Growers need to work closely with crop scientists if a new $17-million, cutting-edge research greenhouse in Brooks is to utilize its full potential, according to the chairman of the Red Hat Co-operative Ltd.
“The research centre has to be tied to the grower and the grower to the research centre,” says Albert Cramer, chairman of the co-operative, the marketing arm for the bulk of southern Alberta’s greenhouse industry.
The greenhouse complex is built on the site of the old ’70s-era Crop Diversification Centre South greenhouse and was described by one worker as “a beautiful facility, the crown jewel of agriculture right now.”
The Alberta Agriculture complex incorporates a slew of environmental and technological advances in its three buildings. In the 10,000-square-foot research greenhouse, staff will work with field crops year-round in compartmentalized bays free from cross-contamination. They’ll evaluate chemical, biological and cultural pest-and disease-control agents, and be able to precisely control factors such as humidity, temperature, lighting, and root oxygenating systems.
Next to it, a 40,000-square-foot production greenhouse (approximately one acre) will simulate a commercial operation, a first for a research greenhouse in Canada. The two are linked by an 8,000-square-foot operations hub housing mechanical systems, training rooms, offices and storage. The facility will promote national and international collaboration and training opportunities for graduate students and post-doctorate fellows, as well as technology transfer to industry.
Open this summer
Expected to open this summer, the facility is currently in the commissioning stage. Workers are filling the production greenhouse with tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers to test all of the advanced mechanical systems during the warranty period.
Meanwhile, growers are thrashing out their research priorities, determining what projects – they’ll share the cost – will give them best value.
“Now that they’re onto a commercial size, it gives them a better feel of what works and what doesn’t work,” Cramer says. “Their numbers will be a lot closer and a lot more useful for us as growers. This spring we’ll start sitting down with Nick Savidov. As an industry, what do we want to see them do?”
Savidov, head greenhouse crops research scientist at Brooks, says, “Our greenhouse crops program is very industry-oriented. All our research projects were initiated by the industry, including aquaponics.”
The Crop Diversification Centre South has been making waves internationally with innovations to its closed-system symbiotic plant-fish technology.
“The idea is to test technologies in the setting of a commercial greenhouse before they are recommended to the growers,” says Savidov.
“The centre has always been a backup for us,” adds Cramer. “If we have a disease problem (for example), they look into it. They take the risks.”
While a commercial grower might experiment with a couple of rows of plants, greenhouse scientists will design large-scale, carefully monitored trials.
For example, for three years they’ve been testing biochar as a substrate, the growing medium used instead of soil to deliver water-borne nutrients to plants. Growers currently use sawdust, which decomposes due to bacterial activity; coconut coir, which has to be imported from Sri Lanka; and rockwool, which is imported primarily from Belgium. All three must be replaced yearly to avoid disease and the waste is hauled to the landfill, at great cost to the growers.
However, biochar, or biocharcoal, is stable for 50,000 years. It has extreme resistance to bacterial degradation and can be coupled with biological protection to suppress pathogens, Savidov says, making it safe to use year after year. It is extremely porous, and so carries air and water effectively to plants.
Biochar is formed when organic material is exposed to intense heat in the absence of oxygen, as when hot lava erupts from a volcano onto a forest. Because there is no oxygen, the material does not burn but undergoes a chemical decomposition. It is produced in Alberta in a gasifier from urban or agricultural waste. It is, in effect, the opposite of using fossil fuels because it compresses and stores carbon.
Like activated charcoal, biochar absorbs contaminants, so growers can use water contaminated by farming activities.
“Even minute quantities of herbicides will greatly diminish the productivity of greenhouse crops,” Savidov says. “I’m pretty sure we can find many other interesting advantages of this new material.”
According to the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association, the industry has 300 acres under glass, and grows $150 million worth of flowers and vegetables per year. It’s poised for expansion in the vegetable sector as food safety, traceability and locally-sourced food gain favour with consumers. The industry is primarily clustered around Redcliff, between Brooks and Medicine Hat. Besides being the sunniest, warmest part of the province, the region has plentiful, cheap natural gas, which is used for heat and to create CO2, a critical nutrient for plants.
GREENHOUSE CROPS RESEARCH SCIENTIST