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Feds fund Ont. greenhouse automation work

Feds fund Ont. greenhouse automation work

Vineland Research and Innovation Centre Inc. receives $5 million to support research through automation cluster

Staff Writer
The Vineland Research and Innovation Centre Inc. will receive $5 million in funding to help increase automation in Canada’s horticultural sector. 
The automation cluster will create and test robotic harvesters for greenhouse cucumbers, produce wireless smart irrigation technologies for vegetables and potted flowers, and generate state-of-the-art sensors that will monitor soil and air moisture levels.
“Innovations developed as a result of this research will have the potential to benefit all types of horticultural production in Ontario, as we anticipate that these new technologies could be adapted for use in orchards or outdoor field vegetable production as well,” said Jan VanderHout, chair of the OFVGA and a greenhouse vegetable grower, in a Tuesday OFVGA release.
Producers of most of Ontario’s fruit and vegetable crops must complete their work by hand. As a result, labour is a major production cost. Since fewer people are willing to work on farms and labour costs are increasing, farmers often encounter difficulties producing fruits and vegetables competitively in global markets, the release said.
“Fruit and vegetable farmers are actively looking for ways to increase automation in their businesses to reduce their reliance on labour and maintain their competitiveness in a global marketplace,” VanderHout said in the release. “We welcome this type of investment by the government to help the future profitability of our sector, both for existing crops and new ones that technological innovation may make it possible for us to grow in the future.” 
But one grower worries about the cost of automation technology.
“I know that automation will come for strawberries at some point, but I don’t think that it will ever be something that can easily be justified for the short harvest window of June-bearing strawberries in Ontario. (The other challenge is) how small of an acreage is grown here versus how much is imported,” Kevin Howe, a strawberry, pumpkin, and watermelon producer from Aylmer, told yesterday. “The berry industry, and berry consumption of domestic product, is so small in comparison to what’s imported and dumped here. There are better ways to help domestic and horticultural producers, like protecting us from dumping.” 
For Howe, this 2018 growing season emphasized the challenges of capital investments.
“For us, we really struggled this strawberry season competing with California that was dumping product here for less than their cost of production. It makes it very difficult to justify the push for robotics because it’s a lot of capital you have to put forward."
But Howe appreciates the government support for the industry.
"Any time agriculture receives funding from the government, it's always a good thing and a good sign of the importance of agriculture to the economy."
The Canadian Agricultural Partnership provided this funding, the OFVGA release said. 
Updated Nov. 29, 2018.
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