Canadian AI company partners with Dutch greenhouse supplier

Montreal start-up, Motorleaf, partners with greenhouse supplier, Cultilene, to counter slim profits and severe labour shortages
January 31, 2019
Written by Motorleaf (edited)
Commercial greenhouses worldwide will gain facilitated access to artificial intelligence (AI) from a partnership between the Canadian agricultural technology company, Motorleaf, and Dutch greenhouse supplier, Cultilene.

Promoting the adoption of this technology aims to help counter decreasing profit margins and labour shortages in an industry that produces food more sustainably using fewer resources. Announcements today from both companies mark the official launch of a global expansion campaign to connect large-scale producers of hydroponic tomatoes and peppers with new AI-automation services.

“They keep adding value to their clients, not by selling them more of their products, but by being a trusted source of advice or information that will help their customer[s] succeed,” notes Alastair Monk, CEO, and Jennifer de Braga, head of global customer experience at Motorleaf. “[Cultilene’s] customer base was already talking about their need to better understand their anticipated yield, however, traditional solutions never delivered the result their businesses need.”

Using big data from greenhouse growing conditions, the innovation resides in building custom-made machine-learning algorithms that predict future greenhouse production levels. In addition to reducing risks due to unpredictable weekly harvest yields, the technology enables growers to streamline operations, reduce costs and retain agriculture expertise within smart software. Prior to the partnership, introducing AI innovations to greenhouses faced challenges stemming from a disconnect between urban technology developers and the diffuse, rural farming community.

After seeing Motorleaf’s results first-hand, Cultilene naturally started to suggest the AI solutions company to their clients. “It's the perfect synergy of 'trusted green thumbs' plus new technology for the client[s],” notes Monk and de Braga.

Through this partnership, Cultilene/Saint Gobain will be a trusted distributor of Motorleaf’s AI/machine-learning solutions, working with clients to understand if they would be a good fit for Motorleaf’s services.

“Most greenhouses are a great fit,” notes Monk and de Braga, “however, in some rare cases, a greenhouse may not have collected the data we need to deliver our service. They work with our client experience team, who in turn works with our AI team to on board the greenhouse and deliver a custom harvest forecasting solution within a few weeks.”

A first in precision farming: Automated, accurate harvest yield estimates
Essential to every business is knowing when and how much product it can get to market. This proves challenging in agriculture, where variations in growing conditions cause unpredictable fluctuations in the ripening - and thus, market readiness – of crops like tomatoes and peppers. Current means to predict weekly harvest yields is an imprecise, manual and time-consuming process that is prone to error. Training AI technology with data from growing conditions and records of past harvest yields offers a cost-effective solution that has been adopted by Motorleaf customers in North America, Japan and Europe. The resulting algorithm can automate harvest forecasting and provide crop yield predictions with 50 to 70 per cent less error compared to estimates made by a human.

"We are convinced that Motorleaf's harvest forecast service has added value for tomato and pepper growers worldwide. That is why we are actively bringing this service to the attention of our customers. In addition, this harvest forecast service is a perfect example of “data-driven growing”, one of the most pioneering developments within the global horticulture sector and a cornerstone objective of Cultilene,” said Mariëlle Klijn, marketing manager at Cultilene who played a key role in establishing the partnership.

Cultilene has grown from the epicentre for greenhouse farming in Holland to become a leading supplier of Albarino diffused glass surfaces and substrates for greenhouses worldwide. Depending on the availability of data from each greenhouse, Cultilene estimates that hundreds of greenhouses on both sides of the Atlantic could benefit from Motorleaf’s AI-automation services, which the tech company brought to market last year. The strategic partnership serves to introduce and educate growers about the novel technology and provide assurances for data protection and cybersecurity.

“Agriculture is totally different from the tech sector. Tech companies are expected to scale with ease using online platforms and digital tools. The fact is that farming remains a personal industry that prefers to seal deals with a handshake between well-known neighbours. Cultilene enables us to make that handshake with greenhouse owners far and wide,” said de Braga.

Growing labour shortages necessitates automation and retaining knowledge
Once trained with sufficient data, the algorithm provides a means to retain expertise and knowledge required for harvest forecasting that once was exclusive to highly-skilled agronomists and technicians. Finding new methods to preserve expertise is of importance since fewer people are pursuing careers in agriculture.

Agriculture in North America and the European Union (EU) face a looming labour crisis, estimated to reach over 100,000 missing workers by 2025 in Canada alone. Mounting shortages of both skilled and unskilled workers hamper economic growth and result in significant crop losses and food waste since there are too few workers to harvest crops on time. Last year's agriculture output in Ireland, for instance, declined by 14 per cent due to labour shortages. Greenhouse farming is no exception. This is why the industry requires multiple strategies to account for labour shortages, including the use of automation technology.

Over a year in the making
Establishing the strategic partnership required a year of preparations in order to vet the technology and assure harmony in data security regulations, which differ between Canada and the EU. Now launched, this partnership is representative of the growing ties between the agricultural sectors of both regions. When aligned through strategic partnerships, the expertise of Holland as a greenhouse titan, married with rapid innovation in Canada’s artificial intelligence sector, enables economic development on both continents.

Both companies will spotlight their partnership at the major, international agri-food trade show, Fruit Logistica, in Berlin from February 6 to 8, 2019.

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