Canadian horticulture, like most other sectors in agriculture, is suffering from a growing labor shortage. Overall, an agri-food workforce shortfall is predicted to reach more than 123,000 jobs by 2029. As such, the search is on for ways to do more with less. At the same time, labor-intensive horticultural crops increase the cost of labor, often representing 40 to 60 percent of production costs for growers.
That’s why the industry is increasingly turning to solutions to automate certain tasks — addressing the labor crunch while also boosting production efficiencies to help growers remain profitable and competitive.
The greenhouse sector, for example, is readily adopting automation for tasks aimed at the management of growing environments, irrigation, and fertigation.
A major future threshold is the development of an autonomous greenhouse vegetable harvesting technology, a challenge embraced by the Vineland Automation team. Initially focused on the advancement of a robotic harvesting system for long English cucumbers, this platform technology is evolving to be applied to other crops, such as peppers.
Canada is the world’s fourth largest cucumber exporter at over $320 million annually. The potential for growth in the greenhouse vegetable industry is significant; however, the cost and restricted availability of workers are holding the sector back. Cucumbers are harvested by hand, and growers spend approximately $27 million annually just on this labor-intensive task.
“We know there are various companies working on autonomous vegetable harvesting solutions around the world, but most indicators for successful deployment are still four to five years away,” says Hussam Haroun, Director, Automation. “At Vineland, we’ve been able to develop a platform that can be ready earlier.”
Vineland’s cucumber harvesting robot is a proof-of-concept solution that moves along rows of plants within the greenhouse. This technology includes a vision system to identify the fruit on the vine, assess ripeness and determine a precise location. It then selects the fruit ready for harvest, cuts it from the plant, and places it into a harvest bin utilizing a robotic gripper.
The system has performed well in trials at Vineland’s research greenhouse and, through further development, could be adapted to other tasks, such as pruning, or applied to other greenhouse crops like peppers, for example.
“We are now looking for one or more partners who can help develop a next-stage prototype to pilot in a commercial greenhouse setting,” Haroun says. “We are able to align or integrate our system with other companies in this space when they are ready to collaborate to bring it to market.”
Although automation is still somewhat in its infancy in horticulture with its added complexity of plant biology and production, automatic systems have long been used in other sectors of the economy, including manufacturing and health care. It’s a complex field where partnerships are critical to innovation success.
For instance, when it came time to source an arm for Vineland’s cucumber harvesting robot, the team turned to existing technology providers for a solution. The search ultimately led Vineland to Quebec-based Kinova, a robotics company whose specialty lies in biomedical research and assistive devices for humans.
Their off-the-shelf arm was ideal for adaptation and optimization in a greenhouse environment, and the collaboration soon went beyond the initial technology.
“As we began working with Kinova, we realized that their expertise in robotics could also help us improve our technology and make it faster,” says Brian Lynch, PhD, Senior Research Scientist, Field Robotics. “Working with partners in allied industries is key to adapting and introducing automation technologies into horticulture.”
Working with the Vineland team has simultaneously helped Kinova gain an understanding of the growth potential in the horticultural sector. According to Haroun, that’s where Vineland can play a key role in helping companies understand the nuances of horticulture and adapt their systems to the market’s needs.
Vineland’s close ties to the horticultural industry can help automation, and robotics companies in other fields map out opportunities in the sector, with validation testing critical to ensuring grower engagement and buy-in.
Greenhouse production, in general, is also moving towards a more data-driven, scientific management approach, and there are other horticultural crops in need of autonomous solutions. All of this combines to spell an opportunity for innovators, companies, and growers, Haroun believes.
“The Vineland approach to innovation, focused on partnerships and collaboration, can help bring these types of solutions to the Canadian industry to address labor shortages and increase the productivity and profitability of the sector,” he says.
In 2018, Vineland was named lead agency for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Automation Cluster to address labor costs and availability through automation, artificial intelligence, and precision agriculture technologies in the horticultural space. Applied research through this program led to the development of Vineland’s automated vegetable harvester, smart greenhouse irrigation technology, and robotic mushroom harvester.
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