By Dave Harrison
Among projects, the research team is hoping to apply photonic technology to detect plant diseases well before they are visible to the naked eye.
The Niagara College greenhouse program has expanded its research capabilities.
The College has 20,000 square feet of greenhouses. It offers Horticulture Technician, Landscape Technician, and most recently, Greenhouse Technician co-op programs.
A 21’ by 48’ bay of greenhouse space has been transformed with extensive infrastructure upgrades to better permit research projects. The area is walled off and isolated from the rest of the facilities. The project will also include a small preparation area at the doors to the self-contained facility. The work was supported by a $90,000 Ontario Innovation Trust grant.
The new facilities will greatly improve the college’s plant research capabilities, said Prof. Olga Piedrahita. It will handle both floriculture and vegetable projects.
The college has hosted small projects for a number of years. Last fall, for example, students worked with Koppert Canada biological systems specialist David Neal and OMAFRA floriculture IPM specialist Graeme Murphy on poinsettia trials utilizing biologicals.
(Neal is a Niagara alumnus, having graduated in 2000 from the Horticulture Technician program.)
Horticulture faculty also teamed with colleagues in the college’s photonics department to investigate the use of lasers as plant-trimming tools. The school was approached in the fall of 2004 by local grower Sunrise Greenhouses Inc. The existing method for trimming plants uses mechanical shears or blades, and often results in crop losses through plant damage or the spread of disease. Sunrise was hoping to minimize these problems through a non-contact way of trimming plants. Initial research findings have been encouraging with certain species. Work on a commercial prototype plant-trimming robot is underway.
The first project planned with the new research facilities is a continuation of that work. The research team is hoping to apply photonic technology to detect plant diseases well before they are visible to the naked eye, and early enough to prevent spread by such processes as cutting and trimming. Developing such an application would alert growers that action is required well before any harm is done.
The Ontario Innovation Trust is sponsoring both photonics projects.
In addition to partnering with local growers and suppliers, the college also expects to work with larger research programs, such as the Greenhouse and Processing Crops Research Centre of AgCanada in Harrow, Ontario.
“We will be able to do some of the preliminary work they might not have time for,” explains Piedrahita. “We have limited space here, so it’s important to tie-in with other centres.”
Niagara College has a lengthy history, some 35 years or so, of training horticulturists, many of whom have advanced to management positions.
The Greenhouse Technician program, only three years old, is already generating a lot of attention. The first class had five students, the second had seven, and the third has 11. The capacity is 24. “We have room to grow,” says Piedrahita. Many of the college’s horticulture program grads are doing very well in the greenhouse business, she notes. “The Greenhouse Technician grads certainly have no difficulty finding good jobs.”
Helping assist faculty in fine-tuning the curriculum is its 18-member Program Advisory Committee. The committee includes a who’s-who of local industry leaders. They meet twice a year and have tackled such recent issues as jobsite safety, tow motor training, and the proposed development of a true greenhouse apprenticeship program.
PAC chairperson Pete Hendriksen is a Horticulture Technician program alumnus. The group helps ensure the curriculum remains relevant and topical. “We’re here to provide suggestions to the faculty of how the school can best prepare students to meet the needs of industry.”
One of his sons was among the first five graduates of the Greenhouse Technician program. It’s interesting to note that four members of that graduating class were immediately hired by nearby St. David’s Hydroponics. The company is a North American leader in pepper production, operating three greenhouses in the Niagara region. Having four graduates hired by one company, Hendriksen notes, “is a testament not only to the program, but also to the leadership group at St. David’s Hydroponics for bringing those graduates on board.”
Industry involvement in the program also includes guest lecturers. Among recent speakers were OMAFRA floriculture specialist Wayne Brown, Jeffery’s Greenhouses head grower Albert Grimm, and Boekestyn Greenhouses partner/ owner Ed Boekestyn. A representative from Priva Computer assists during the environmental control course.
Being situated in the heart of a major greenhouse community – the sector, both vegetable and floriculture, accounts for just shy of 43 per cent of total farmgate sales in the Niagara region – also allows the students to benefit from regular grower tours. “The growers can easily see how much technical understanding the students have when they’re discussing rootzone management or environmental controls (with them),” says Piedrahita.
The course is set up to be as practical as possible, she adds. Students work on such projects as comprehensive subirrigation trials and intensive plant/canopy temperature studies. They’ll also be involved in the expanded research program.
“What we want them to do here is become problem-solvers,” she notes. “That’s what growers do most of their time.”
College emphasizes ‘hands-on’ learning
Niagara College is committed to a “hands-on” practical approach to education, notes Jim Thomson, manager of Campus Development, Greenhouse and Nursery division. “In order to fulfill this obligation to the students and industry, we have built a state-of-the-art teaching greenhouse, in addition to hiring the best possible instructors.”
As greenhouses are expensive to build, maintain and operate, they have been set up as a “learning enterprise” to help offset expenses.
Plants grown by the students as part of their curriculum are sold to the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, local residents, and staff and students at the college. Other material is planted on the grounds.
“Our greenhouse is a centre of learning,” adds Thomson, “and the students have the opportunity of dealing with the public and sharing the knowledge they have acquired. They realize that in order to sell their product, it is critical to strive to meet industry standards.”
Graduates are working throughout Canada, and in the U.S. “Currently there are more job opportunities than graduates to fill them.”