Ontario Centres of Excellence helps shed right light on ‘growing’ problem in the north

January 15, 2014

The LED multispectral array that is part of the plant research led by Dr. Mike Dixon, University of Guelph.

Anyone who lives or has lived in Canada’s north knows that a fresh cucumber or tomato is a rarity and that all vegetables – no matter how long off the vine – are shockingly expensive. 

Mike Dixon, a researcher at Guelph University, wants to change that. He is the Principal Investigator on a project that is looking into how to create special LED greenhouse conditions for growing vegetables all year round in some of Canada’s harshest climates. It’s an approach that he characterizes as “unconventional, controlled, high density modular farming.”

With a number of funding partners including Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Dr. Dixon and his team are working to develop the correct light spectrum for optimum growing conditions.
“We want to know the specific components of solar energy we need to exploit in these LED systems, which give you the power to isolate various small portions of the solar system for photosynthesis,” he says. “We don’t yet know exactly which colours and how much of them are the best recipe for each type of food.”

“All plants are different. A tomato, cucumber, pepper and lettuce all react a bit differently.” 

The research project is focused on six “food commodities,” or vegetables that are the most costly and that are imported to the north all year round from Mexico or California. 

“We are not looking to compete with local agricultural activities,” says Dr. Dixon. “We are not going to be growing potatoes or any other commodity that would undermine the work of local growers.”  

The project is also seen as a means of creating jobs, including those requiring the technical expertise associated with running computer-automated greenhouses. “And we will need entrepreneurs,” adds Dr. Dixon. 

“Essentially we are proposing that the money that is currently spent on a strawberry in the north will now be spent on a strawberry grown by resident entrepreneurs.”

The ultimate goal is to enhance the agricultural industry of Canada’s north with year-round produce, offsetting the requirement for large-scale importing.  
Dr. Dixon’s lab is where much of the necessary design criteria and testing protocol for both the LED systems and the plant physiology is being developed.

“We are studying the responses that result in various plants from different LED array systems,” he says. 

The potential to commercialize the new technologies that are being developed is of high interest to OCE, which is investing close to $200,000 in the project.

“The prospect of establishing LED greenhouses in areas of the north, including northern Ontario, and all the economic and societal benefits that would flow from that makes this a sound investment for OCE,” says Richard Worsfold, the Business Development Director at OCE who is working on the project. 

OCE’s investment has enabled the researchers to expand the scope of the technology under consideration. “We can now look at some unconventional approaches to lighting including what are known as  inner canopy lights where light is distributed under the plant as well as on top of it,” says  Dr. Dixon. “This allows you to have a much higher density production and enhances production as well.“

Most of the research now being brought to bear on the greenhouse project was originally aimed at growing food much further afield. “We started trying to grow food on the moon and found the technology led us back to earth in areas of extreme and difficult climates,” says Worsfold. 

Another major technology issue that needs to be addressed for the project is designing an effective cooling system.
“Dealing with the heat is a big challenge,” says Dr. Dixon. This is where Com Dev Ltd, another key partner in the project comes in. The largest Canadian-based designer and manufacturer of space hardware subsystems, Com Dev is applying its expertise to solving the engineering problems associated with the growing system. This includes designing the engineering requirements to cool the lights and ensure even distribution of environment control in a particular system. 

Another partner, the Canadian Space Agency, is focused on sensor technology that is being developed concurrently with the lighting. “When you start manipulating the energy sources for photosynthesis, you have to also pay attention to the nutrition you are feeding to the plant roots. Through enhanced sensor technology, we can better understand what is happening in the hydroponic nutrition system,” says Dr. Dixon.  

Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency has also invested $270,000 in related research which is being led by Aurora Research Institute.

“The benefits associated with the project are multifaceted,” says Richard Worsfold. “This will go a long way toward improving the diet of northern communities and, in turn, addressing some prevalent medical conditions such as diabetes. Also, the growth facilities can be located in remote communities and will create local jobs in areas such as gardening, plumbing and electrical work. This can also create the industries needed to build and install the growth chambers.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of First Nations Resource Magazine, a publication from Hope for the Future