By Rita Sterne, PhD, project manager Greenhouse Technology Network
Did you know that modern greenhouses are largely automated and highly controlled environments to produce safe and fresh food and flowers? We are lucky here in Niagara to live close to one of the most vibrant and productive clusters of greenhouses in North America.
Led by Niagara College, the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), is a consortium of research centres helping greenhouse growers and related technology businesses solve technology-related challenges – with funding available to support applied research projects. Technologies are tools, equipment, or machines – in addition to methods, systems, or techniques for helping plants grow better, keeping costs down, and maximizing efficiencies that increase sustainability.
The modern greenhouse uses technologies across many activities, for example, plant propagation, growing, harvesting, and packaging processes. Vertical farms, often located in urban centres or remote locations, have capitalized on these technologies to bring food production closer to consumers.
Here are a few interesting examples of greenhouse-related technologies that help put safe, fresh food on our table, and beautiful plants in our homes and gardens:
• Automated heating and cooling systems that support optimal growing conditions for each plant crop
• Systems that regulate water and nutrient recipes specifically for different plant crops
• Networks of sensors in the greenhouse that feed information to growers and help them monitor growing conditions across—and to the top of—the largest greenhouses
• Computer software and apps that help growers stay in touch with conditions inside the greenhouse 24/7/365
• Artificial intelligence embedded in many technologies can improve sustainability and further lower a grower’s carbon footprint
• Drone technology now allows smart, airborne robots to play a role in a grower’s pest management strategy, for example, drones that can distinguish a moth from a bee — and take action
His is an example of how a great teacher can make a big difference in the trajectory of one’s life. For Brian Culp, his Grade 11 teacher anchored an enthusiasm for computer programming – a profession he decided to pursue.
“Mr. Digaetano at Stamford Collegiate really mentored me at that time, noticing I had the interest and skill, helped me advance my knowledge above and beyond the class requirements,” explains Culp. “I ended up spending all of my free time during the last two years of high school in his computer lab, learning all that I could.”
This past spring, Culp graduated from Niagara College’s Computer Programmer Analyst (Co-op) program and is currently employed as a computer programmer research associate with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), in the Research & Innovation Division. This after spending his co-op as a research assistant with AETIC in 2019/20.
“You are immersed in a real-world work environment, getting a true feel as to what life as a programmer is like. An added benefit was that I was able to say that I had a full year of real work experience by the time I even graduated from my course.”
At AETIC, Culp manages a small team of programming students in solving complex problems for industry partners. On his end, his work has focused on one industry partner, SoilOptix, where he has helped maintain and improve upon the analytics of the company’s advanced website portal.
The portal is used to perform advanced calculations on imported raw soil samples for SoilOptix clients, which helps growers understand their field and where there may be deficiencies, for example. It’s an incredibly challenging project that makes his classwork seem effortless, says Culp.
“Some may consider putting students onto a project this difficult as throwing them to the fire, but I found it allowed me to thrive, and have noticed this in many other students as well,” says Culp, adding he also needed to learn a new programming language, which has now given him a leg up for his career.
He also had the advantage of working with vast amounts of data – something not offered in the classroom.
“In class, we would work with a few gigabytes of data, whereas the SoilOptix project has multiple terabytes of data and is always growing.”
Throughout his time with the Research & Innovation division, Culp says he has improved his communication skills, which ultimately translates to about any field within programming.
“You are immersed in a real-world work environment, getting a true feel as to what life as a programmer is like,” he adds. “An added benefit was that I was able to say that I had a full year of real work experience by the time I even graduated from my course.”
The attributes about computer programming that have kept him hooked since high school include the mental challenges and abundant options for creativeness.
“The most interesting aspect of programming is the ability to create and manipulate something from scratch with minimal limitations,” he explains. “I like to have a problem in which I must create a solution. I find this differs from other jobs because computer programming doesn’t have the same limitations since we are in the virtual computer environment. With programming, the possibilities are endless; new tools are created every day.”
When he’s not at work or in front of a computer screen, Culp has a keen interest in weightlifting and an affinity for wrestling action figures – as demonstrated by the close to 100 figurines that stand guard as the backdrop to his computer workstation.
“The action figures are mine, in an effort to make my workspace feel more my own… I may have gone slightly overboard,” he says with a laugh. “Most of these are wrestling figures since I loved playing with these as a kid and still enjoy watching wrestling.”
Culp lives in Niagara Falls with his wife Samantha and their two young children, Nicholas and Hunter.
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?
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.
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.
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.