive attitude from the research team to leave no resource unexamined to get us the answers for this marketing study were superb,” Marsh notes. “They became a welcome part of our corporate team.”

“We needed to assess the risk of doing business in the United States and beyond, and to determine the viability of distributing our Mor-ganics in the U.S. by doing a detailed market analysis of the organic soil supplement industry for all types of agriculture.”
~ Greg Marsh, president, Northern Hemp Specialists

The BCS team created a distribution strategy to assist Northern Hemp Specialists with breaking into new markets while overcoming challenges and barriers that represent a business threat. The company was provided with resources to make ideal connections with partners that could be beneficial for sharing infrastructure, labour and expertise.

“The research made us critically aware of the various levels we can access within the market with both wholesale and retail offerings,” says Marsh, adding that the team also highlighted potential regulatory issues.

Marsh says Northern Hemp Specialists will now incorporate the valuable marketing research data into their business plan and prepare for their international launch in 2022.

This project received support through the Niagara College-led Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), as funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).

Visit the Business & Commercialization Solutions website to learn more about the capabilities offered by the team or discover how initial feasibility research is helpful prior to engaging with Research & Innovation for applied research projects.

NOW HIRING: Computer Programmer Research Assistant position with our AETIC team

Computer Programmer Research Assistant, Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre

 
The successful candidate will work with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre team. The work includes programming, testing and troubleshooting of agricultural data management and mapping web software. The position could involve development of web/cloud/IoT services, and helping to develop robotics technology. You will work with senior team members in Computer Programming and the Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies.

Click HERE for the full job posting. The deadline to apply is Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021 at 12pm.

To apply, please email your resume, cover letter and transcript to [email protected] and reference job posting ‘COMPUTER PROGRAMMER RESEARCH ASSISTANT – AETIC‘.

 

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

SoilOptix launches AETIC-created data portal

For growers to capture the full potential of their soil, they need to know what the soil is providing. Enter SoilOptix®, a high-definition top-soil mapping company, using precision agriculture technology to help farmers understand and improve the health of their fields to grow better crops.

And the Tavistock, Ont. company has recently launched what it calls its “lifeblood” – a data processing portal created by Niagara College’s Research & Innovation experts.

The web portal is a customized GIS platform that involves the analysis and processing of big data to give growers the most high-resolution digital nutrient soil maps so they can farm smarter. The platform also enables customers and partners to log in, visualize and export the resulting maps, says Ryan Eyre, product integration manager for SoilOptix®.

The newest collaboration saw computer programmers within R&I’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) build the web platform, a powerful tool to streamline SoilOptix®’ data processing into a unified application. 

This has made the data analysis process significantly more efficient, saving time and increasing production capacity.

Previously, SoilOptix® analysts used various applications and other processes to create a soil map and could take upwards of seven or eight hours to process each field. Today, it takes approximately 1.75 hours per field.

To achieve this streamlining, the AETIC programmers created a comprehensive web application that performs all the tasks within a single application and is robust enough to handle an array of different data types.

 

“The data processing portal that Niagara College has created has become SoilOptix’s lifeblood.”
~ Ryan Eyre, SoilOptix

 

This new system has reduced processing times on fields by approximately 50 percent, while also reducing the analyst learning curve significantly, notes Eyre.

“The data processing portal that Niagara College has created has become SoilOptix®’ lifeblood,” he says.

Using a combination of strategic physical soil samples and non-contact geological sensors to measure the soil’s naturally emitting gamma radiation, SoilOptix® analysts run this measurement data through proprietary algorithms to deliver the highest definition and most detailed field nutrient maps obtainable today. 

Described by the company as an “MRI for your soil,” the maps provide levels of soil properties, including traditional nutrients and textures, to capture a deeper understanding of the variability and textural components of the soil. This empowers growers to identify strengths and weaknesses in their soil and make the best decisions for the management of their fields.

The company has seen business steadily rise, and its system is now being used in 15 countries. 

With the potential for continued growth, SoilOptix® is working to advance its map-making pipelines by further reducing processing times and increasing modelling capabilities. The company is working with the AETIC team to utilize an array of artificial intelligence (AI)-based approaches to accomplish these goals. The intent is for the AI system to run in parallel to the data processing portal with the ability to fully automate the map-making processing, bringing field analysis times down to a matter of mere seconds. 

“The project will increase the speed of the maps, but we are also investigating increasing the value proposition that we bring to our partner network and their growers,” explains Eyre.

The data-processing portal was the culmination of a multi-year project with the Research & Innovation division. The AETIC team was initially engaged to upgrade the original system into a new innovative web pipeline. The focus continued with the accessibility of the data to the farmers and consultants, including data visualization and data transfer with the implementation of an Application Programming Interface (API) application for field data.

 

“This new system has reduced processing times on fields by approximately 50 percent, while also reducing the analyst learning curve significantly.”
~ Ryan Eyre, SoilOptix

 

Brian Culp, a graduate (2021) of NC’s Computer Programmer Analyst (Co-op) program, has been involved with the SoilOptix® project since 2019 during his time with AETIC – first during his co-op as a research assistant and currently as a research associate in a one-year contract. 

He has worked to maintain and improve the web portal for SoilOptix® and insists the benefits of such an opportunity are plentiful to his future career.

“First and foremost, I had to learn a new programming language called ‘Angular.’ This was new to me as we had never learned about it in our class studies,” explains Culp. “Having this language in my portfolio is incredibly helpful to my future as it is quite popular in the programming community.”

Culp can also add to his list of perks the advantage of working with vast amounts of data – like multiple terabytes of data. He has had to keep his math skills in top shape as the formulas and logic used in many portal elements are highly complex. He also learned to work with different visualization programming libraries to display data in various charts or maps.

“You are immersed in a real-world work environment, getting a true feel as to what life as a programmer is like,” he adds.

Eyre says he has been impressed by the work the AETIC team has done over the years. “The students have quickly learned about the needs of SoilOptix® and have created a commercial production level application that will be used for years to come.”

In fact, the company has been so impressed by the student talent, it has hired several NC graduates involved in the project to help expand the application and provide the programming capacity for new projects moving forward.

The multi-initiative projects for SoilOptix® are under the scope of 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, with phases 1 and 2 also receiving funding from the Ontario Centre of Innovation (OCI) through their College Strategic Sector/Cluster/Technology Platform Program (CSSCTP).

 


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, visit Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Centre.

 

A novel solution to cannabis pest

Phase 1 BioWorks trials:NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production Program

Working on the phase 1 BioWorks trials: Deana Huntsbarger, (foreground), assistant student technician and 2021 graduate of NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production Program, and Laurie Zuber, horticulture technologist with the College’s Commercial Cannabis Production program.

One of the fiercest opponents facing the cannabis industry is the rice root aphid (Rhopalosiphum rufiabdominalis). Their feeding on cannabis roots can affect plant growth, vigor and productivity. Further, winged adults can become tangled in the sticky trichomes of flowers, and their presence can significantly compromise the plant’s quality and value.

To date, few registered products will reliably control these culprits and the industry continues to experience challenges to find sustainable Integrated Pest Management (IPM) solutions for this pest.

One company may have found a novel solution but required third-party validation of efficacy and safety in order to make a commercial decision as to whether to move forward and register their product for root aphid control.

With offices in both Canada and the U.S., for 25 years BioWorks Inc. has helped customers in the horticulture and specialty agriculture markets successfully grow crops with biological control and plant nutrition products. They’ve looked to the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) at Niagara College to conduct efficacy trials of its biorational, organic pesticide for control of root aphids on cannabis crops.

“Review of the data will allow us to make a decision as to the value our product can deliver to the industry,” says Michael Brownbridge, biological program manager at BioWorks. “The product must demonstrate high efficacy and low plant risk to be considered viable. These preliminary trials will provide sufficient information as to whether we wish to invest further in product evaluation and development.”

True to their name, these aphids colonize cannabis roots, making them inaccessible to soil predators as a biocontrol solution, and their cryptic nature is one of the reasons for the difficulty in finding suitable IPM tools

BioWorks’ research collaboration with Niagara College includes testing various targeted root/soil-treatments for control of the aphids. This is the first step in identifying effective methods to manage the pest and is a pre-requisite to delivering a customized and effective solution for the Canadian cannabis sector.

“This hands-on learning experience is a great way for us to share some of our experience with the students, and to help them learn some of the nuances associated with the successful implementation of biological control and IPM.”
~ Michael Brownbridge, biological program manager, BioWorks

In this course-based research project, students from NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production program work alongside experts in IPM research to conduct multi-week trials. “This hands-on learning experience is a great way for us to share some of our experience with the students, and to help them learn some of the nuances associated with the successful implementation of biological control and IPM,” explains Brownbridge. “The structure of the project was able to bring all parties together around a shared goal, and to use it not only as a means of generating sufficient data to make a commercial decision, but to help develop critical thinking skills in IPM and plant health management for our next generation of growers as well.”

BioWorks Is currently involved in phase 2 of the validation trials with AETIC, which are expected to wrap up this fall. Results of the trial will provide the necessary information to allow the company to make a go, no-go decision on further commercialization. The trial project is being funded by the Niagara College-led Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).

Along with crucial benefits for the industry partner, these types of course-based applied research also afford advantages to students preparing for their career in the cannabis field.

As a student in NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production program, Deana Huntsbarger worked as an assistant student technician on the BioWorks trial. She had the opportunity to learn about research protocols, data collection, plant monitoring and report writing.

Since graduating in April 2021, she has been hired as a junior grower at a cannabis cultivation facility in British Columbia.

“My experience with the BioWorks project, as well as access via faculty to the latest cannabis research publications, gave me the skills and confidence to evaluate plant health issues at my facility and to connect with a leading researcher to provide testing via samples I collected and sent off.

“The ability of Niagara College to partner with cannabis industry enterprises to conduct trials and connecting students to real-world issues, is an aspect to this ground-breaking program that is singular in the cannabis education space,” adds Huntsbarger.

 


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, visit Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Centre.