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So berry sweet: U of G profs focused on growing berries out of season

Two University of Guelph-led research teams have entered the second phase of the Homegrown Innovation Challenge, a $33-million challenge prize to grow berries out of season and at scale
Youbin Zheng, far right, with his research group at the University of Guelph.

University of Guelph researchers are on a mission to find the ultimate ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to growing berries out of season.

Aiming to change the way fresh produce is grown in Canada, two University of Guelph-led research teams have entered the second phase of the Homegrown Innovation Challenge, a $33-million challenge prize to grow berries out of season and at scale.

The U of G teams are among 11 selected nationwide to develop small-scale growing solutions that are sustainable and competitive.

Mike Dixon and Youbin Zheng, professors in the School of Environmental Sciences within the Ontario Agricultural College, are leading their teams to explore sustainable and cost-effective ways to extend the growing season of berries.  

“It’s timely and I am happy to be part of it. Families in Canada see the challenges in the food system, geopolitically, and with the pandemic and climate change,” Zheng said.

“People are more and more likely to live in big cities, and we are short of fresh produce. In the wintertime, most of the produce is imported.”

Dixon and his team have received $691,730 to develop a controlled environment agriculture (CEA) system that manages strawberry production to meet market demands and consumer preferences.  

Zheng's team has received $999,918 to use artificial intelligence (AI) and smart automation to ‘take the guesswork out’ of providing optimal growing conditions for berries.

According to Zheng, using AI can conserve water and eliminate pesticides.  

“In the summertime we can grow berries like strawberries and raspberries. But in the winter, of course you can’t grow them outside. So, you need to grow them in a green house, in a controlled environment,” Zheng said.

“It has to be warm enough for the plants with certain humidities. You have to use light because wintertime can be quite gloomy in Canada. So we have to provide plants with electrical light. If you provide these conditions to the plants, they will produce.”

Zheng’s team uses sophisticated biosensors to monitor plant health, measure and fine-tuning parameters every few minutes to provide plants with what they need in the moment.

“AI is able to manage the root zone, with the right amount of water, so the plants have enough oxygen. All is balanced, and the plants are healthy and more resistant to pathogens. So you don’t need to spray pesticides either,” Zheng said.

"All of these factors are interconnected."

By using AI to collect the environmental climate data in the greenhouse, the environment can be controlled in real time.

“You need to control the heat and light, and know how much to give to the plants. Also, the price of electricity changes over the day. If we just use people to control all of this, it can be difficult to take all of these factors into consideration, to make the right decisions, and to achieve the maximum profit,” Zheng said.

“So we use sensors such as soil moisture sensors, oxygen sensors and nutrient sensors. Sometimes the human brain is limited, and you cannot see through the root zone,” Zheng said.

Data from the sensors is continuously used to improve and provide the best climate for plants.

Another added bonus, Zheng said, is that soil isn't necessary when growing plants in controlled environments.

“That’s the beauty of a controlled environment. It means that you can grow plants anywhere. But at the same time, what’s challenging is that there’s no topsoil, so you have to provide the plants with enough water, oxygen and nutrients, free of pathogens and other contaminants,” he said.

This system is aimed to provide producers better control over their costs — energy, water and nutrients — and minimizes wastewater and nutrient discharge.  

Zheng said plants will use the least resource import, and at the same time, have the maximum production.

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

“Using the berry plant, it’s a model, a starting point,” Zheng said.

“From here, we will collect more data, and create plant specific models. With the AI system we develop now, we hope to apply it to other crops."

The Homegrown Innovation Challenge encourages innovation in domestic fruit and vegetable production – specifically berries – to reduce Canada’s reliance on imported produce and build a more resilient food system. 

At the end of this year, four teams will move on to the next phase of the challenge. Each team will receive up to $5 million over three years to build farm-scale, market-ready systems.