Researcher eyes Northern test for agricultural system

photo courtesy of Mike Dixon Mike Dixon is the director of the Controlled Environments Systems Research Facility and a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph.

photo courtesy of Mike Dixon
Mike Dixon is the director of the Controlled Environments Systems Research Facility and a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph.

A professor in Ontario is hopeful that sooner or later a prototype of a system he has developed for growing food on Mars will be tested at Northern Farm Training Institute.

“Certainly we’ve been in discussions and there’s a proposal to do that. There’s no money, yet,” said Mike Dixon, director of the Controlled Environments Systems Research Facility and professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph.

Dixon said he has had discussions in the past with Jackie Milne, president of the farm training institute.

The hydroponic unit is called a modular agricultural production system.

It is a completely artificial environment in terms of light, temperature, humidity control, nutrients, hydroponic recycling systems and other variables.

Dixon said CanNor and various entities in the NWT funded a technical and economic feasibility study of deploying such systems in the North to address food security, economic and health issues.

A prototype of the system was deployed in 2014 in a Kuwaiti desert in a successful research program.

“Actually, this technology all was developed initially for applications in space,” Dixon said.

The professor said the program at the University of Guelph is driven by the technical challenge to go to Mars and grow plants for human life support.

“So everything we do here in terms of research and technology development has that ultimate goal in mind, but of course the technology transfer and potential for spinoff into terrestrial agri-food sectors like harsh environments on Earth – Northern Canada, deserts of the Middle East, etc. – are very real and we’re taking advantage of those tech transfer opportunities,” he said.

Dixon said the system can significantly advance beyond the prototype stage very quickly.

“The prototype and all the technology development, especially the lighting systems, are very firmly established now,” he said. “They’re commercially available in some respects.”

Dixon said there is a building at the NFTI site that could accommodate the pilot project.

However, he said the possible project has stalled because there is no funding for installation or a training program to operate the equipment.

“There is no formal application being considered at this point,” he said, adding he is not quite sure whose court the ball is in right now. “So it’s timely to resurrect this initiative and there’s a great deal of interest in food security in the North from a large number of different quarters.”

The idea is to bring five prototypes to the farm training institute.

“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars certainly to establish a pilot,” he said.

Dixon is optimistic the system could make a difference in the food supply in the North.

“Based on our feasibility assessment, if you choose the right commodities and the right scale and the right distribution operation, there’s no question that this technology is finally cheap enough that it meets the technical challenge at an economical level,” he said. “The other big issues, though, are the technical capacity in the local population. I mean somebody has got to know how to turn on the darn thing and do the horticultural management.”

At the moment, Dixon said the configuration of the project is for relatively small-stature plants, like cherry tomatoes.

“It could be scaled to larger-stature plants, like vine crops and things like that but for the moment it’s designed to address shorter crops basically so that the horticultural management and the logistics are a little simple,” he said. “But it could evolve.”

While discussions with the farm training institute go back two or three years, Dixon said that, as of last week, he hadn’t spoken to the institute for about six months.

Farm training institute president Jackie Milne said there is a building in the process of being completed to house research projects at the farm campus, and that her organization is awaiting the arrival of previously-approved funding to finish the work.

“And then we still need to secure future funding,” she said of a pilot project. “If we’re going to have this technology, we have to have someone with the skill base to take care of it. And so we need to go forward to be able to secure support so we can put into place all the pieces.”

Milne said she is optimistic things can be worked out and prototypes will eventually be installed.

–Paul Bickford