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Agri-Food Innovations Recognized at Award Ceremony in Aurora

Archived Backgrounder

Agri-Food Innovations Recognized at Award Ceremony in Aurora

The Premier's Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence recognizes and celebrates the agri-food producers, processors, organizations and rural communities, who through their innovative ideas and projects are helping strengthen our communities, support a sustainable environment, create jobs and boost our economy.

The following are regional award recipients from Haldimand County, Hamilton Region, Muskoka District, Niagara Region, Peel Region, Toronto and York Region.

Aqua Greens - Mississauga

Things are looking up for Aqua Greens - literally. Craig Petten and Pablo Alvarez have transformed their Mississauga-based aquaponics operation from one storey to four, quadrupling production without adding to its carbon footprint. The closed-loop growing system produces organic greens and tilapia year-round, replacing imports with local, sustainable products. By using an aquaponic approach, Petten and Alvarez can grow basil, chives, arugula and lettuce twice as fast as conventional producers - no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides required. To reduce their environmental footprint even further, they rely on mushrooms that naturally emit CO2 instead of bringing in carbon dioxide canisters to promote plant growth. The result is an urban warehouse that provides both intensely flavourful greens that pack four times as many nutrients as their soil-grown counterparts, as well as fresh, local fish.

Beverly Greenhouses Limited - Waterdown

Like all greenhouse cucumber growers, one of the VanderHout's biggest headaches is bugs: the aphids, thrips and whiteflies that munch on their plants. The Vanderhout's are fighting fire with fire, cultivating beneficial insects that destroy cucumber bugs. That's why you'll find more than just cukes growing in their 20 acres of greenhouses. The VanderHout's have found the perfect mix of plants to support his insect warriors: grasses for his aphid parasites, ornamental peppers for the bugs that fight thrips and mullein for a whitefly predator. By experimenting, they figured out the best locations, watering regimes and pruning regimes for these "banker plants." The result is better pest control with little or no need for insecticides: a solution that's good for growers, good for consumers and good for the environment.

Culture City - Toronto

You can't travel far in Indonesia without encountering tempeh: a protein-rich food made from fermented soybeans. Damon Dewsbury and Paul Carter of Culture City, are big fans of the versatile, vegetarian-friendly and gluten-free product. But they are not content to limit themselves to soybeans. The Toronto-based food processors are turning out tempeh with a twist: making versions from chickpeas, black beans, navy beans, lentils and even buckwheat. That's good news for people who want to try a new probiotic-rich food. It's also good news for local farmers, since Culture City is committed to using Ontario-grown ingredients as much as possible for its organic tempeh, miso, pickles and other naturally fermented foods.

FoodShare Toronto - Toronto

Schoolyard gardening brings many benefits: students learn important skills, connect to nature and enjoy fresh, healthy produce. So when FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit, wanted to enhance revenues for their "School Grown" program they increased schoolyard production by implementing tight plantings and quick successions: from 500 pounds of fresh produce in 2012 to 5,000 pounds in 2014. As a result, revenue grew 13-fold. The program now hires 14 students each season, who learn everything from production to merchandizing. The harvest is sold to several restaurants and direct to consumers at two farmers' markets. Now, FoodShare is sharing its secrets via videos, webinars, conferences and more, so that other institutions across Canada can transform urban space into productive farmland.

Grape Growers of Ontario - Vineland Station

More and more, when consumers enjoy a good wine, they also want to support good environmental practices. A new sustainability certification program launched by the Grape Growers of Ontario and the Wine Council of Ontario provides that assurance. The web-based program spans the entire journey from soil to shelf, covering habitat conservation, energy efficiency, water conservation and more. An online assessment tool makes it easy for grape growers and winemakers to benchmark their operations and identify areas for improvement. Once a third-party auditing process is put in place, they can earn certification that will serve as a passport to premium market segments, enhance their international competitiveness and give consumers around the world yet another great reason to choose Ontario wines.

Johnston's Cranberry Marsh - Bala

Ninety-five per cent of the cranberries on the market are processed with high-volume, million-dollar packing and grading equipment far beyond the financial means of most cranberry growers. So when the folks at Johnston's Cranberry Marsh had to replace their antiquated and inefficient packing equipment, they needed a more affordable alternative. Murray Johnston and Wendy Hogarth got to work tinkering with blueberry-sorting equipment. Initially, their experiments ended in failure: as it turns out, cranberries have distinctly different properties than blueberries. The pair persevered, however, using a newer model of optical sorter, a bigger compressor and some software rewrites to create equipment that can efficiently and economically process and pack their cranberries. Today, Johnston's Cranberry Marsh can pursue large-scale grocery chains, confident they have the systems in place to deliver the goods.

KLS Farms - Dunnville

Growing up on the farm, Dean Glenney noticed that corn planted in former fencerows grew two feet taller than the rest. And when he examined the soil there, he noticed clumps with a distinctively cubic shape - a telltale sign of ideal soil structure. As an adult, Glenney put that knowledge to work. Conventional tillage can destroy soil structure and create a hardpan layer that corn roots can't penetrate. So he set about simulating a fencerow environment across his field, planting on the same row year after year. Over the course of 17 years of experimentation, he developed a no-till strip cropping system that reduces inputs, increases drought resistance, reduces runoff, builds long-term soil health and fertility and produces a whopping 270 bushels of corn per acre.

Maizal Inc. - Toronto

To make good tortillas, you need to start with good maize. That's why the owners of Maizal, a Mexican café in Toronto's Liberty Village, are getting their hands dirty. Not only have they contracted several Ontario farmers to grow heritage, open-pollinated maize, they're also experimenting themselves. After harvesting and drying the corn, they process it the traditional way: boiling it with limestone to remove the hull from the kernel and make the nutrients more available. They then mill it in a stone grinder imported from Mexico and form it into fresh dough for tortillas, atoles, tamales and more. This "agro-culinary investigative project" is bringing Mexican cultivation methods to Ontario, supporting local farmers and keeping café customers coming back for more.

Perfect Patch Strawberries - St. Catharines

Ontario's strawberry growers are facing some tough challenges: cheap imports, high production costs and diseases that reduce their yields. So Nico Verhoef set about developing a better way to grow local berries. He filled raised troughs with coco coir and planted continuously producing strawberries. Because the troughs are above ground, the crop stays drier, reducing the spread of disease and hence the need for pesticides. But Verhoef's masterstroke was putting those troughs on variable-speed belts. Now the strawberries can come to workers instead of the other way round, creating far more pleasant and efficient working conditions. At $50,000 an acre, the system isn't cheap. However, it increases plant density by 70 per cent and shaves 30 per cent off the harvesting time - berry impressive results indeed.

Stonemill Bakehouse - Scarborough

Your daily bread just got a little healthier, thanks to Stonemill Bakehouse. The family-owned operation recently launched two new breads. Yes, they're packed with Ontario-grown grains, but that's not all that sets these loaves apart. Stonemill worked with dieticians, nutritionists and food scientists to incorporate health-enhancing nutraceuticals - a first for this sector. Several Stonemill breads have a low glycemic index, making them a great choice for people with diabetes. Meanwhile, the "Heart Health" loaf contains omega-3-rich flax seeds for cardiovascular health. The frozen loaves are wrapped in groundbreaking laminated packaging that controls moisture during thawing, extending the bread's shelf life. Through innovations like these, Stonemill is aiming to double its exports over the next five years and keep health-conscious consumers happy.

Top Tomato Foods Ltd. - Markham

When it comes to veggies, freshness counts. So during harvest time, the packers at Top Tomato put in long hours - sometimes past midnight - bunching broccoli directly from the harvest wagon, icing it, and then putting it in cold storage. Not anymore. Since 2012, Top Tomato's harvesting crew has been putting the broccoli into plastic crates that are immediately cooled to preserve freshness, letting packers bunch them on a less pressured schedule. Better still, the company has installed a system that mechanically lifts the crates onto a rolling belt, increasing efficiency and productivity. Faster cooling also helps increase efficiency and a longer shelf life. Top Tomato's broccoli sales have jumped 48 per cent over the past three years - while its workers are getting home earlier.

Vineland Estates Winery Inc. - Vineland

To make a great wine, you need to be choosy. No under-ripe grapes, no bits of leaves or stems and definitely no bugs. A couple of ladybugs can ruin an entire tonne of grapes. But hand-sorting grapes is a slow, back-breaking business. That's why Vineland Estates has invested in an optical sorter. The first of its kind in Canada, it scans 2,000 grapes per second, gently de-stems the fruit and removes bugs and unwanted plant material. Puffs of air then sort the grapes by colour, size and shape, letting winemakers select exactly what they want. The optical sorter is six times faster than hand-sorting, and it delivers better-quality grapes. By lowering costs and raising standards, this machine promises to revolutionize winemaking in Ontario.

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