Partnering to Drive Ontario’s Agriculture Sector
Date
September 18, 2019

More than 80,000 people arrived in Verner, West Nipissing this week to celebrate Ontario’s agriculture industry for the 2019 International Plowing Match. The five-day event offers the opportunity to learn more about agriculture and showcases innovations within this rapidly changing sector.

In fact, this transforming industry was a recent focus of Farmer 4.0, an RBC report that highlights how agriculture is currently undergoing a fourth revolution, powered by new technologies and the changing skillset required to use them, including data analysis, robotics and global sales.

In this period of transformation, Ontario’s universities are partnering with agri-businesses and industry to ensure this sector has the skilled workforce it needs, as well as the new technologies required to change the future of food production and distribution and help feed communities across the province, and around the world.

The University of Guelph, Canada’s food university, for example, has a 150-year legacy in agri-food and a reputation for innovation and discovery. The university grew out of three founding colleges: the Ontario Agricultural College, the Ontario Veterinary College and the Macdonald Institute, and while it offers programs that range from humanities and business to engineering, it continues to be a leader in agricultural research, food, veterinary science and the environment.

Some examples of its impact in agriculture include a global DNA barcoding project that ensures food security and helps protect endangered species, and its Arrell Food Institute and the Food From Thought research program where the university is also working to find sustainable ways to feed the world’s growing population.

Below are more examples that demonstrate how each Ontario university is partnering to help drive agriculture across the province.

Developing a skilled workforce for a changing industry

  • Agriculture in Ontario has many evolving specializations. In the face of change, and located in the second largest food and farming cluster in North America, Ontario Tech University’s Agricultural Leadership Certificate Program is specifically geared to workers within the sector, providing resources to use immediately in an agri-business.
  • To address food sustainability and agriculture in Northern communities, University of Ottawa student entrepreneurs used the university’s resources to launch The Growcer – a social enterprise, which allows residents to harvest vegetables year-round from high-yield containerized farming systems, while also creating jobs for the local community.
  • Students are receiving work-integrated learning opportunities in agriculture through Trent University’s Sustainable Agriculture Experimental Farm. The 33-acre living laboratory enables students to work with researchers and local industry to help advance the sector, including helping to improve soil health, food security and crop yields.

Revolutionizing affordable food safety testing

  • Individuals can now check for food fraud in their groceries, as well as invasive species in their gardens. Developed by University of Guelph researchers, the LifeScanner Species Identification Kit combines smartphone technology, a DNA identification kit and scientists who test the samples and send the results back to the consumer.
  • Large food processing equipment can be susceptible to tiny scratches and grooves, increasing the risk of contamination. University of Toronto researchers have discovered a cost-effective solution: trapping a thin layer of cooking oil at the surface of the metal to fill in these scrapes. The solution reduced bacterial levels inside tested equipment by one thousand times.
  • Testing drinking water for E. coli takes time and is expensive. Using paper strips similar to those in litmus tests, researchers at the University of Waterloo have invented a fast, affordable way for rural and remote communities to test drinking water, enabling routine, affordable testing.
  • Current food testing methods typically require samples to be sent away for testing, taking up to two weeks to complete. By that time, food has often been shipped to stores, resulting in large recalls. A new E. coli testing kit developed by Western University is revolutionizing food safety by producing results within hours, not days.

Helping farmers increase crop yields

  • Helping plants better withstand drought and high temperatures is increasingly important in the face of extreme weather. Algoma University is working to better understand how plant layers form and function to develop more stress-tolerant plants, improving farmers’ ability to grow crops that will be more adaptable.
  • Ontario’s $3.3-billion grape and wine sector represents half of the Canadian industry, and preventing winter injury to grape vines is a constant concern. That’s why Brock University is working with local fruit growers to access information about bud hardiness on their farms and avoid millions of dollars worth of cold-weather damage.
  • Extreme weather events and unpredictable weather patterns can delay growing seasons for certain crops. Researchers at Lakehead University’s Agricultural Research Station are experimenting with new fertilizers to help Northern farmers protect their crops from nitrogen loss and mitigate the impacts of a shorter growing season.
  • Accurately monitoring environmental conditions across farmland is important for farmers to protect their crops and increase yields. Agriboost enables them to do just that. Designed by McMaster University engineering students, the device tracks temperature, moisture, wind speed and solar radiation for farmers.

Innovating agriculture with new technologies

  • The Ontario East 3-D mapping project is making it easier for businesses to connect to the region’s agriculture and food producers, streamlining supply chain processes. Working with the Ontario East Economic Development Commission, Carleton University researchers are helping the Commission better understand and stimulate the region’s economic activity.
  • Farmers in Northern Ontario are accessing real-time, localized data about field conditions to make more informed decisions about their crops. GeoVisage, developed by Nipissing University researchers, is a remote, online software that uses sensors to provide data on air and soil temperature, relative humidity and other important metrics for farm scale decision-making.
  • Robotics in agriculture has the potential to save farmers time and money. A new robotic harvester designed by York University researchers uses solar and wind energy to improve production efficiency and operational safety for farmers.

Making produce accessible to communities across Ontario

  • Helping local farmers in Northern communities grow their own fresh produce can reduce the costs of importing fruits and vegetables. That’s why Laurentian University architecture students designed a modular sustainable farming structure that takes advantage of aquaponics and vertical farming for Northern communities.
  • Winter urban agriculture can help provide food security to households in Northern cities. OCAD University researchers are designing innovative, solar-heated greenhouses that range in size for apartment balconies, rooftops, parking pads or alley garage spaces – all to accommodate urban lifestyles.
  • Food insecurity in Canada’s Northern communities galvanized Ryerson University students to develop a Growing Dome, an innovative greenhouse that can heat itself 30 degrees warmer than external conditions within only four hours of sunlight. The dome provides fresh, affordable produce at a fraction of the cost of what is air freighted.
  • Helping communities find local and sustainable ways to access healthy food ensures food security for all Ontarians. Developed by Wilfrid Laurier University researchers, the Community Food Toolkit provides tailored resources that enable communities to create their own local food system, including helping farmers connect more directly with consumers.

Purifying soil and water

  • Wastewater from agricultural activity can lead to contamination in lakes, rivers and oceans. Queen’s University researchers are using advanced technologies to develop a low-energy and cost-effective process to purify agricultural wastewater. The new technology will take water that is heavily polluted and make it safe for drinking.
  • Heavy rainfalls combined with periods of drought can release nutrients from crop fertilizers into waterways, indirectly contributing to algal blooms and other issues in the Great Lakes. University of Windsor researchers are developing Open Array, a diagnostic chip to detect microbes in sediment as an early warning system for water quality.
  • Plants have many different mechanisms to remove, destroy, transfer, stabilize or contain contaminants in soils. Researchers at the Royal Military College of Canada are looking at the role plants could play in helping clean up the hundreds of brownfields across Canada.