“It’s very neat,” said Alex McGlashan, co
-ordinator of photonics technology and
from a farming family himself. “It’s really fascinating stuff to get into.” He should
know: his department is deep into multi-year research -- with the help of OntarioInnovation Trust money -- on adapting use of lasers to pruning and perhapsharvesting plants and vegetables.The laser story begins at Sunrise Greenhouses. The family-owned Vinelandcompany had a costly problem: it was losing thousands of dollars worth of plantsto botrytis. A fungal disease, the gray mould blight infects a wide array ofherbaceous annual and perennial plants.Mechanical pruning methods can spread disease microbes as the equipmentmoves from rack to rack. Such cutters can also promote infection at the woundsite as they trim plants. A high-energy laser beam might be a solution, thoughtSunrise general manager Rod Bierhuizen. So he turned to Niagara College.Staff and students in the laser lab are using a carbon dioxide laser with a beamin the infrared wavelength range. The beam can cauterize the trimming point,blocking access to disease pathogens. Since there is no mechanical contact,disease doesn't spread.
A robotic laser system might cost at least $100,000 but research “has showed itworks,” said Bierhuizen, whose enterprise has 200,000 square feet under glass.
Sunrise has since cut its botrytis losses by working closely with the suppliers ofits feedstock plants, but it remains very interested in the laser research.McGlashan casts a bold look into the future in suggesting automated use oflasers and photonics technologies in farming and horticulture. He wonders if itmight be possible to do laser harvesting, such as reaping sugar cane or corn.
“I think there’s something here. I’m not going to say that tomorrow, you’re going
to be cutting your shrubs with the light sabre . . . but we see a future direction
The college is also pursuing early-stage detection of disease not visible to thenaked eye. For example, fluorescence microscopy can show a specific colouridentified with symptoms exhibited by cells ravaged by a disease, but not seen inhealthy tissue. This fluorescence imaging can be captured on plants using UVexcitation.Energy is always a big greenhouse concern. In Dunnville, Rosa Flora Ltd. hasput in three biomass boilers that take wood chips and waste. The idea is to have
neutral” heating system, says operations manager Ralph DeBoer.
Biomass is also cheaper than natural gas which has roller-coastered from $7 to$15 per gigajoule in the past three years, says DeBoer.