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Agri-Food Innovations Recognized at Award Ceremony in London

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Agri-Food Innovations Recognized at Award Ceremony in London

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

The following are regional award recipients from the Southwest Region:

Asparagus Farmers of Ontario - Simcoe

Asparagus Farmers of Ontario (AFO) is the first grower organization to develop its own seed business. In 1996, the organization - representing 90 growers across the province - negotiated exclusive rights to any new asparagus varieties developed through the University of Guelph's breeding program. One of those varieties, Guelph Millennium, became the seed of choice for growers in Ontario and Michigan. Worldwide sales hit $1.2 million and continue to grow, generating profits that are funnelled back into breeding research and marketing programs. This innovative business structure will be a role model for other grower organizations looking to transform.

Blueberry Hill - Rodney

Ontarians are driving up the demand for quinoa, the Peruvian "super food," however most quinoa sold in the province is imported from South America. While the crop can grow in Ontario, the lack of bulk seed suppliers limits commercial production in the province. But local farmers Teresa and James Murray stepped in to develop an organic quinoa seed bank. Working with the Ontario government, the Murrays identified viable varieties of quinoa for Southwestern Ontario. In 2015, they planted four promising selections and dried and cleaned the resulting seeds, making them ready to market to local farmers. For consumers, this means quinoa can now be bought and eaten local. For producers, it opens the door to a lucrative new crop that offers profits of $1,500 to $2,000 per acre and has growing domestic and international demand.

Blueberry Hill Estates - St. Williams

After a decade in the blueberry business, Dale Vranckx grew tired of labour-intensive harvesting and losing berries to pests and high winds. Inspired by the trellises used in high-density apple orchards and grape operations, Vranckx hired a local company to develop a trellis system for blueberry bushes. Growing vertically made the crop easier to spray and harvest, increased yields by 10 per cent, improved worker efficiency, decreased berry losses and added an extra week of harvesting to the season. Vranckx continues to find new ways to improve his system, including adding netting and developing a better harvester to work in tandem with the trellises.

Creekside Growers - Wilsonville

Dahlia tubers need to be planted by hand as conventional planting equipment can't handle the knobbly tubers. But Nicholas VanderHeide, a local cut-flower producer, developed a device using a Kongskilde cultivator as a base that digs a trench for the tubers, breaks up soil compacted by tractor tires, hills over the tubers and even applies drip tape -- all in one pass. The only labour required is placing the tubers in the trench. The new system has doubled the speed of planting. By installing drip tape during planting, it also allows early-season fertilization which improves production. With minor modifications, this innovative planter can be adapted to various root crops, berry canes and other irregularly shaped crops.

Meadow Lynn Farms - Simcoe

Meadow Lynn Farms was unable to find a market for its leftover whole berries and didn't want to see them go to waste. So its owners, the Judd family, borrowed a stovetop steam juicer in 2011 and began producing a pure, pasteurized, seed-free strawberry juice that proved to be a big hit at the Norfolk County Fair. The process is much less labour-intensive than the common two-step cold press and puree methods. Since then, the Judds have experimented with making other value-added products from the juice, including syrup, jelly and even soup. It's an extra stream of revenue for this pick-your-own fruit operation and a great way for Ontario consumers to enjoy local strawberries long after the season ends.

Orangeline Farms - Leamington

In Ontario, getting your fill of strawberries in February usually means purchasing strawberries grown outside the province. Thanks to Dutton and Jordan Kniaziew, though, consumers can now get their hands on fresh, Ontario-grown strawberries all year long. Adapting a European technology for growing strawberries in the winter, the growers at Orangeline Farms installed elevated growing gutters and an "umbrella" canopy system at their Leamington greenhouse operation. The addition of humidification, cooling and frost protection systems extended their growing season, while LED lights help to boost production levels. Since the first crop of Ontario winter strawberries hit shelves in 2014, many other growers across the province have adopted this innovative approach.

Raymont's Berries - Cottam

Stop by Raymont's Berries any time from May through September and you'll find a plethora of strawberries. Typically, Ontario growers can only produce strawberries for five to six short weeks. However, Brad Raymont found that by switching to day-neutral strawberries, which start producing earlier than other varieties, he was able to extend the growing season to as long as five months. He started using black mulch and row covers to warm the soil, getting a head start on the season. Adding a high tunnel helped move up production another two weeks, while using white plastic mulch extended the spring harvest season. The net result is more opportunities for people across Ontario to enjoy local strawberries, while extending the work term for seasonal employees.

Talbot Road Poultry - Jarvis

To help reduce stress and provide a better living environment for their chickens, Kelly and Bruce Vandermolen, owners of Talbot Road Poultry, built two narrow barns parallel to one another. Instead of the typical one wide barn, the double-barn approach makes for less distress during shipping since one barn can be left undisturbed while chickens from the other barn are loaded. Insulation under the concrete floor and natural gas infrared tube heaters keep the barns warm and dry. The roofs are designed to accommodate solar panels and come equipped with ceiling vents and sidewall baffles to maximize airflow. Meanwhile, an improved ventilation system prevents the build-up of ammonia and humidity from manure. The new environment has created healthier chickens - not to mention a 20 per cent increase in profits.

Van Arkel Farms Limited - Dresden

Laurent Van Arkel is a sustainable soil health champion. Over the years, the second-generation farmer has gotten his hands dirty, developing and promoting innovative cover-crop techniques and specialized equipment. He has pioneered a reduced tillage system for sugar beets and developed a customized manure injector that decreases run-off and minimizes soil disturbance. His modified seed drill enables him to interseed his main crop with an established cover crop. He's also actively experimented with cover crops like sunflowers, rye grass and other legumes to protect the soil and rapidly sequester nutrients. Keen to share what he's learned, Van Arkel regularly hosts on-farm tours, consults with researchers and shares his success stories to audiences across North America. In doing so, he's helping sustain Ontario's cropland for future generations.

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