Ontario horticultural sector representatives say a federal investment of $5 million into automation projects could help address labour issues.
Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) announced the investment Nov. 26, as part of an overall $690 million commitment to technological innovation of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership — a five-year federal-provincial investment plan focused on growth in the agriculture sector.
Why it matters: Innovation funding will help agriculture sectors hard hit by rising labour costs find new production methods and efficiencies.
Indoor agriculture the initial focus
A news release from AAFC says that labour shortages can cost the horticultural sector up to $1.5 billion in lost productivity and sales, with the greenhouse sector being hardest hit.
Tania Humphrey, chief scientific officer for the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre — the institution acting as the administrative coordinator for the $5 million research investment — said three projects have already been defined:
- a project to develop and test robotic harvesters for greenhouse cucumbers;
- a project to develop smart, wireless irrigation technologies for potted flowers and vegetables;
- an initiative to develop state-of-the-art sensors to help detect and monitor moisture levels in the soil and air.
Jan VanderHout, a Hamilton-area greenhouse vegetable grower and board chair for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, said increases to minimum wage have also been a major issue for the horticulture sector as a whole. The investment in the three areas will have a significant impact on the sustainability of greenhouse producers, he said.
Because of the greater degree of control afforded to greenhouse and other indoor growers, VanderHout said he viewed greenhouse-centred projects as the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of developing automation technology. Both he and Humphrey believe that, once these technologies exist for indoor growers, adopting them to other types of agriculture will be much easier. That includes vegetables and fruits grown outdoors.
VanderHout said developing automation technologies sooner rather than later is ideal, and believes it’s possible for some projects to bear workable results before the end of AAFC’s five-year investment period.
“We can either adapt or prepare to adapt,” said VanderHout. “We’ll be working with Vineland to make sure whatever they develop is commercially viable.”
Humphrey said the intention is to produce working automated prototypes in each project area by March of 2023. Having fully commercialized automation equipment available for purchase by growers at that time is not likely, she said, but not impossible.
“These are pre-commercial development projects. Along the way we need to develop relationships with commercial parties,” said Humphrey.
In addition to being the administrative coordinator for the investment, Humphrey said Vineland will also take the lead on all three projects, each of which will have multiple components.
However, she said developing wider research networks with other agricultural sectors is also a significant component of the investment plan, and will help disseminate the developed technologies to other areas.
“The cluster is almost like a seed fund for larger initiatives, the opportunities go way beyond indoor horticulture,” she said. “Ultimately we would like to see projects led by people outside Vineland and in different parts of the sector.”