Halton’s Annual Forum Focuses on Innovation in Agriculture

Monday, April 20, 2015

Michael Brownbridge, Charles Benoit, Kevin Stemmler, Alex Barlow

Halton Region’s Annual Agricultural Forum, held earlier in January, saw innovation as its focus this year, providing attendees with information on some of the latest trends in agriculture, including new research, funding opportunities and the advantages of developing niche products.

Around 50 farmers, food processors, agri-product processors and elected officials attended the free event at Country Heritage Park to connect with the local farming community and engage in discussion on some important, emerging issues and opportunities.

Michael Brownbridge, Research Director of Horticultural Production Systems at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, was one of the forum’s speakers.

“Vineland’s mission is to deliver innovative products and production solutions for the Canadian horticulture industry and to promote sustainability and profitability through the value chain,” shares Dr. Brownbridge.

“To remain competitive, it is essential that our research allows the industry to stay one step ahead of changing consumer demands and preferences, and offers access to the latest agricultural practices and crop varieties that meet these evolving needs.”

Michael’s presentation provided an update on some of Vineland’s research, highlighting 4 of their research programs:

World Crops (crops not traditionally grown in Ontario or Canada, or introduced by European settlers) Sweet Potato Breeding (dyk domestic consumption has doubled over 5 years?) Roses, and Biocontrol in Greenhouse Crops (dyk Canadian floriculture generates $1.44 billion in farm gate sales?)

World crops research is an exciting and important initiative, with high demand driven not only by new Canadians, but also by the rise of the “adventurous eater” combined with increased demand for local food. Vineland is currently focusing its research on okra and Chinese egg plant (including an assessment of hydroponic production systems to create year-round, local supply), for which there is high consumer demand, although a range of other vegetable crops have also been grown at the research centre.

Michael also discussed some challenges and opportunities in finding the Ontario sweet potato, including a 6,000 acre opportunity to offset imports of the sweet, vitamin-A rich veg. You may view Michael’s presentation here.

Vineland has a new research and innovation hub opening in spring 2015. The new centre will provide large pre-commercial greenhouse space with enhanced environmental controls and a versatile layout, allowing researchers to work in compartmentalized spaces ideally suited to research needs.

Charles Benoit, Co-founder of the Toronto Distillery Company (a past recipient of a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence) was another intriguing speaker, discussing their changes in an already established marketplace by using Ontario-grown organic grains and distilling them into whiskey.

Matt Driscoll of the Toronto Distillery Co. tells us they really value the diverse tastes Ontario has to provide, mashing and distilling a variety of local crops.

“Using only these organic, local products, we’re able to trace what goes in to our whiskies right back to the farm it was grown, allowing for a true grain-to-glass distillery.” He explains, “most large distilleries use unknown quantities or unknown grains and mask all those flavours with years of oak ageing. We appreciate, even cherish, the unique terroir of the local farms we use, and therefore produce as clean and natural a grain spirit as we can so that the result is as if you were drinking the crop straight from the field itself.”

Kevin Stemmler, Co-owner of Stemmler Meats and Cheese, then discussed how businesses can develop niche markets, particularly for consumers with food allergies such as gluten and lactose.

And Alex Barlow, Business Development Executive at Mentor Works, spoke about available government funding options for innovative projects in the agriculture and food sectors.

“Halton Region is committed to supporting and preserving our farming and agricultural community as a key piece of Halton’s economy,” shares Regional Chair Gary Carr. “Halton’s Agricultural Forum is one way we do that, and this year, the focus was on innovation. The Forum showcased some of the latest agricultural innovations to inspire local operators to take their businesses to the next level. We look forward to continuing to work closely with these industries and support them at future forums.”