A Growing Hunger for New Farming Tech
There’s no doubt that agriculture is changing thanks to climate change, supply chain issues, increased food insecurity and the need for modernizing operations of family-run farms. Today, agriculture focuses on more than simply growing food. It focuses on economic growth, adaptability, sustainability and modernized practices, and new farming technology is a key driver.
In line with the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals for eradicating hunger and reversing the effects of climate change, how food is grown, the types of food consumed and minimizing or repurposing waste have become top priorities for innovators in Canada’s agriculture industry.
Master grower Jody Spangler harvesting one of Food Security Structures’ vertical grow walls on their test farm.
Master grower Jody Spangler harvesting one of Food Security Structures’ vertical grow walls on their test farm.
FOOD SECURITY STRUCTURES CANADA (FSSC)
FOOD SECURITY STRUCTURES CANADA (FSSC) is one of those innovators at the intersection of agriculture, nutrition and sustainability. Headquartered in London, Ont., FSSC was created by Kim Parker and Greg Whiteside, inspired by the poor food choices that communities in northern Ontario were making based on affordability. Parker noticed that many of these communities opted for chips and soda rather than fresh produce because they were less expensive (cauliflower can cost $14 or more, for example). Wanting to create self-sufficiency, a more affordable means for feeding communities and more choice in food, Parker and Whiteside developed a complete, synergistic, turnkey food security solution.
“If all of our food supply stopped, we would be out of food in three days. Eighty percent of our fresh produce comes from the United States, and Ontario can only grow specific types of produce,” says Lizette Lacoursiere, senior project consultant with FSSC. “We need diversification and self-sufficient farms that can produce many food products for people regardless of where they are.”
FSSC provides agrocapsule growing units that house an eco-friendly, high-density, vertical growing system that potentially produces weekly harvests of anything that requires a controlled environment, from leafy greens and mushrooms to fruit trees. These combined systems are not dependent on a specific climate — they’re able to operate anywhere, whether the arctic or the desert — and are solid enough to withstand extreme weather conditions like wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes.
Made with reinforced polymer fibreglass (FRP) and pre-insulated panel (PIP) technology, the agrocapsule arrives as stackable panels, making it easy to ship them to and assemble them in even the most remote parts of the world without the need for heavy equipment or much workforce. The outside of the airtight enclosure has a soy-based spray foam insultation and is covered with locally available ground cover to protect against the elements. Inside, the curved walls (which eliminate air pockets) are coated with glass and silver particles to reflect light and prevent mould and pests.
The agrocapsule’s vertical grow walls are equipped with low-voltage, full-spetrum, penetrative LED grow lights with unique chip technology that operate 24 hours a day to stimulate plant growth, as well as a self-watering system controlled by smartphone. Using 90 percent less water than soil-based methods, the interior also includes a biodigester that turns all of the plant and food waste generated on-site into a nutrient-rich, liquid organic fertilizer. As it ferments, it releases methane, which is burned to create heat and additional CO2 for feeding the plants. The combination of grow lights, watering system, biodigestion and extra CO2 increases plant growth by about 50 percent.
FSSC has been working with numerous Canadian communities and has begun talks with organizations to expand globally, spreading the word that their agrocapsules and vertical grow walls are evidence-proven for efficiency, cost-effectiveness and yield compared to other growing structures and systems. For example, a 1,000-square-foot tunnel of agrocapsules can feed 784 people in a remote community.
“Our mission is to really empower people,” Lacoursiere says. “We want to enable communities to grow the food they need and sustain themselves.”
Turnkey Aquaponics is another Ontario-based innovator that’s engineering technology to sustainably grow food. Developed by Michael Veneziano and Timothy Sarvendran in 2014, Turnkey Aquaponics enables small to medium-sized farms to compete with large traditional farms using a cost-efficient, environmentally friendly, year-round growing method.
Turnkey specializes in aquaponics — a form of agriculture that combines the growing of plants in water (known as hydroponics), aquaculture like fish farming, specialized LED lights and a unique micro-combined heat and power technology into one self-contained, symbiotic system. It’s used for indoor agriculture to cultivate all dietary requirements including proteins and fats.
The company’s system is climate independent, which means it can be operated year-round and used anywhere, even in remote communities. It also uses significantly less water than traditional agriculture (up to 90 percent) and can grow all kinds of produce, including vegetables that are traditionally imported during winter months.
Turnkey Aquaponics’s LED grow lights give off less heat than traditional lights (and last longer to reduce operating costs). Their micro-combined heat and power system (CHP) turns all waste streams generated by cultivation into power and generation sources. The waste from cultivation flows through an anaerobic digester that turns it into biogas. These biogases are then burned in a generator to produce electricity and heat. This specialized system also turns leftover plant matter into concentrated nutrients that can be put back into the growth systems, offsetting the need for additional fertilizer and generating CO2 in the growing space, producing two to four months of further growth than traditional greenhouses.
“With agriculture, there’s a lot of inputs and outputs, and a lot of that is waste,” Veneziano says. “That’s where our CHP system shines. We’re taking that waste stream, which is a cost, and turning it into something beneficial: reduced heating and electricity costs, a reduced need for CO2, added nutrients and an extended growing season.”
This is a welcome innovation for small- to mid-sized farmers as traditional hydroponics, and other indoor growing systems, can be capital intensive to build and maintain. With Turnkey, these farms can utilize a growing system (or a few systems daisy-chained together) to offset their costs, create on-demand supply and compete with large traditional agriculture.
Turnkey Aquaponics plans to build its first full-sized CHP system out of a space provided by Ontario Tech University. With completion estimated to take one year, the company already has its first customer lined up — a small commercial grower with a few greenhouses and outbuildings. They are seeking more early adopters and funding. A heat pump that will transform heat generated by their LED lights into a cooling and dehumidifying system is also in development.
The Ottawa Smart Farm
The Ottawa Smart Farm is a project of Invest Ottawa’s Area X.O that enables innovators and entrepreneurs to develop, test and demonstrate agriculture technology on 120 acres of fenced-in, raw and previously farmed land — a necessity for testing autonomous vehicles like tractors without obstruction; it also has one of the most sophisticated telecommunications networks in North America. Ottawa Smart Farm is equipped with the latest 4G and 5G technologies from Nokia and Ericsson and Wifi, LoRa WAN, TV whitespace, satellite and GPS. Add sophisticated sensors that can measure temperature, humidity, wind speed, pests and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, plus partnerships with FCC, Microsoft, GPS Ontario, FarmersEdge and Indro Robotics, and you have a facility ripe for innovation.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” Susanne Cork, strategic markets director for Area X.O points out. “We take agricultural science, marry it with computer science and all of those sophisticated capabilities and then help entrepreneurs with innovation to commercialize farming solutions that will help farmers remain profitable in the face of escalating prices and address their carbon footprint.”
The Ottawa Smart Farm has had numerous successful projects come out of its three-year-old testing facility. A project in collaboration with Fertilizer Canada, University of Ottawa, GPS Ontario and the City of Ottawa, for instance, has tested different tillage methods and fertilizer application methods to determine if there are measurable differences in yield quality and quantity and N20 emissions. A second project with Ph.D. students at University of Ottawa uses AI and machine learning to develop a tool that would allow farmers to predict their expected GHG emissions and yield based on variables like temperature and precipitation. “We’re not agri-scientists, we’re technologists, but there’s incredible applicability of technology capabilities together with agriculture science,” Cork says. “If we can create useful, easily accessible tools that modernize farming and make it more sustainable, we can support local farmers and our economic landscape. Economic development will always include farming.”
Solar-powered, LTE network-connected sensors located across the Ontario Smart Farm are used for capturing information at field level about environmental conditions like rain, wind, barometric pressure, humidity, temperature and more.
Voice Directed Tally Systems (VDTS)
Innovative research tools are equally integral for advancing a data-driven industry like agriculture. In Belleville, Ont., Voice Directed Tally Systems (VDTS), founded by Dave and Pat Ginther, has developed voice technology software, which is paired with a lightweight, head-mounted tablet, created by RealWear, that allows farmers and researchers to gather data simply by voice, enabling them to be hands-free to manipulate materials or operate equipment at the same time. While traditional, handheld technology only works in certain environmental conditions and requires researchers to look away from their workflow to make entries, RealWear’s assisted reality wearable device is independent of wifi, wearable and voice-driven so that researchers can log their observations at the speed of speech, keeping their hands free. It’s industrial-made for any climate or environmental condition like dust, rain or sun and it’s very intuitive — it’s available in 17 different languages, has specialized voice recognition for high-noise environments and can navigate accents from anywhere in the world. The gathered data, including photos, automatically downloads into an E›xcel sheet.
“Agriculture has a lot of manual processes. Researchers spend 40 percent of their time logging data, but that’s time that could be used to get other things done,” Pat explains. “VDTS is digitizing that manual process and advancing agriculture in terms of efficiency and the quantity of information gathered.”
Not only can VDTS gather data by voice with audio and visual confirmation for what’s been entered, but it can also capture photos and video, run a Microsoft Teams or Zoom call off the headset for live sharing, and its GPS can pinpoint the location of a researcher or problem in a field. And there’s no risk of losing data: VDTS is equipped with an SD card for data backup and a swappable backup battery that can be changed out without turning off the system.
Then there’s Voice Excel, a newly released software application by VDTS that enables the user to create a spreadsheet of their own design into the VDTS system, navigate that spreadsheet by voice and then export the information into Excel, eliminating the need to change the formatting.
VDTS is also currently doing trials with some of the world’s largest crop science organizations, in talks with agricultural-focused post-secondary institutions and have recently expanded to Brazil, Argentina and the Netherlands. Other industries have also noticed VDTS’s versatility for hands-free data gathering since VDTS can be applied for almost any industry, like manufacturing, natural resources and more (National Research Canada, for example, has adopted VDTS for the forestry industry).
“Agriculture is data-driven but also time- and budget-sensitive. Just as a farmer needs to yield as many crops as they can within a season with minimal cost, researchers need to yield as much data as possible within a specific timeframe while remaining on budget,” Pat adds. “We can help. VDTS is the most versatile, robust system of our type in the world today.”
An agronomist in a cotton field in South Carolina uses a head-mounted tablet created by RealWear to gather information about the plant, including height and number of boles(cotton) and branches using VDTS’ AG research software.
An agronomist in a cotton field in South Carolina uses the VDTS head-mounted tablet to gather information about the plant, including height and number of boles (cotton) and branches using the VDTS AG research software.