Sustainably protecting fruit and vegetable crops – with technology

Pests and diseases are an ongoing threat to Ontario’s fruit and vegetable crops, and as the climate changes, so do the threats against our homegrown produce.

Ontario’s farmers are taking action, however – and they’re doing so sustainably by turning to technology and innovation for a new generation of tools and solutions that protect both the environment and our food security.

Brian Rideout is one farmer who has long been intrigued by how to do things in ways that will ensure his children, who are the fifth generation on the family’s farm in Chatham-Kent, will be able to have a future growing produce in Ontario. Peaches, nectarines and pears are among his farm’s major crops, but they also grow cherries, strawberries, tomatoes, melons, squash and apples.

“As growers, we continue to learn more and more every day about crop protection practices on our farms,” says Rideout. “Many of the practices we’ve traditionally used have sustainable benefits that we are only now fully appreciating.”

Self-driving sprayers not only cut down on labour in an industry dealing with chronic worker shortages, but they’re also increasingly equipped with sophisticated camera systems that can identify weeds and ensure spray is only applied in those spots.

The sprays that growers are using are much more targeted and precise than in the past, notes Rideout, having shifted from broad spectrum application to single modes of action that very specifically target only certain pests.

As well, many growers use an approach called Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which involves scouting for pests and diseases, targeted treatment and using beneficial or “good” insects to go after ones causing damage to horticultural crops.

Another tool that’s gaining ground is pheromone disruption, which naturally interrupts a pest’s mating patterns to keep populations from reproducing.

“When I look at the tools we have available to us now versus what was available when I first started farming, we are much more targeted and efficient,” Rideout says. “More than ever, growers are thinking about worker health, public health and their own health as well as that of the environment as we adapt technology to protect our crops.”

With margins razor thin in the fruit and vegetable sector, harvesting as much crop as possible is important. That’s why some growers are already investing in new predictive tools that will help them anticipate crop problems so they can take steps to prevent them from happening.

At Kejay Farms, a southwestern Ontario vegetable producer, technology also plays a key role in how the farm manages weeds. According to lead agronomist Wendy Zhang, her team uses both a laser weeder and drones as part of efforts to manage weeds sustainably.

Both organic and non-organic farmers are looking for sustainable solutions. Organic growers are limited in the crop protection technologies they can use, and non-organic farmers are dealing with an increasing number of weeds resistant to commonly used herbicides.

The laser weeder uses a camera to first identify weeds in the field, followed by a high voltage laser that pulverizes them and keeps them from growing back. Kejay was the second farm in Canada to purchase this system, which was originally designed in Europe; more than a dozen systems have been sold since then in Canada.

“About three years ago, we started seeing patches of pig weed that were resistant to herbicides, so we started using the laser to try to suppress populations,” says Zhang. “The weeder doesn’t work on its own to control weeds but it’s an additional tool that can help; our goal is to suppress weeds to a certain level so that we can be sure we can harvest a vegetable crop.”

For Zhang, who looks after scouting the farm’s crops for disease and pest challenges, it’s the drones that have made her life so much easier. Whereas she used to walk a field by foot, today she can scan a whole field in about 10 minutes and upload her findings directly to a computer for analysis.

“We have two drones for farm use – one is a scouting drone that lets us recognize problems earlier so we can take action before we have a widespread problem,” she says. “The other drone scouts for nutrient deficiency. It can spot early colour differences in the crop leaves so I can quickly spot treat only a targeted area instead applying fungicide or fertilizer to a whole field.”

“The weeds are constantly evolving so we have to look to new technologies for solutions,” she adds.

To learn more about the sustainable practices of Ontario’s fruit and vegetable growers, please visit