Automated smart system lessens grower workload in the greenhouse

As the labor shortage facing the greenhouse vegetable sector intensifies, growers are increasingly looking for alternatives to help them fill critical positions.

That prompted the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) to partner with Blue Radix, a Dutch company that has developed an autonomous growing program called Crop Controller to automate many management tasks in the greenhouse.

With support from the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative (GCII), the partners are working on a project to evaluate how the Blue Radix system could be adapted and implemented in Canadian greenhouses.

“We’ve been getting a lot of interest from our members about how automation and artificial intelligence can help address the labor shortage, particularly in critical, skilled positions, like growing,” says OGVG Innovation, Adaptation & Plant Protection Lead Niki Bennett. “It takes a long time to become a really good grower, and this system gives a grower the information they need to help make decisions without having to physically be in the greenhouse.”

Three Ontario greenhouse vegetable growers have participated in the project, one of the initial steps involved analyzing historical data for each greenhouse, then integrating Crop Controller into their existing digital management systems. Crop Controller uses internal and external climate data, the growth phase of the crop, the irrigation strategy, and other information to automate decisions related to managing crop growth.

According to Bennett, all the grower needs to do is monitor and verify, freeing up their time to concentrate on other tasks. As well, Crop Controller documents its activities and learns on the go, adapting to grower feedback to refine the accuracy of its decisions.

“Part of the project was also to discover what the learning curve is for growers with this type of system and whether it actually helps them the way we think it could,” she adds. “As an organization, we are interested in knowing how OGVG can best support growers transitioning to an autonomous system, such as partnerships like this where they can learn and practice in a de-risked environment.”

Although labor has long been a critical pain point for the greenhouse industry, COVID-19 has put heightened urgency on finding affordable, effective, and efficient solutions; they’re considered vital to post-pandemic recovery.

“Automation is a rapidly evolving field and to remain competitive, growers are often expected to make increasingly complex decisions without a lot of validation that these technologies work,” says Doug Alexander, chair of the Agricultural Adaptation Council which delivers the GCII. “This project is a great example of a successful public-private partnership that is helping the greenhouse industry adapt to a new technology that will enable sustainable growth and long-term resilience.”

Automating many of the critical decisions related to growing a crop can be a way to attract young people into the industry, for example. It also means a farm business can continue operating even if key employees are absent or leave the company.

“Labor shortages are tough to manage, and automation is a solution that growers have told us is important,” adds Bennett. “Without the GCII funding, we wouldn’t have been able to undertake this project and show companies like Blue Radix that they can partner successfully with OGVG for positive outcomes. We are able to do more together than either of us on our own.”

“Automation and artificial intelligence projects are the kinds of innovative solutions that will generate efficiencies and make our sector more competitive into the future,” says Lisa Thompson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Ensuring our greenhouse growers have access to new technologies and strategic solutions is the reason behind cost-share initiatives like this.”

For more information:
OMAFRA
www.omafra.gov.on.ca      

 


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