KPU researchers awarded $1 million to grow idea for year-round sustainable berry production

Thu, Oct 5, 2023

Researchers at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) are advancing plans to sustainably grow berries out of season in Canada with a $1-million award from the Weston Family Foundation.

A proposal from the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture (ISH) at KPU has advanced to the Shepherd Phase of the Homegrown Innovation Challenge. Researchers now have 18 months to develop and demonstrate a small-scale proof of concept to create and deliver a market-ready system to reliably, sustainably and competitively produce berries out of season in Canada.

“I worry about climate change a lot, and what makes me optimistic is working at a university where I see innovations that give us hope. We have some hard decisions to make, but we also have the tools we need – and this project is such a beautiful example,” says Dr. Deborah Henderson, director of the Langley-based ISH, one of three research institutes at KPU.

The KPU team’s proposal is to grow strawberries and blackberries inside high-tech greenhouses in a pesticide-free, carbon-neutral environment with support from industry collaborators and Simon Fraser University researchers.

“We believe we’ve chosen the berries which will enter the market with the greatest ease, be the most attractive for producers and consumers alike, and facilitate future berry varieties to be produced out of season,” says Henderson.

KPU researchers have outfitted an ISH greenhouse compartment at KPU Langley with a unique combination of cutting-edge technology focused on plant health and clean energy to create a prototype suitable for widescale rollout in greenhouses across Canada.

Sensors and robotic technologies driven by artificial intelligence will control the growing environment while monitoring for pests and diseases, which will be treated with non-chemical solutions. Clean energy will be harvested and stored between seasons, waste heat will be recovered, and carbon dioxide will be extracted from the air to enrich the plant environment.

“Growers everywhere are interested in these technologies. The last job anyone wants to do is put a chemical in a tank and spray. If you can use a biological solution, or prevent the need for it by maintaining your soil or growing medium, the growers are there,” says Henderson.

KPU researchers are among 11 teams advancing their projects for the Homegrown Innovation Challenge, a six-year, $33-million competition that will ultimately allow four teams to develop and scale their idea. The scaling phase is scheduled to begin in 2025, when up to $5 million will be awarded to each of the top four teams over three years to scale and demonstrate a market-ready solution. By 2028, the Homegrown Innovation Challenge will award two $1 million prizes: an overall winner, and a breakthrough technology winner.

"At the heart of this competition lies the belief that the fusion of collaboration and broad expertise is the key to solving complex challenges in agriculture," says Garfield Mitchell, chair of the Weston Family Foundation. "Our grantees bring out-of-the-box, yet achievable, ideas to the table, and we are excited to see the innovations that arise from their shared passion and collaboration."

The ISH at KPU is a partnership of academia with B.C.’s horticultural industries and the community to support B.C. in meeting demands for a higher level of sustainability and environmental responsibility. Its researchers aim to provide innovative biological and technological solutions for use in agriculture and landscape management to strengthen sustainability and resiliency.