Growing crops sustainably with as small an environmental footprint as possible is very important for fruit and vegetable growers. After all, they rely on the air, soil, water and climate to grow the crops that ultimately become our food.
Research has shown, for example, that more than two-thirds of Ontario fruit and vegetable growers use environmental practices such as cover crops, conservation tillage, riparian area management, and reduced pesticide use. Many fruit and vegetable farms have an active Environmental Farm Plan that helps them identify areas where improvements on their farms can be made, encouraging a higher level of environmental protection.
As well, growers are also actively participating in the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs' Soil Action Group that is working on implementation of Ontario's soil strategy for long-term soil productivity.
Overall, growers are continually looking for new tools and technologies that will help make production, cleaner, greener and more cost effective.
Here are a few examples of how growers are adopting the latest strategies to fight pests and diseases in their fields, orchards, vineyards and greenhouses:
- Mating disruption. Many insect species communicate with each other using different chemical signals called pheromones. Growers use synthetically produced pheromones to confuse the insects and naturally disrupt their mating patterns, which slows or stops their ability to reproduce.
- Sterile insects. Another natural way to control pests without harmful environmental impacts is the release of sterilized male insects of specific species, which causes wild females to lay eggs that aren't viable.
- Automated insect traps. High-tech, smart traps use cameras and artificial intelligence to automatically identify and count insect pests. This provides growers with real-time information on which pests are threatening a crop and to what level so they can respond quickly to minimize or even avoid a problem altogether.
- Spore trapping. Some plant diseases travel through the air and can't be detected by growers until they're causing damage to a plant. Spore traps are used by growers as an early warning sign of diseases like blight; the microscopic spores carried through the air are caught by a spore trap, so growers can preventatively protect their crop only when and where there is a disease risk. This reduces unnecessary use of sprays and tractors travelling across fields when a crop is not at risk.
Growers are focused on increasing the energy efficiency of their farm business to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decrease emissions. The greenhouse industry in particular is placing a heavy emphasis in this area.
For example, in order to ensure a steady and ideal indoor temperature in the growing area, many greenhouses use a special boiler system to heat their facilities. As carbon dixoide is expelled from the heating system, it can be captured and filtered to be used as a natural fertilizer to feed their growing plants.
Fruit and vegetable growers need water for a wide range of tasks on their farms, from watering crops to washing root vegetables like carrots before sending them to market.
In order to support ensure responsible and sustainable water use, the provincial government requires growers to have a permit to take water when they're using more than 50,000 litres of water a day for irrigation or activities like washing. This is to ensure that the environment can handle the amount of water being taken and that other users, including homes, businesses and other farms, are not negatively impacted.
To manage their water resources more sustainbly, farmers are using more efficient irrigation systems. They're also reducing the amount of water needed for washing vegetables by using de-dirters that leave more soil in the field instead of clinging to the produce, and using technologies that reduce the amount of soil that stays in the used wash water.
Packaging and recycling
Packaging is a necessary part of transporting and selling produce - it protects delicate fruits and vegetables against bruising and damage during transport, and can lengthen shelf life at retail and in the home.
Growers work with their value chain partners like marketers, distributors and retailers to make sure packaging is a sustainable as possible (more recyclable content, less packaging, biodegradable options), without compromising food safety and quality or increasing food waste.
Growers also participate in agricultural industry plastics recycling programs like those run by Clean Farms to ensure empty spray and fertilizer containers are returned for recycling.