Vineland Station -- There’s no glass ceiling on what can be accomplished through research. That was clear at the June 3 official launch of the new pre-commercial greenhouse at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre. The $10.4 million, state-of-the-art facility has been long in the planning, a “confederacy of good ideas,” according to CEO, Jim Brandle.
In fact, since the renaissance of the horticultural research station in 2007 and Brandle’s appointment as CEO, the vision has always been to build this greenhouse. Almost a decade ago, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) was a significant financial partner in rebooting the research station. OMAFRA minister Jeff Leal announced another $7.2 million to support research that will make greenhouse-grown
vegetables more resilient in Ontario’s climate humid summers and dark winters.
“This is an opportunity to increase production efficiency and environmental performance,” says Jan VanderHout, a cucumber grower and chair of The Ontario Greenhouse Alliance. “I’m looking to evolving research on dehumidifying our greenhouses and eliminating the need for venting out excess humidity. I see this as the next opportunity for improving performance.”
The climate-controlled, 40,000 square-foot greenhouse is already home to tomatoes on the vine and eggplant. One project is to improve flavours in tomatoes, reaching targets set out by consumer test panels. Pest and disease management, some through biocontrols, are another. Expect the development of smart watering systems through wireless technology. Robotics and automation will become ready-to-use technologies in the near future.
These projects, earmarked by growers and industry partners, will help keep Ontario’s $1.6 billion greenhouse vegetable industry competitive in the future.
“This is a great opportunity for the greenhouse and horticultural sector in Ontario and across Canada,” says George Gilvesy, chair, Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers. “These are world-class facilities that will help us differentiate our products and deliver what the consumer wants.”
Officially named the Collaborative Greenhouse Technology Centre, it is expected to be a hub of research bringing together companies, industry and researchers for fast-track commercialization.
Some of the greenhouse’s unique features include:
• Strict control of temperature, humidity and lighting to accommodate all types of research crops and projects
• 13 large-scale compartments, including two vegetable houses with seven-metre gutter heights that meet commercial vegetable greenhouse standards, and 11 flower houses with five-metre gutter heights consistent with commercial flower greenhouse standards
• Below-ground trenching to reduce shading in the greenhouse
• Collaborative space in the greenhouse that allows partners to work directly in the facility with researchers.
Coincidently, CEO Jim Brandle, celebrated his ninth year as CEO the week of the greenhouse opening. He concludes, “While the bricks and mortar footprint of this project is commendable, what sets it apart is the unique opportunity it will provide for problem solving, collaboration with our ever-widening range of partners and the commercialization of great science.”
Consumers share insight into flavour
The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers have ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to Vineland’s new research greenhouse. The association is funding significant dollars to differentiate the flavour of Ontario greenhouse-grown tomatoes-on-the-vine from other competitors. The goal is to breed two flavourful, Ontario-adapted hybrids by 2020.
Two summers ago, that research started within Amy Bowen’s consumer insights group. Vineland’s trained sensory panel evaluated 56 diverse varieties of greenhouse-grown tomatoes, some of which originated with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada germplasm collection, for differences in texture, aroma and flavour.
Next, that basket of tomatoes was whittled down to 18 varieties and presented to the consumer panel to indicate their preferences.
From this, a preference map was created benchmarking the industry standard and graphically showing there’s room for flavour differentiation in tomatoes. “We came up with a lexicon of attributes to describe tomatoes,” says Bowen. “Words ranged from hay and vegetal to umami and smoky.”
The ideal tomato is a little tricky, says David Liscombe, research scientist in biochemistry at Vineland. “Texture is a huge driver but so is aroma and flavour.”
In the past, seed companies have bred tomatoes for agronomic attributes such as disease resistance and yield. Until recently, the tools have not been available -- or too expensive -- to link consumer olfactory and taste preferences to chemistry. Vineland’s interdisciplinary team is excited about how questions can now be asked of consumers about what they want before years of painstaking breeding.
The team consists of Amy Bowen (consumer insights), Valerio Primomo (vegetable breeder), Dave Liscombe (biochemistry), Travis Banks (bioinformatics) and Anissa Poleatewich (plant pathology).
While these research scientists bring their product to fruition, the business model for licensing these varieties and rolling profits back into research is still to be settled. But the prospects for commercial success seem tantalizingly close with Vineland’s previous track record. The research station has already produced Pixie grapes, an ornamental dwarf grapevine, the Cold Snap pear and the development of the Appassimento grape-drying system for Ontario conditions.