How robots will give a hand to food security

High-wire cucumbers require a lot of labour for transplanting, staking, tying, pruning and harvesting. At Vine Fresh Acres, Jake Neufeld says it takes two people per acre to tend to the crop. Photo by Glenn Lowson.

Away from the heat of COVID-19 headlines, Ontario greenhouse vegetable growers are lighting up more acres. In fact, another 200 to 350 acres of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are expected to come on stream by end of year.


Jake Neufeld is one example of soldiering through the pandemic.


“It’s definitely been a challenging year,” says Neufeld, the Leamington, Ontario owner of Vine Fresh Acres. Not only is he managing six acres of high-wire, mini-cucumbers and 28 acres of long English cucumbers, he’s also overseeing construction of a new 30-acre pepper greenhouse that will be planted in December 2020.


Neufeld and other Ontario growers see blue sky through their glass rooftops because they believe that greenhouse production – with its advantages of a controlled environment – is integral to future food security. While drought squeezes sizing and volume of other field crops this summer, greenhouses can continue to set fruit through all weather.


Indeed, Statistics Canada bears witness to the success of the sector in a May 2020 news release. Despite some greenhouse operators switching from vegetables to cannabis, total sales of greenhouse fruit and vegetables in Canada rose five per cent to $1.6 billion in 2019.


The growth curve has been consistent since 2013 as retailers search out locally grown, pristine produce. Ontario (65%), British Columbia (19.2%) Quebec (9.3%) and Alberta (5.4%) accounted for most of the 2019 greenhouse fruit and vegetable volumes. Coincidentally, Canada’s most populous provinces, representing 32 million consumers, have sizable greenhouse capacity within their boundaries.


Greenhouse production is not without its challenges whether it’s green mottle mosaic virus plaguing cucumbers or a novel human coronavirus affecting normal operations. As Neufeld attests, a sizable percentage of his workforce did not arrive in timely fashion.  Usually, he would employ 72 Mexican seasonal workers for deleafing, pruning and picking the high-wire cucumber crop. This year he welcomed only 58 but fortunately, they all have tested negative for the virus. Some of that success he attributes to a new bunkhouse, built two years ago, featuring better design with a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.


Widespread COVID-related disruptions underscore the current human resource dependency of the sector. Neufeld shares that he is moving to a program of securing a workforce for two years at a time to support year-round production.


“There is a new dynamic in play regarding seasonal workers,” adds Joe Sbrocchi, general manager, Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers. “With more automation there will be fewer jobs for these workers in the future.”


The automation trend is proceeding at breakneck speed. Ecoation Innovative Solutions, headquartered in North Vancouver, is developing and testing an automated, pesticide-free crop treatment that will immediately address pest management in greenhouse vegetables. A crop-monitoring robot designed to use biological controls and UV-based disinfectants will help to reduce the scouts currently needed for this job. 


“Before COVID-19, this technology was a nice-to have,” says Saber Miresmailli, Ecoation founder and CEO. “But now it’s necessary. With public health measures in place, workers and growers can’t simply go in and out of facilities anymore. With robots, we have the ability to offer a virtual walk with 360° views of the greenhouse.”


Grounded by travel bans, international consultants are now able to view reports remotely and provide advice on how to control, for example, a hot spot of whiteflies. Using a predictive model, the experts can see where the pests are likely to go next and prescribe surgically placed biological agents.


This futuristic technology has become advanced enough that Ecoation is the only commercial company with crop-scouting robots now working in greenhouses in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Europe. Miresmailli has announced that as of September 1, the research and development division of Ecoation is moving to Kingsville, Ontario. The pandemic has shifted business dynamics in other radical ways. Ecoation is launching a remote consulting service for greenhouse growers who will have access to experts worldwide. 


For those shying away from the capital expense of automation, Miresmailli says he is working with Farm Credit Canada on a unique financial product that can support the acquisition.


“The technology is not perfect,” says Miresmailli. “There are shortcomings. But we are setting up a Tomato Care program, much like an Apple Care program that promises support to growers on an ongoing basis. We have an oath in our company to take care of our customers.”


Greenhouse growers will benefit in the immediate term from automated technology, however Miresmailli forecasts that the next sectors will be berries and vineyards. More than ever, it will be a high-wire act moving forward, balancing human knowledge with machine precision. 


Karen Davidson goes 'Behind The Scenes' of this story and speaks with Dr. Saber Miresmailli about the huge strides in Artificial Intelligence that are being made in not only detecting but treating pests and diseases in Canadian greenhouses. 
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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

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