Category Archives: Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre

Hazelnut growers to benefit from NC research

Brian Klassen, a Research Associate with AETIC and an NC grad from the Electronics Engineering Technology Program, works on the custom circuit board for the Ferrero project. He used the Raspberry Pi platform and this circuit board to engineer a time-lapse camera (right) to take a daily photograph of a single hazelnut tree.

Italian confectioners Ferrero Canada are growing their company and require a stable supply of quality hazelnuts produced by innovative growers in Ontario.

The makers of the popular Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Nutella are anticipating upwards of 20,000 acres of hazelnuts planted across the province in the next decade, in large part to supply expansions to its Brantford, Ont. plant, now the hub of its North American operations.

The challenge is developing hazelnut orchard management practices to meet these demands as there is minimal growth tracking data of the trees. To help collect essential data to aid hazelnut growers with this mission, Ferrero has turned to Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), part of the Research & Innovation division.

This month, Niagara College student researchers will be installing two enhanced time-lapse cameras pointed at a single hazelnut tree, along with a host of surrounding ground sensors. The trial tree is located at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Grimo Nut Nursery, expert growers with 45 years experience growing and selling hazelnut trees.

The custom sensor system will monitor tree growth, catkin flowering, soil moisture, relative humidity, air temperature, and air pressure. One camera will capture the evolution of the crown and leaves; the development of branches, flowers and catkins; and pollen release timing. The second camera will be aimed at the trunk to estimate trunk growth over the season.

Subsurface soil moisture and temperature measurements at 24 locations surrounding the single tree will be installed at different depths to track the specific data.

“The resulting data and analysis will aid in accurately tracking tree growth, the evolution of soil moisture, the effects of weather on tree growth, nut quality, and nut yield,” says project strategist Mike Duncan, PhD, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair for Colleges, specializing in precision agriculture and environmental technologies.

Duncan says data to track tree growth and relate it to hazelnut tree models in the province is limited. “To properly understand how to best manage a hazelnut tree crop, detailed data – such as weather and other factors that directly influence nut yield and quality – is essential to support best management farming practices going forward.”

Ferrero project timelapse
The first iteration of the time-lapse camera captures leaf growth of a hazelnut tree located at Grimo Nut Nursery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The AETIC research team is installing an enhanced version of the camera this month to monitor tree growth.

Brian Klassen, a Research Associate with AETIC and an NC graduate with an advanced diploma from the Electronics Engineering Technology Program, used the Raspberry Pi platform and a custom circuit board to engineer a time-lapse camera to take a photograph at noon each day.

Klassen says he received some help from the team at R&I’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre with 3D printing the casing and manufacturing the acrylic camera lens on the lab’s laser cutter.

Besides gathering growing data during the winter months, one of the initial grabs will be monitoring the development of the catkin – the flowering clusters that when cross-pollinated produce nuts – and without which hazelnut trees cannot be pollinated.

While Klassen has constructed the hardware, the actual captured data will go to AETIC’s computer programming team, who have been busy since 2018 processing historical weather and future climate modelling datasets from strategic potential hazelnut growing regions throughout Ontario. This is part of the initial collaboration between Ferrero Canada and AETIC.

Duncan says the substantial sets of weather data are being processed and developed into an accessible web software for potential hazelnut growers to use and understand the historic and likely future climate in their specific sub-region of interest to inform effective planting and farming hazelnut trees.

Funding for the project is provided by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, through its College Strategic Sector/Cluster Technology Platform (CSSCTP) program.

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

Growing trial of greenhouse waste could help open new markets


Update as of May 12, 2021:
Following previous “instrumental” growing trials conducted by student researchers from Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, Walker Environmental Group (WEG) is advancing its development of its rockwool growing media recycling program. The company has since received funding under the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative from the Agriculture Adaptation Council to study the market development of rockwool recycling services. Walker is also working with the Ontario Greenhouse Growers Association to validate composting as a means for effectively destroying pathogens affecting greenhouse grown plants. “The work previously conducted at Niagara College has been instrumental in helping us develop this program as we work to find a suitable means for treating, recycling and creating valuable products from waste growing media,” said Greg Robles, manager, Innovation & Optimization Resource Recovery, Walker Industries.


Student researchers from Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre are playing an important role investigating uses for a waste product from the greenhouse industry. 

The research team with students from the Greenhouse Technician program are working on a course-based project with Walker Environmental Group (WEG) to explore recycling possibilities and beneficiary secondary uses of rockwool, a non-biodegradable mineral wool product.

An inorganic insulator, rockwool is also manufactured as a soilless growing medium and typically used for hydroponic fruits and vegetables.

“This type of media, which comes wrapped in plastic bags, allows growers to precisely dose fertilizers, water and other components necessary for the most optimal growth of the plants,” says Marin Dujmovic, Process Specialist at WEG. “Once crops are harvested, this media is not re-usable for growing and needs to be disposed of.”

Walker’s machinery shreds the material, separating plastic bags from the re-usable rockwool. “Once separated, plastic is disposed at the landfill (even though we are looking into re-using this plastic in manufacture of low-carbon fuels etc.) and shredded rockwool material is used as a bulking agent in compost production,” adds Dujmovic.

With its history of offering environmental waste solutions, WEG partnered with the College’s Research & Innovation division to investigate the possible benefits of using rockwool as more than just a bulking agent. 

“In theory, this bulking agent will increase compost’s moisture content (since we receive rockwool at high moisture levels, with some nutrient leftovers as well), water holding capacity, porosity and nutrients, which all have a beneficial effect on the growth of the plants,” explains Dujmovic.

Led by NC Faculty Research Lead Derek Schulze, the growing trial with a basil crop uses varying percentages of the rockwool/compost blends, compared with a control, to quantify how the plants grow. Results of this phase will determine if it’s possible and/or beneficial to use the rockwool in compost, not only as a bulking agent, but also as a compost quality enhancer.

“If there’s no impact with the highest percentage, that means they can get rid of tons of rockwool, and the plants grow just fine,” says Schulze, who’s also the coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program. 

It’s a project that proves popular with students in Schulze’s class. “It’s interesting, and the students like it because they are very conscious about being environmentally responsible.”

The team has been trialling basil because it’s a quick crop; however, growing research will be repeated this winter using different crops, says Schulze. 

If the used rockwool media is successfully incorporated into compost production, it may mean new markets for WEG as they will be “able to recycle new material (used rockwool media) on an ongoing basis with good use of the end product,” adds Dujmovic, who visits the NC greenhouse weekly to meet with the student researchers.

The growing trial received funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence through their College Voucher for Technology Adoption (CVTA) program.

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

NOW HIRING: Greenhouse Research Assistant position available with our Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre team

Greenhouse Research Assistant

The individuals will work with the Faculty Leads to oversee plant growth, apply fertilizers/irrigation, etc., and assess and measure growth. The successful candidates will collect data from the growing trials and help to prepare update reports and a final report summarizing the final results.

Click HERE to see the full job posting. The deadline to apply is Friday, August 30th , 2019 at 12PM.

To apply, please email your resume, cover letter, transcript and class schedule to [email protected] and reference job posting ‘Greenhouse/Horticulture Research Assistant’ in the subject line. 


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

German farmers reap agricultural & horticultural insight in NOTL

On July 19th, a group of farmers from Northern Germany made their way to Niagara College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake campus to discover the school’s agricultural and horticultural technologies and capabilities. The group – mainly cabbage growers – are all independent farmers, but are part of an association called “Maschinenring Dithmarschen,” a machinery/professional pool with access to affiliated companies to help agricultural farmers.

The Research & Innovation division presented research projects and capabilities from the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) and then provided a tour of the Niagara College greenhouse facilities.

The AETIC team offered an overview of R&I’s agriculture and environmental technologies, such as meteorology, geomorphology, sustainability, artificial intelligence, big data, data mapping & visualization, data analysis, rovers, UAVs, and software. The team of students, graduates and staff also described research into variety trials, IPM, lighting, fertilization, irrigation, photovoltaics, production practices, nursery, cannabis, and hydroponics.

The farming delegation were able to learn how NC, through precision agriculture technologies, is helping farmers here make more informed decisions about crop planting and yields while empowering growers to mitigate problem areas, opening new doors for revenue.

Sarah Lepp, Senior Research Associate with AETIC, discussed the benefits of NC’s crop portal, an interactive web software that houses and processes farm data, such as yield and topography, into visual digitized 3D maps, giving farmers and crop consultants detailed insight into their fields’ productivity variability.


Expanding cannabis applied research

The research equipment will be installed on the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus in the same area as the current Commercial Cannabis Production Program building (shown above).

The Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) is getting equipped to enter into cannabis applied research, thanks to a recent grant for dedicated space and specialized equipment to complete trials for the cannabis industry.

The $149,918 grant to Niagara College (NC) through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) from the Applied Research Tools and Instruments Grants (ARTI) program will cover the purchase and outfitting of a 40-ft segregated container. The AETIC Cannabis Production Research Chamber will enable the testing and utilization of sensors, unique lighting arrays, and other innovative concepts that require applied research work prior to use in licensed producers’ spaces, and commercial adoption.

Michelle Smith, who is a research lead for AETIC and a technologist for NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production (CCP) program – the first post-secondary credential of its kind in Canada, which launched in September 2018 – says the recent funding announcement will expand the College’s research capacity in cannabis.

Canada has a unique opportunity to be a world leader in cannabis production and NC holds a strategic position to support Canada’s cannabis producers and supporting industries. “Leading in cannabis production will include innovating and executing applied research in production technologies, crop management, support crop inputs, pest and disease management, sensors, and a combination of these elements,” notes Smith.

The objectives of the Research & Innovation applied research projects will be to help improve and maintain cannabis quality; prevent and reduce crop losses; provide commercialization support for cannabis production technologies and techniques; and integrated pest management (IPM) techniques.

The new units will be installed next to the academic growing areas of the College’s Commercial Cannabis Program, which includes five 20-ft secure shipping containers, on the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus. The AETIC Cannabis Production Research Chamber will include growing space that is controlled and isolated in order to perform safe, secure, and dependable research projects that will not negatively impact the academic crops.

“The equipment will help train students on controlled growing trials, cannabis production innovations, and for some students, there will be longer term paid project opportunities to be part of applied research work,” adds Smith.

The equipment and associated research will also help to support the more than two million square-feet of cannabis growing space in Niagara – and 8.7 million across Canada – in an industry that is anticipated to have legal recreational sales as much as $4.34 billion in 2019, and medical cannabis that is expected to generate an additional $0.77 to $1.79 billion in sales.

Read more about this announcement:

Artificial Intelligence in the vineyards?


from left: Dalton Pearson, NC Computer Programmer Analyst graduate & Research Associate with R&I; Brian Klassen, NC Electronics Engineering Technology graduate & Research Associate; Nolan Thomas, NC Renewable Energy Technician graduate & Research Assistant; and Andrew Nickel, Research Associate & NC Electronics Engineering Technology graduate.

Niagara College is at the forefront of agricultural robotics technology, with its complement of aerial drones and enterprise-level software systems. Now a 400-lb remotely operated rover, named RoamIO Jumbo, is undergoing field testing to refine high-precision engineering onboard that will help accurately predict vineyard yield estimates for grape growers.

These field trials are taking place at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus vineyards by members of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) research team, after months of in-lab engineering. The technical advancement project, which also includes optimizing autonomous navigation capabilities, is in collaboration with industry partner Korechi Innovations, the creators of the RoamIO robot.

RoamIO is outfitted with various sensors, including traditional image capturing cameras, LiDARs, SONARS, temperature probes, soil moisture probes and more. All these sensors will help grape farmers increase profitability or even help save their crops by better understanding the total expected yield and the variability across the vineyard.

Thanks to a federal grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the College was able to purchase RoamIO last year, and is now working with Korechi to optimize the robot’s autonomous navigation and spatial awareness capabilities and enable it with computer vision to obtain accurate and variable yield estimates.

The first phase of the agricultural robot project involved the AETIC team working with Korechi’s original onboard software to refine the auto-navigation programming using waypoint GPS technology to improve the rover speed, rather than having it stop to recalibrate for position for a fraction of a second every 10 metres.

“The College team implemented 2D LiDAR because it has a higher degree of precision for obstacle detection and collision avoidance,” says Sougata Pahari, Founder & CEO of Korechi. “Niagara College has been instrumental in solving these problems and others are in progress.”

For the navigation system, the research team works collaboratively with Korechi’s engineers – including two full-time software coders – who also provide rigorous testing on the work carried out by NC for validation.

Pahari is already bringing this auto-navigation capability to the market, giving demonstrations using other land rovers his team has built. His target market is 20- to 200-acre vineyards, with a secondary market of golf courses, as the enhanced platform allows better performance in open fields. He’s also working on a software app to be used on a tablet.

“We’re not talking about 100 percent autonomy at the moment and that’s probably for the best, because farmers want to have a say in how their farms are operated,” notes Pahari.


The second and current phase of the project brings in artificial intelligence (AI) to capture specialized views of a vineyard, and different types and colours of grapes, to get an accurate and variable yield estimate.

Typically, a grape harvest yield prediction involves workers taking samples by hand from areas of a vineyard and then making an educated guess for the entire field.

“The problem is accuracy: while humans can only get within 25 percent error, machine vision, however, can get within 10 percent error,” explains Andrew Nickel, Research Associate and a NC Electronics Engineering Technology program graduate who is overseeing the multi-phase project.

There is also the challenge of yield varying considerably from year to year and also geographically within the field due to soil conditions, pests, and climate. And Niagara is more susceptible to this than most grape growing regions, says Nickel, who is also a former grape vineyard owner.

“In Niagara we have always had variable growing seasons, whereas winemaking in Chile or Australia is like Groundhog Day; every season is the same.”

Instead, the innovative technology being created within the Research & Innovation division involves designing the vision system using commercial hardware and camera systems. It’s a challenging endeavour to program such precise machine learning algorithms for grape identification, colour and counting given the array of variables, such as differing grape size, cluster shapes and lighting conditions.

Once complete, the field data will give farmers a window into the total expected yield and variability across the vineyard, allowing for more accurate sales and revenue prediction. The farmers can also use the data to better manage their vineyards by using measures such as variable rate fertilization and variable rate fungicide application to improve their yield.

“It’s been a tremendous partnership and Niagara College is such a great institution that it lends more legitimacy whenever we go talk to potential customers,” adds Pahari. “Everyone recognizes Niagara College as one of the leaders of knowledge in the vineyard space in Canada.”

The Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) research team is comprised of computer programming, electronics, robotics, and geospatial information systems (FIS) students, and recent graduates. The team is led by Mike Duncan, PhD, who is in his eighth year as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (NSERC-IRCC) in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies at the College.