It’s an exciting time to be involved in Ontario’s greenhouse industry – one of the most important and fastest-growing economic sectors in the country. Clearly, it’s an ever-changing, complex and competitive field, ripe with innovation and talented minds.
Enter Rita Sterne, PhD, who never met a challenge she didn’t like. As a business strategist and an artist, she harnesses curiosity and creativity as the wellspring to find unique perspectives to solve even the most vexing problems.
Having spent most of her life thinking deeply about challenges and solutions – more recently in the greenhouse industry – Sterne has been named project manager for the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), a Niagara College-led consortium of three institutions supporting the research and development needs of the greenhouse industry through applied research projects.
Sterne holds a PhD in Management, as well as an MBA in Hospitality and Tourism, both from the University of Guelph. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Guelph’s School of Engineering in a project on “Value Creation Using Robots in the Ontario Vegetable Greenhouse Industry.”
“This position with the GTN allows me to use my capabilities to support the incredibly agile and creative business people in the greenhouse industry.”
NC was awarded a grant from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev) to create an innovative network for research and technology in Southern Ontario’s greenhouse sector, an area that makes up half of Canada’s greenhouses.
“…what’s really exciting for them is there’s been that leap in terms of what is possible when technologies are put together in a system and data is captured and leveraged.”
Along with funding technology development projects at NC’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), the network also includes the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) at the University of Guelph and Vineland Research & Innovation as partners to provide complementary research services to the greenhouse industry.
The College’s AETIC team has extensive experience in greenhouse research and development solutions and plans are in place to build a near-net-zero applied research greenhouse, to replace the existing, aging structure, at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Sterne says the objective of the GTN is to bring together greenhouse and technology businesses with research institutions to advance development and adoption of new technologies.
She is working with partner institutions to assess what’s needed and how the GTN can best support the greenhouse industry in Niagara and beyond. In her experience, Sterne says industry managers are already extremely tech savvy and understand how critical technology is to competitiveness in this growing sector.
“They have been using technology to help them understand controlled environments and plant production as carefully as they can. But what’s really exciting for them is there’s been that leap in terms of what is possible when technologies are put together in a system and data is captured and leveraged,” she says, adding she’s not making any assumptions about the needs of the industry.
“This role gives me an incredible opportunity to look at a set of challenges faced by businesses in the greenhouse value chain and help them find potential solutions,” she says. “It suits my curiosity to learn because there is so much going on in the greenhouse industry that I’m hoping to leverage my experience, knowledge and curiosity for the service of industry businesses and our stakeholders.”
Indeed, Sterne’s curious nature was fomented by growing up in a creative learning environment. Her mother, a teacher and her father, a technologist and a sailor, Sterne was surrounded by a family creating things, solving problems and discussing ideas. For Sterne it instilled a thirst to understand how she could solve problems in the management stratum, which then led to her foray into higher education.
“I learned about different ways to view challenges to help counteract the idea that there is only one right way to solve a problem,” she explains.
“I learned about different ways to view challenges to help counteract the idea that there is only one right way to solve a problem.”
As an artist, Sterne draws a parallel between the process of complicated problem solving and her other passion – stained glass, which she crafts with her partner in their home studio in Crystal Beach. He does the lead work and soldering and she does the copper foil work.
Stained glass, she says, is intricate in nature – not unlike the inner workings of a strategic plan.
“The process working with strategy or big projects requires you to wait until the end for results and you’ve got to be it in for the long haul,” she explains. “Stained glass is a complicated craft with many steps and you have to be patient because the result is somewhat muddied until you reach the end and then you hold it up to the light.”
The interplay between light and colour has been a recurring theme throughout her life, she explains, referring to herself as the “silver linings” type. She holds close her favourite quote of all time: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in” – a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem.
“It’s one of the most beautiful quotes in the world to me and it seems to work with strategy, it works with problem solving, it works with glass,” she says. “Believe me, I shed tears, but then I step back from it and I just automatically say, ‘Okay, where is the good in this? Where’s the light?’”
When she carves out spare time, especially during warmer weather, she makes the short walk from her home to the lake, where she can be found either swimming or kayaking. As an avid sailor most of her life, Sterne sold her Laser racing sailboat shortly after her parents sold their cruising sailboat, a Cartwright-designed 44-foot cutter rig.
She’s now on the look-out for people with boats who need crew.