Category Archives: Research & Innovation

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.

R&I grad takes on grower role at berry farm

Vladimir Rogov is a 2020 graduate of Niagara College’s Greenhouse Technician program and research assistant with R&I

Vladimir Rogov is a 2020 graduate of Niagara College’s Greenhouse Technician (Co-op) program and was a greenhouse research assistant with Research & Innovation’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) for eight months. Vladimir is now employed as a grower at BoemBerry Farms in Kingsville, Ont.

Tell us about where you work:

I currently work as a grower at BoemBerry Farms in Kingsville, Ont. Our company is one of the largest strawberry greenhouses in North America. The greenhouse has doubled in size this year and now totals 30 hectares, which is all climate controlled under glass. The strawberries can be found with the “Smuccies” label in stores, and they are distributed by Mucci Farms.

I began working full-time at BoemBerry Farms as an assistant grower in September 2020.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

With the most recent completion of the expansion this year, there was a lot of work to be done. We had to simultaneously plan for the new expansion while continuing to push for better production numbers in the original greenhouse. This has been an extraordinary challenge, but I am confident that everything will go as planned throughout the summer of 2021.   

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

I cannot begin to express the importance of familiarizing myself with Microsoft Excel while working with the R&I team at Niagara College. Microsoft Excel has helped me with organizing data from our various trials, registering water measurements, logging climate data, and so much more!

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

My first project with the R&I team at Niagara College had me collecting data on reusing rockwool with various growing media mixes. The preliminary data showed us that plants grown in a mix with a higher rockwool percentage were able to mature in a shorter amount of time. The small pieces of rockwool helped with aerating the rootzone and gave a boost to the plant’s early development.

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

I enrolled in NC with the hopes of getting a job in the cannabis sector but got involved with growing strawberries instead!

Most memorable experience at NC?

This would have to be the various karaoke nights we had at the end of each month!

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

I would say Derek Schulze, who was my greenhouse professor and mentor for the duration of my time with R&I, influenced me the most. He was the individual that helped me land the job with Boem Berry Farms!

“Networking is one of the biggest factors helping me reach my goals. The more people you know, the more opportunities will be made available to you.”

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

Your time in college will fly by you, and I would suggest enjoying every moment of it.

Also, networking is one of the biggest factors helping me reach my goals. The more people you know, the more opportunities will be made available to you. 

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

Always listen more than you speak. Obtain a valuable skill that helps people. Always be willing to do the work that you might feel you are “above” doing.

Proudest achievement since graduating?

Landing a growing job shortly after graduation and learning a lot within the greenhouse industry.

What are you passionate about at the moment?

I’m currently working on ideas to start a tree nursery business. I am experimenting with propagating various trees and shrubs.

Interests outside of work?

I am a huge advocate for improving my physical health, and I will mostly be found in the gym after work. In the summer, I spend most of my evenings long-distance swimming, doing laps in a pool until exhaustion. However, since I moved down to Kingsville and no longer have a pool, I will be swimming at Point Pelee National Park after work. I’m practising to someday swim across Lake Ontario when I build up enough endurance and pain tolerance.

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

Work hard in silence, let success make the noise.

Soil scientist joins Research & Innovation team

Christine George, soil scientist at NC's Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre.

It’s been said there are more living organisms in a single handful of soil than there are people on earth.

What’s more, these microbes, like bacteria, fungal cells, arthropods, nematodes and algae, are part of an ecosystem that’s essential for life on earth.

It is this living world – not visible to the naked eye – that has continued to fascinate soil scientist Christine George for her entire career.

This passion has driven her to focus on the microscopic life within compost; soil and media in both the environmental and agricultural industries.

“Now, more than ever, growers are aware of the biology within the soil, and often aim to improve the health of their soil and crops through improving the microbiology.”

George is a partial load professor teaching Plant Science 2 in Niagara College’s School of Environment and Horticulture program. She’s also the newest member to the Research & Innovation team as a part time research lead for the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC).

In her role, George will lead and support the success of applied research projects for the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), an NC-led initiative that brings together three research institutions: AETIC, the University of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF), and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (VRIC) with greenhouse growers and technology providers.

“Our research projects will focus on validating novel products and/or technology through testing within greenhouses,” explains George, adding her current project involves testing the viability of a novel growing media amendment in hydrangea.

After receiving her Master’s degree in Soil Science (2013) from the University of Guelph, George worked as a senior laboratory technician and manager for Soil Foodweb Canada and then R&D lab manager for Alpha Agri Products Inc.

“When this new opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance to become a part of the research team. I hope to strengthen the link between research and academia.”

Most recently, George has spent the last three years as a private soil health consultant in southern Ontario, dividing her time between contract work with research or grant-driven projects, and soil sampling and analysis, with clients ranging from golf courses to field vegetable growers.

In addition to these projects, she’s also called upon to assess roots for colonization of mycorrhizal fungi – a group of fungus that can improve plant health through infecting the plants’ roots, proving much-needed nutrients and protection from pests, explains George.

Since joining NC as an educator in 2019, George says she has always been curious to learn more about the Research & Innovation division and how it relates to the real-world application of research.

“I have always enjoyed spending time in the greenhouse at the College, and knew several faculty members run course-based research within the space,” she adds. “When this new opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance to become a part of the research team. I hope to strengthen the link between research and academia.”

At her Waterloo home, which she shares with her husband, two teenagers, a dog and cat, she and her family are outdoors as much as possible. If she’s not hiking, or working in her garden, you can most likely find her reading – or baking cookies.

“I’m working my way through a 100 cookie recipe book that was gifted to me … I’m about a dozen recipes in so far.”

NOW HIRING: Footcare Project Assistant position available with our Research & Innovation team

Footcare Project Assistant

The Footcare Project Assistant is a role that encompasses two roles (Research & Footcare Assessment Assistant) and is dependent on the work available with restrictions due to the pandemic. As a Research Assistant, the selected candidate will work remotely and meet regularly with the Research Project manager and other members of the research team through virtual software programs. As a Footcare Assessment Assistant, the selected candidate will enter homeless shelters and provide professional assessments to their clients.

We are looking for a motivated Footcare Project Assistant who is interested in supporting the pilot phase of the research project and is enthusiastically enrolled in one of the mentioned allied health programs at Niagara College and looking to assist vulnerable individuals with footcare assessments. Some duties and responsibilities include preparing creating research-informed resources, surveys and interview guides, preparing reports, footcare assessment tasks and participating meetings.

Click HERE to see the full job posting. To apply, please email your cover letter and resume to [email protected] and reference ‘Footcare Project Assistant’ in the subject line.

The deadline to apply is Friday, May 28, 2021 at 12pm. 

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

Look what’s growing at the Greenhouse Technology Network

\

 

Exciting news for the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN) as the new website is launched: greenhousetechnetwork.ca offers a one-stop online hub that compiles the incredible capabilities to help grow innovation for Ontario’s greenhouse industry.

GTN is a network of three research-focused institutions – Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, University of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre –that collaborate with small- and medium-sized organizations to advance the development, adoption, and implementation of technologies to support greenhouse innovation. The network leverages faculty, students and state-of-the-market facilities and equipment, together with government funding, to support greenhouse and related technology businesses. Industry partner contributions (cash and in-kind) to solve innovation challenges are matched 1:1 up to a maximum of $100K match per project ($200K project total). 

Please help spread the word to the Ontario greenhouse industry and related technology providers.  Interested businesses can “apply now” at greenhousetechnetwork.ca.  Project intake is ongoing; all projects to be completed by March 2024. 

Learn more about Research & Innovation’s Current Opportunities