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.”
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.