strawberries growing in a greenhouse
Strawberries growing in a Sunterra Greenhouse facility. Photo credit to Lauren Dale with Sunterra Market.

New research findings will help greenhouse producers make informed decisions for growing more produce while saving money. The project, run collaboratively by researchers from Lethbridge College’s Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CARIE) and the grow team at Sunterra Greenhouse, tested novel varieties of strawberries and tomatoes under diverse greenhouse growing conditions.

Funded by Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR), the $780,0000 project explored numerous techniques and technologies for controlled-environment agriculture. Researchers evaluated the efficiency of growing strawberries and tomatoes under different types of greenhouse roofs, tested a variety of growing media, applied different types of supplemental lights and conditions and explored the impact of plant density. The results of the pre-commercial trials provided results that will help Sunterra and other greenhouse producers make informed choices for greenhouse construction, planting and crop management.

“Offering pre-commercial validation services is one way our research teams directly help industry save money and time in their commercial operations,” says Megan Shapka, Lethbridge College Director of Applied Research Operations. “By collaborating with Sunterra Greenhouse, we were able to focus on growing conditions that mattered most to their operation and provide research findings that help them make informed business decisions. These findings will also support and help develop the larger Alberta greenhouse industry, which we believe has huge potential in our province.”

The trials took place at the college’s Research and Production Greenhouse in Brooks, Alta. The facility provides a unique opportunity to test growing conditions under both a glass greenhouse roof and a double-layer polyethylene roof. Both tomatoes and strawberries performed better under a glass roof. Although glass is more expensive to install initially, it provides more light penetration to the plants, which can have a positive impact on yield, and more stable climate control. It is more durable than polyethylene plastic, extending the life of the greenhouse infrastructure.

close up of strawberries growing in a greenhouse
Photo credit to Lauren Dale with Sunterra Market.

The study also demonstrated that using standard industrial-use High Bay LED lights produced similar results to more expensive horticultural LED lights. They also used less energy than industry standard HPS horticulture lights. As well, the researchers found that growing 10 plants per linear metre instead of eight did not result in a significantly higher yield. All of these discoveries can save money for producers.

“RDAR funding of this large, multifaceted project, which addresses many grower’s concerns, will help the industry to make informed choices,” says Dr. Nick Savidov, Senior Research Scientist, Integrated Agriculture Technology Centre, Lethbridge College. “For example, we hope to pave the road for quick adoption of LED technology by the greenhouse industry and make Canadian growers more competitive in the North American market.”

Sunterra Greenhouse gained valuable insight on yields and quality of different varieties of strawberries and tomatoes, which they were immediately able to implement in their commercial greenhouse operations.

“We believe there is tremendous value in this type of collaboration,” says Amanda Hehr, President, Sunterra Greenhouse. “Answering important questions about optimal planting density, variety selection and lighting recipes suited to our unique climate, with support from the amazing team at Lethbridge College and RDAR, allows us to remain focused on commercial operations.”

The Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CARIE) at Lethbridge College recently ranked 16th in the annual Research Infosource ranking of Canada’s top 50 research colleges, receiving more than $7 million in research funding in 2021. CARIE is a catalyst for economic growth, sustainability and social development in the region through its work in aquaculture, aquaponics, greenhouse growing, post-harvest technology, irrigation science, spatial technologies and public safety.

Sunterra Greenhouse is the latest addition to the Sunterra Group. Based in Acme, Alta, alongside the Sunterra Farms Head Office and Soleterra d’Italia, Sunterra Greenhouse incorporates 20 acres of the latest technological advancements to supply premium, locally grown strawberries and vine tomatoes year-round. Grown under glass with strictly controlled microclimate conditions, the greenhouse provides optimal growing conditions for the plants to thrive, even in cold winter climates.