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Can ‘miniature greenhouses’ make vegetable production in Canada’s far north more viable?

It doesn’t take a worldwide pandemic to put focus on food security in northern Canada. Northerners have always worked to adapt and develop their own sustainable food systems, even in the face of unique challenges such as short growing seasons and long, easily disrupted supply chains.

The Government of Canada is working with partners, including territorial governments, to address the unique needs of Northerners through various programs such as Nutrition North Canada and the Local Food Infrastructure Fund, which provides up to $75 million to help vulnerable Canadians get access to safe and nutritious foods. Additionally, a group of 10 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) researchers across Canada are collaborating with Government of Yukon researchers in Whitehorse and a local farmer in Happy Valley – Goose Bay, Labrador, to find ways to increase crop production in northern communities. They recently started a three-year project to study how temperate-climate season extension technologies, such as bioplastics and low tunnels, can increase vegetable production and help increase food security in Northern communities.

“Bioplastics, or ‘plasticulture’, as part of a group of season-extension technologies, are not new concepts for farmers. However, they haven’t been widely studied for use in northern climates, such as the Yukon and Newfoundland & Labrador,” says AAFC Cold Climate Eco-physiologist Dr. Julia Wheeler. “What we hope to find is, by using bioplastic and other season-extension technology, northern Canadian farmers can extend their growing season and improve the yield, shelf-life, and nutritional quality of their vegetables, she says.”

 A close-up photo of a scientist’s face. 
Dr. Julia Wheeler and AAFC technician Dena Wiseman
conducting research in northern Canada | AAFC

Dr. Wheeler and her team are installing reusable, half-meter high plastic tunnels, which she refers to as “miniature greenhouses,” (see picture above) over each vegetable row. They are designed to warm the air temperature around the plants to promote growth. The team is also exploring various types of biodegradable bioplastic mulches. These very thin layers of bioplastics are laid directly over the soil at the beginning of the season, and trap heat in the soil, promoting earlier growth. The bioplastic mulch then breaks down into the soil over time.

Bioplastic mulches are an alternative to non-degradable agricultural plastics that require bulk disposal, and can offer an opportunity to reduce plastic loading to the environment. Dr. Wheeler is interested in observing how these bioplastics break down in soil in northern climates as they have not be widely tested in this environment.

The researchers are also using these products to see how they affect the yield and quality of common locally grown crops like potatoes, carrots, and rutabagas, in addition to green beans, which are warm-climate crops that represent more of a novel test case for the region.

Government of Yukon researchers Randy Lamb and Brad Martin, in Whitehorse, and Des Sellars of Nature’s Best Farm in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL, are collaborating to provide their expertise in this research.

AAFC researchers Dr. Ed Gregorich and Dr. David Overy (Ottawa, ON), along with Wheeler, Lamb, and Martin, are also studying how these low tunnels and bioplastic mulches affect soil health and quality when used in cooler temperatures. Specifically, they are looking at how changes in sunlight – higher amounts in Yukon versus lesser amounts in Newfoundland and Labrador – influence the soil materials and whether potential residues from the biodegradable mulch stay present in the soil over time.

AAFC plant phytochemist Dr. Shawna MacKinnon (Kentville, NS) is measuring nutrients in harvested crops, to determine if different production methods affect nutritional quality.

Dr. Peggy Dixon, AAFC entomologist (St. John’s, NL) and Dr. Tobias Laengle, AAFC Pest Management Centre (St. John’s, NL), are consulting on pest identification and management strategies. AAFC pathologists Dr. Linda Jewell (St. John’s, NL) and Dr. Rick Peters (Charlottetown, PEI) are monitoring any emerging disease threats to vegetables in northern climates and landscapes during the growing season or post harvest where diseases and bruising can cause spoilage in storage.

“There is limited research on agricultural pests and diseases in northern climates. With these new farming methods, we’ll have an opportunity to determine which pests or diseases are impacting crops and offer ways to control them,” says Dr. Jewell.

The research team intends to continue working with northern communities even when this project finishes in 2022. They will share expertise from their research and engage in discussions to co-develop new studies with northern communities to build a flourishing path for farmers in the future.

“Any edge that we can provide to these farmers puts more locally sourced food into northern Canadian communities,” says Dr. Wheeler.

Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)
Cover photo: Field-level view of farm site with combinations of degradable plastic mulch and low tunnels deployed over emerging green beans | AAFC
Related story: Province Seeking Proposals from Farmers for Large-Scale Potato Production | VOCM, an AM radio station in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.

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