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AAFC searches for automated CEA solutions to target labour shortages


January 4, 2021
By Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (edited)

Topics

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is launching a challenge to help enhance automation in the production and harvesting operations of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) facilities.

As the global demand for Canada’s agricultural products increases, production output levels will also increase, requiring adjustments to workforce productivity. No easy task, as the agricultural sector already faces chronic labour shortages and has difficulty attracting and retaining workers. More specifically, the greenhouse industry has the largest labour gaps, with positions reportedly the toughest to fill, accounting for 59 per cent of the industry workforce and 90 per cent of the current labour gap.

AAFC’s challenge seeks labour-saving automation and robotic technologies to reduce time spent on labour intensive tasks and reduce costs for CEA facilities.

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The solutions should:

  1. Be a new or adapted technology with the ability to enhance efficiency in CEA facilities. This could include, but is not limited to, reducing the average amount of time spent per worker on a specific task or reducing the number of workers required to perform a task;
  2. Increase accessibility, meaning that CEA facilities, from small to larger operations, can purchase and implement the technology in a method that is cost effective; and
  3. Ensure the new technology adheres to all regulations (federal or provincial) connected to worker health and safety standards including any new COVID-related protocols in CEA facilities.

The closing date for applications is Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. EST.

Prospective applicants should refer to the Innovative Solutions Canada Grant Instructions and Procedures document, and click here to determine eligibility.

How the grants work

Multiple grants could result from this challenge, and are broken down into two phases.

Phase 1:

  • The maximum funding available for any Phase 1 Grant resulting from this challenge is: $150,000;
  • The maximum duration for any Phase 1 project funded by a grant resulting from this Challenge is up to six months; and
  • Estimated number of Phase 1 grants: two.

Phase 2:

  • The maximum funding available for any Phase 2 Grant resulting from this challenge is: $1 million;
  • The maximum duration for any Phase 2 project funded by a grant resulting from this challenge is up to 24 months;
    • Note: Only eligible businesses that have completed Phase 1 could be considered for Phase 2. and
  • Estimated number of Phase 2 grants: one.

Selected companies are eligible to receive one grant per phase per challenge.

Final decisions on the number of Phase 1 and Phase 2 awards will be made on the basis of factors such as evaluation results,

How COVID revealed vulnerabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the industry’s vulnerabilities to labour shocks, which had an impact on the supply chain.

The financial impact of the labour shortages in this industry include lost sales due to planting and harvesting delays and losses, and delayed expansion plans.

In addition to labour shortages, barriers to greater sector automation have been associated with high costs and low profit margins for existing technology. Lowering the cost or improving the productivity of any automation solution would improve the Return on Investment (ROI) and enable the adoption and dissemination of new or improved CEA technology.

2025 labour forecast

CAHRC forecasts that by 2025, Canada’s demand for labour in the sector is expected to grow by 0.5 per cent per year and the workforce is expected to shrink by 93,000 workers or 27 per cent of the current number. As a result, the current labour gap is expected to double.

The total number of employees of specialized greenhouse operations has been relatively stable over the past five years. In 2019, 12,492 people were employed in the greenhouse vegetable sector: 7,347 permanent employees and 5,145 seasonal employees. Ontario accounted for 65 per cent of the total number of greenhouse operation employees in Canada.