Stress levels in greenhouses can be high at times, but it’s not necessarily the humans who feel it first. When plants stress out, their cries for help may go unheard until it’s too late.

Any number of issues could be the cause, from undesirable nutrition and water levels, to unwelcome climatic conditions, pests and diseases.

According to the BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association, pests alone cost producers $22 million every year with crop losses up to ten percent. That’s when growers start to feel the stress too.

Most greenhouses rely on human scouts to watch for pests, but by the time the evidence is there for all to see, the damage has already been done. At that point, pesticides and quarantine are about the only options left.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Dr. Saber Miresmailli and his team from Ecoation Innovative Solutions (EIS) in North Vancouver are developing a wireless crop health monitoring system, known as Crop Sense™. Without touching a single plant, their crop health sensors will detect minute changes inside the plant, on its surface and in the surrounding area. Crop Sense™ triggers an alarm the moment the crop is impacted, long before the problem is visible.

“The trick is discerning when these changes indicate a serious problem, when it’s background noise, and when the plant is just having a tantrum,” says Saber.
To help with this, the company established a research greenhouse at the University of British Columbia to test its technology on eleven tomato cultivars. They then conducted massive data collection at commercial greenhouses to complete a signal database and refine their predictive models and prototype.

The project is now shifting from a laboratory prototype to a field-tested product. More tests will run at Houweling’s Tomatoes and Delta View Farms during the 2016 season.

Scouts can take up to ten weeks to check every plant in a ten-acre greenhouse, and a lot can happen in the time between checks. Through automation, this can be cut to five days, meaning every plant gets a lot more individual attention and problems can be identified before they really become a problem. That’s good news for growers. 

With this technology, greenhouse workers can identify issues sooner, and take corrective action long before there is widespread crop damage. The company has filed a provisional patent that may result in three or four full patents.

“The IAF funding played a huge role in making this a possibility,” says Saber.

Ecoation and Saber’s work has not gone unnoticed. He was invited by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work on smartphone based technology for cowpea farmers in West Africa and he received IAF’s 2015 Award of Excellence for Innovation.

“I regard the award as a driving force that is going to help us change the way we produce and protect our food,” remarks Saber, who credits his wife and business partner, Maryam Antikchi, as the brains of the operation. “We are the perfect team, the two of us.”

For more information about Crop Sense™, visit: www.crop-sense.com

FUNDING: Up to $207,200 provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture through the Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program under Growing Foward 2, a Federal-Provincial-Territorials Iniative (INN175).