New government fund aims to help grow high-tech agriculture

·3 min read
Earl Kidston stands at his berry farm in Canning, N.S., where produce is grown using sophisticated greenhouse technology. (Michael Gorman/CBC - image credit)
Earl Kidston stands at his berry farm in Canning, N.S., where produce is grown using sophisticated greenhouse technology. (Michael Gorman/CBC - image credit)

Farming may be a part of Earl Kidston's family history, but technology is what will make it a part of his future.

"Agriculture is changing," he told a crowd assembled at his Canning, N.S., operation during a provincial government funding announcement on Monday.

"This was a hog farm a few years back. We had to change. We couldn't stay the same."

Today the farm, part of the Nova Agri Group, grows berries using high-tech greenhouse methods that allow for controlled environments free of many of the headaches that have become so common in the face of climate change.

"We were losing control of our production with the weather changes," said Kidston, president of Nova Agri.

More money, less pollution

Eight years ago they brought in technical expertise from countries already using advanced technology to grow food and they started making the transition. The computer-based system ensures no plant nutrition goes to waste and controls the atmosphere inside by responding to temperature and wind changes outside.

The result has been better working conditions for employees, fewer issues with pests and disease, an extended growing season and yields as much as three times higher per square metre.

The technological shift happening at this farm and others across the province was the inspiration for a program Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin announced Monday that will see $5 million spent over two years to help fund similar projects.

The funding streams cover 50-75 per cent of the cost for small and medium projects, 30-50 per cent for large-scale projects and provide money to help projects that qualify for any similar programs from the federal government.

The program is proof that sectors can reduce their environmental footprint and increase their bottom line through higher yields and more sales at the same time, said Rankin.

"It's a win-win because we're able to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions here or we're displacing imports coming in that are using a lot more greenhouse gas emissions for travelling, bringing products into our province."

Addressing food security concerns

Reducing imports and increasing domestic food supply is a major goal for Kidston, and he said these types of technology shifts will help make it happen.

"To be able to replace imports you have to have a consistent supply of quality product and you have to have it at a cost-competitive basis. We were losing on those fronts."

Like Kidston, Agriculture Minister Keith Colwell said the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of food security. The past year highlighted weaknesses within the domestic supply chain, he said.

The minister said last year there was a threat at one point of the country running out of some types of food because of issues at some beef, chicken and pork processing plants. The issue was averted thanks to enough existing supply at the time to bridge production gaps, but it exposed a major problem.

"It was real, it did happen," said Colwell. "We didn't want to talk about it at the time for obvious reasons because people would have panicked and bought everything off the shelves and then there wouldn't have been food for people who didn't have the resources to do that."

But with more farms making shifts like the one Nova Agri Group is making, Colwell said he's bullish for the future of locally grown food and its consistent availability for Nova Scotians.

"It means we can have year-round crops that we didn't have before and make sure when you go to the store it's not a product of Mexico anymore or the U.S. or whatever the case may be. That means a lot."