U of G research teams growing berries year-round using latest tech

GUELPH – Research teams led by the University of Guelph aim to change the how fresh produce is grown in Canada, and have entered a second phase of the Homegrown Innovation Challenge.

With a $33-million prize from the Weston Family Foundation on the line, teams are figuring out how to grow berries out of season and at scale in Canada. 

“That two U of G-led research teams have been selected for the next phase of the Homegrown Challenge speaks to University of Guelph’s research strengths, especially our innovative approaches to developing and implementing the most advanced new agri-food technologies, in this case in controlled environment agriculture,” said research interim VP Rene Van Acker in a press release.

Professor Mike Dixon and team are developing a controlled environment agriculture system that manages strawberry production.

The system combines greenhouse practices with vertical farming methods in a hybrid production strategy.

Specialized LED lighting will be used to extend the growing season. 

Professor Youbin Zheng is using artificial intelligence to conserve water and eliminate pesticides.

The system uses sophisticated biosensors to monitor plant health, measuring and fine-tuning parameters every few minutes to provide plants with what they need in the moment.  

The system will provide producers better control over their costs while minimizing wastewater and nutrient discharge.  

Though berries are the focus, competitors’ solutions will also be judged on how they can be adapted to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Using the technology in harsh environments, such as the Canada’s north or the hot, dry climates of the Middle East, can address the profound challenges of food security, said Dixon. 

The systems can also help protect the environment by reducing water use, nutrient runoff and CO2 emissions, while providing an alternative to traditional agriculture in the event of climate change, Zheng said.