Province to fund worker safety, automation tech


Ontario is investing $22 million to try to spark sector-specific innovation, especially related to worker safety.

The Agri-Tech Innovation Program is a cost-share initiative spurring large and small farm operations and processors to adopt innovative and new technologies to increase the health and safety of workers and increase efficiencies and productivity.

Why it matters: The greatest COVID risk for farm operations occurs when many workers need to be close together.

“Our goal is to support the adaptation of sector-specific innovation technologies that will enhance worker protection, increase efficiencies and productivity and help build the sector’s resilience,” said Ernie Hardeman, minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. “I’m enthusiastic about the opportunities it will also offer us to tackle historical labour shortages in our agri-food industry.”

The program addresses two aspects of innovation. One is the “early adopters” stream. The other is the multi-business/organization collaboration to develop new sector-specific technology, including launching innovative pilots or demonstration programs.

The early adopters stream is for projects worth a minimum of $150,000 that increase modernization of a sector with advanced, not widely used, technology. The cost-share would cover up to 35 per cent of the project to a maximum of $100,000.

Tech falling under this stream would include replacing manual asparagus harvesting with a semi-autonomous harvester, optical grading and sorting systems in vegetable processing or automated robotic vineyard pruning robots.

Hardeman said one of the industry challenges faced since the onslaught of the pandemic was the proximity of people working in food processing and the vegetable sector.

The implementation of high-efficiency automated tech “works hand-in-glove” for sectors that require additional space between workers, said Hardeman, and could alleviate the labour shortage from an automation and effectiveness point of view.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel but we think that the industry here is very well equipped to create that tech,” said Hardeman, pointing to the automated transplanter and the robotic greenhouse vegetable picker developed at the University of Guelph.

“Our number one objective is to make sure that our workers are safe in the workplace. The second one is that we maintain or increase the productivity of the whole industry,” he said. “We want to make sure that we don’t restrict this just to producers individually making their own operation better. We want to make sure that we all benefit from.”

Olga Pawluczyk, CEO of P+P Optica (PPO), said funding programs like this have allowed her business to develop a single system automated inspection technology that assesses the quality, safety and composition of food in processing facilities at line speed.

“Manual inspection is often a very crowded part of a food production plant,” she said. “PPO allows processors to redeploy their most scarce and most valuable resource – our people – to more important and safer jobs in other parts of the plant.”

The PPO smart-imaging systems use Ontario-developed hyperspectral imaging and software, artificial intelligence and machine learning, which Pawluczyk said were made possible in part due to provincial funding programs and food producer partnerships.

The first intake will open May 17 and run to June 21, with further details available through the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs website at that time.