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Silicon Valley spirit growing on Fraser Valley farms

B.C.-made agriculture-tech is helping B.C. farms enhance productivity, manage change
BW makes super-sturdy, highly efficient high-tech greenhouses

Farmers and ranchers in Canada face numerous challenges, from avian flu infecting poultry flocks, to climate change adaptation and the loss of farmland to urban sprawl.

Increasingly, they also face a human resources challenge, as farmers age into retirement.

Over the next decade, 40 per cent of Canada’s farmers are expected to retire, and farm labour is getting increasingly harder to find, said Woo Soo Kim, professor of mechatronics engineering at Simon Fraser University and scientific director for the B.C. Centre for Agricultural Innovation (BCCAI).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, automation, innovation and technology are playing an increasingly important role in agriculture, and B.C.’s Fraser Valley is becoming a bit more Silicon Valley, with the growth of locally based agtech businesses.

“A new generation of farmers is adapting traditional growing and harvesting practices to greenhouses, urban rooftops, shipping containers and other unconventional sites,” a 2020 report by the B.C. Food Security Task Force noted.

“These new farms often utilize innovative new technologies, such as robotics, drones, LED lighting, monitoring sensors and farm management software.”

A cluster of agtech companies has grown up around the farms, fields and dairy farms in the valley, and some traditional farm operations have been going increasingly high-tech.

In Abbotsford, one can get a sense of what the farm of the future looks like at Bakerview Farm, one of the business divisions of the Nutriva Group.

The Nutriva Group makes specialty livestock feeds and owns and operates the Bakerview Farm, which includes a dairy farm and chickens, and also produces berries and honey. The dairy farm features a robotic milker and an anaerobic digester, which turns manure into energy.

“We do quite a bit of research,” said Nutriva Group general manager Bill Vanderkooi. “One of the technologies is a hydroponic indoor growing system for wheat grass.”

That system, called HydroGreen, is made by another Fraser Valley agtech firm: CubicFarm Systems Corp. (TSX-V: CUB) in Langley.

CubicFarms developed vertical indoor growing systems in shipping containers that allow farmers to grow crops 365 days a year, including forage crops for livestock.

The HydraGreen system owned by CubicFarms is an indoor growing system that can produce wheat grass for feeding cattle in just six days.

CubicFarm was developed by the founder of Bevo Farms— a fully automated and computerized greenhouse operator based in Langley.

One of the priorities for the BCCAI is promoting food security through the use of controlled environment agriculture (CEA), which includes greenhouses and indoor farming.

Indoor farming and greenhouses address the problems of a limited growing seasons, as well as the limitations of local climates.

“We would like to boost this technology sector we call CEA,” Kim said. “The other thing is, fundamentally, how can you make climate-resilient food?”

A number of agtech companies in the Fraser Valley are in the CEA space.

BW Global Food Systems in Abbotsford has developed high-tech greenhouses that literally take growing food to the next level—as in three storeys high.

The company was recently granted $288,000 through the BCCAI to advance a high-tech greenhouse technology that dramatically increases productivity.

One of BW’s innovations is the use of robotics to fabricate greenhouse components, which can then be shipped anywhere and easily assembled.

“It’s like a big IKEA set … that is monstrously strong,” said BW Global CEO Timothy Kendrick.

The company makes everything from backyard greenhouses, to ones that are three and a half storeys tall. They are completely sealed, which helps to retain heat and prevent infestations from pests and pathogens. But the key innovation in BW greenhouses is that they use “ultra-high diffusion polycarbonate” instead of glass.

Plants in a typical glass greenhouse get sunlight unevenly, with lower leaves shaded by the ones above, Kendrick explained. In intense sunlight, some leaves can become scorched. The high diffusion polycarbonate used by BW scatters light in such a way that all the plants get evenly “bathed” in sunlight.

“You’ve got the light going in all different directions,” Kendrick said. “There’s absolutely no shadowing inside the greenhouse. It’s like bathing the entire plant in light. More of the plant gets illuminated, which is really energy for a plant.”

Having a fully sealed greenhouse allows for better control of the interior growing environment. This can lower the amount of supplemental carbon dioxide needed for growing plants and reduce energy inputs.

“In our first generation of our greenhouse with the University of Fraser Valley, we grew papayas in the middle of winter with zero supplemental lighting,” Kendrick said.

Because greenhouses can grow fruits and vegetables all year round, it essentially increases productivity in terms of land use.

Of B.C.’s four agricultural regions—which include the Okanagan, Peace region and Bulkley Valley—the Fraser Valley has the highest concentration of dairy farms, and these, too, are going high-tech.

Vitalus Nutrition is expanding its Abbotsford dairy plant to 143,500 square feet with help from the provincial government, which is contributing $25 million to the expansion.

The expanded plant will be highly automated and will include new processes to make higher value-added products, such as ingredients for nutritional supplements.

“Our ingredients will be going into high-end nutritional products that go into, for instance, hospital feeding products, so the hygienic design of the plant will be the highest level,” said Vitalus Nutrition CEO Philip Vanderpol.

With the expansion, the company expects to increase the plant’s headcount from 135 to 230.

“Because the plant is going to be very high-tech, these are high-tech jobs,” Vanderpol said. “They’ll be six-figure type income jobs.”

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