Ministry of Agriculture and Food
The Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence recognizes the success of rural communities, farms and food processing sectors and agri-food organizations in Ontario. Their innovations improve existing products, create jobs and grow the economy.
The program recognizes 50 regional awards, including a Premier’s Award, Minister’s Award, and three Leaders in Innovation.
The following are regional award recipients of the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence from Chatham-Kent, Elgin, Essex and Middlesex Counties.
Pier-C Produce Inc. — Chatham-Kent
Do you know who grew your carrots? In the past, tracing produce back to its farm of origin involved sticking a lot code on every pallet that got shipped. However, once those pallets arrive at the distributor’s warehouse, they are often separated and divided making it impossible to maintain traceability. Enter the “Tag to Bag” system. Developed by Pier-C Produce Inc., it labels each individual bag with the production date and farm origin. Should any food safety issues arise, they can be traced back to the source quickly and efficiently. Tag to Bag has become the industry’s new gold standard. But why stop there? This system makes it easy to include other information too, from harvesting location to the types of inputs used during production.
Howe Family Farms — Aylmer, Elgin County
After more than 40 years of pumpkin farming, the Howe Family knows a thing or two about growing gourds. But in recent years, rising production costs motivated them to try something new: a no-till approach. The process involves growing a rye cover crop in the fall. When the spring pumpkin-planting season arrives, a custom-made roller knocks down the rye prior to seeding. The new approach has slashed labour costs for weeding by a whopping 75 per cent, prevented soil erosion, increased soil health and reduced the need for herbicides. Growing the pumpkins on a thick bed of fallen rye also means less contact with the soil, which has translated to a 25 per cent reduction in washing labour and a cleaner, jack-o-lantern-ready product on store shelves.
Great Northern Hydroponics — Kingsville, Essex County
If you are running a major greenhouse operation these days, you’re also running a lot of software: accounting programs, inventory tracking programs, crop management programs and more. What if you could access all that information through a single interface? That’s the vision at Great Northern Hydroponics. The greenhouse tomato producer has teamed up with Hortimax, a specialist in greenhouse software, to connect the different databases within its 65-acre facility. Together they created “CombiView.” The dashboard system gives everyone from greenhouse technicians to financial clerks instant access to real-time data customized to their specific needs. By increasing productivity and improving traceability, CombiView is giving this Ontario producer an all-important edge over its U.S. and Mexican competitors.
Leamington Area Drip Irrigation Incorporated — Leamington, Essex County
The farmers who invested in the Leamington Area Drip Irrigation project know how much water it takes to grow the perfect field tomato, thanks to research conducted in collaboration with McGill University. That’s exactly how much water their 2,000 acres of tomato plants get. Soil moisture meters send real-time data to the producers’ smartphones and laptops. They use that information along with local weather data, to adjust the remote-controlled valves recently installed on the 36 kilometres of pipeline that irrigate the farms. Under the new watering regime, the farmers have enjoyed record tomato harvests. And what’s good for production is also good for the environment. By fine-tuning their irrigation, they are reducing runoff and using less energy to pump water.
Mastronardi Produce/Sunset — Kingsville, Essex County
Pack your bags: we’re heading on a tomato safari! Each year, senior managers at Mastronardi Produce travel around the world in search of their next award-winning variety of tomato. They bring back likely candidates to the company’s 7.5-acre greenhouse where more than 200 varieties are tested each year. Since 1998, Mastronardi has been introducing new, tastier, higher-yield tomatoes to Ontario growers; varieties like succulent red-brown Kumatos, sweet golden Zimas and uniquely striped heirloom tomatoes, to name a few. For the farmers that buy them, niche varieties spell increased profits. Meanwhile, consumers hungry for more than beefsteak and cluster tomatoes have plenty to choose from in pretty much every shape, colour and size imaginable, all grown here in Ontario.
Savery Canada Inc. — Leamington, Essex County
Greenhouse operations could soon become a little greener, thanks to a new filter system developed by Savery Canada. The company’s R3 Technology filter removes environmentally harmful substances from greenhouse wastewater, capturing 99 per cent of disease-causing organisms, 90 per cent of sulphates and 60 per cent of sodium. Not only that, it recovers 90 per cent of the nutrient-rich water, which can be recycled in the greenhouse throughout the growing season. Savery Canada is now in the final stages of testing the system, which can treat approximately 5,000 litres of wastewater an hour. Once commercial production is underway, the company expects to hire four to six more employees.
Glenwillow Farms — Strathroy, Middlesex County
Transporting commercial sprayers on the highway can be a real headache. The width of most conventional sprayer trailers makes navigating traffic a harrowing experience. Meanwhile, “adjustable” versions are difficult to reconfigure. Peter and Margaret Brown wanted a better option, so they built one. Their unique folding trailer improves on conventional designs and allows for safe and convenient transport of commercial sprayers. It enables a single person to load and unload the sprayer and is designed so sprayer and trailer components are easily accessible for regular inspection and maintenance. It also meets Transport Canada regulations. And when it’s empty? Just fold down both sides and you’ve got a street-legal trailer that measures less than 8.5 feet across.
Heeman Greenhouses — Thorndale, Middlesex County
When the days get shorter and the mercury drops, customers start flocking to Heeman Greenhouses, hibiscus and oleander in tow. The savvy greenhouse operators were the first in Ontario to offer an overwintering service for patio plants. Many customers don’t have suitable space in their home for the plants, while others are snowbirds, heading south when winter hits. Either way, they’re happy to have experts look after the plants that will brighten their back deck come summer. For Heeman’s, the service brings in winter revenue and creates more year-round jobs. This new energy efficient greenhouse creates a tropical atmosphere for the plants to grow. And when customers return to pick up their tropical beauties in the spring, they’re often tempted to pick up a few bedding plants or perennials as well.
Henro Dairy Farms Ltd. — Kerwood, Middlesex County
Forget a stiff brush and a little elbow grease. Henry Keunen figured there had to be an easier way to clean the bottles he uses to feed his calves. So he put his ingenuity to work designing a bottle washer that fits inside his pasteurizer and uses the pasteurizer’s wash system to rinse, clean and disinfect bottles. His invention saves a lot of labour but the benefits don’t end there. Keunen’s calves are healthier these days. There have been no cases of passive transfer of Johne’s disease, a common and costly ailment in dairy cattle. Production and income are up. In fact, the bottle washer is so successful that a local equipment dealer has begun manufacturing it for other dairy farms.
The Flower Ranch — Strathroy, Middlesex County
Most greenhouse operators view algae as a problem, a pesky organism that makes pathways slippery and turns walls green. Not Melinda Rombouts and Dave Burch. The owners of The Flower Ranch garden centre devote 20,000 square feet of greenhouse space to cultivating the single-celled plant in specially designed bioreactors. They sell their harvest to an impressive diversity of customers: nutraceutical producers, fish and poultry feed companies and cosmetics manufacturers. The venture diversifies their revenue stream and keeps more of their employees working year round. Next up, the Rombouts and Burch are aiming to produce a lipid-rich algae that could serve as a biofuel, opening up even more markets for this profitable crop.