Southern Alberta is a food production powerhouse. Favourable growing conditions and historical investments in irrigation infrastructure have contributed to the region boasting more than 900 farms that generate farm receipts of $1.1-billion per year. Add in 1,200 businesses related to agriculture and agri-food in the Lethbridge area and you have a vibrant hub that is also supported by advanced research capabilities.
Taking a leadership role in research, development, innovation and technical services related to food production is the Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Lethbridge College, which Megan Shapka, the college’s interim director of applied research operations, describes as “the connective tissue between community, industry and research expertise.
“In addition to supporting the industry with education and training, we’ve been doing agricultural applied research for over 30 years,” she says. “Our ambition is to offer these services for every step of the value chain: from field to fork. Our Advanced Post-harvest Technology Centre, for example, is addressing an important research gap.”
Many research efforts focus on ensuring high crop yields. Yet one-fifth of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted during harvesting, packing, storing, handling, transporting and processing. That’s why Dr. Chandra Singh, senior research chair in Agricultural Engineering and Technology at Lethbridge College, believes reducing post-harvest crop loss can help to make food production and supply chains more robust and sustainable.
It starts with determining the best window for harvesting crops, especially when they are at risk due to adverse weather. Drought conditions in 2021, for example, caused crop yields in some areas in Alberta to be down 50 to 60 per cent below the five-year average, notes Dr. Singh. “When your crops are ready to harvest and you have frost, hail, snow or rain, this can severely affect all your efforts and investments.”
Dr. Singh is looking to technology to answer questions like, “How early can we harvest without crop quality being impacted? How long can crops be safely stored? And what can be done with crops that suffered weather damage?”
One research project evaluates the use of wireless smart sensing technology for monitoring in-bin grain storage conditions, including temperature and moisture levels, as well as the efficiency of an automated fan and heater control system for drying grain. Harvesting crops as soon as they reach maturity – and artificially drying grains – can potentially allow farmers to avoid losses due to weather damage, as long as drying doesn’t lead to grain spoilage, quality degradation and excessive energy consumption.
Cost considerations play a crucial role, since the economic impact of crop loss has to take all inputs – including fuels, water, fertilizers, pesticides and seeds – into account, and Dr. Singh adds that minimizing energy costs, for example, for drying, cooling or transporting crops, can result in a reduced overall carbon footprint.
In addition to investigating post-harvest storage and handling of grains, sugar beets and potatoes, and natural air drying and aeration, Dr. Singh and his team look at mathematical modelling, sensing, automation, machine learning and quality evaluation of agri-food products using NIR hyperspectral imaging.
From working with “technology-savvy” next-generation farmers, Dr. Singh is convinced technology adoption will accelerate, especially as costs, for example for sensors, are coming down. “It’s part of our role to validate technologies that reach the market and let farmers know what are good technologies to implement,” he says. “We are also working with industry partners and technology providers to ensure technologies can be commercialized and meet the needs of the user and are economical.”
This type of research is in such high demand that Dr. Singh, who started his position in 2019, has attracted funding of nearly $5-million, including grants from provincial and federal governments and industry support.
“We have direct participation from industry,” he says, “and this means working to specific and very tight timelines.”
The urgency of addressing the complex challenges faced by food producers inspired Lethbridge College to build a team of five post-doctoral fellows and research associates to support Dr. Singh “with a wide breadth of knowledge and international expertise,” says Ms. Shapka. “We’ve made an effort to hire internationally educated and dedicated researchers so we can move at the speed of industry.”
This strategic approach of leveraging partnerships to bolster the strength of the region creates an ecosystem where every member of the value chain can benefit. It also contributes to cementing Canada’s reputation as a leader in food safety and food production.
“The overarching goal – to advance food security and alleviate hunger – is closely aligned with Lethbridge College’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” adds Ms. Shapka.
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Colleges and Institutes Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.