Growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables on a large scale is tricky business. The soil quality has to be good, there needs to be plenty of water, the right pesticides have to be used properly, and, as a whole, the industry should be managed efficiently and effectively.
There are experts who have information and knowledge on these and other areas, but a lack of a consistent, co-ordinated approach that connects experts, government officials and farmers to share knowledge is holding the Niagara and Ontario industry back, says Brock University’s Charles Conteh.
He and his research team are now examining knowledge transfer and knowledge translation in Ontario’s horticultural industry as the bedrock of building best management practices in the sector. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) is supporting this work with a $115,000 grant.
“It’s really about management of the integrity and sustainability of horticultural industries, firms or enterprises,” says the Associate Professor of Political Science.
Conteh says the heart of the project involves putting knowledge and information into farmers’ hands.
He notes that the region is blessed with a strong group of specialists located at Brock University, Niagara College, Vineland Innovation Centre and several centres of excellence whose expertise needs to be ‘translated’ into accessible language easily understood by non-specialists in farming operations.
“We’ll be looking at various approaches connecting the experts, government and end users to see what has worked, what is working and how we can improve on the kind of design that we have to transfer knowledge to end users,” says Conteh, who is also Director of Brock’s Niagara Community Observatory (NCO).
The team’s goals are to identify and evaluate the barriers to knowledge translation and transfer that impede the adoption of best management practices in Ontario’s horticultural sector and to identify strategies and approaches for overcoming those barriers.
Over the next year-and-a-half, the team plans to conduct online surveys with Ontario researchers, ‘intermediaries’ such as industry associations and extension specialists, farmers and producers in Ontario’s horticulture sector.
The surveys will include questions on knowledge sharing activities, understanding of the needs and preferences of knowledge users, perceptions of successful knowledge translation and transfer, barriers that prevent those outcomes, and knowledge- and information-seeking behaviours.
Once that is done, focus groups will plumb out the survey results and discuss the way forward for creating and implementing best management practices in the industry.
The team’s partners that will be involved in these processes include the Niagara Federation of Agriculture, Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, Grape Growers of Ontario, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, among others.
In the Niagara region case study, the team will conduct 40 additional in-depth interviews with best management researchers, intermediaries and grape growers to gain in-depth understanding of how new research related to managing grape viruses is being shared, mobilized and adopted.
Conteh says the research will guide “how government can work with stakeholders in the sector and how government can be a support system for a platform that can ensure that best management practices will end up in the hands of farmers and will ultimately improve the livelihoods and the experience of Ontario’s consumers and residents.”
The team on this latest OMAFRA research project includes Amy Lemay, a Research Fellow at the NCO; Jeff Boggs, NCO Associate Director and Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Tourism Studies; Carol Phillips, the NCO’s Research Co-ordinator; Julia Baird, Brock’s Environmental Sustainable Research Centre; and Sudarsana Poojari who is with Brock’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI).
This latest OMAFRA grant builds on groundwork achieved through earlier studies. Last year, OMAFRA awarded Conteh and his research team $143,748 to study the potential for automation to pave the way for globally competitive production systems to be created in Ontario’s agri-food sector.
In 2019, Conteh’s Niagara Community Observatory produced a research brief, titled “Niagara’s Agribusiness Sector: Towards a More Resilient Innovation Cluster,” which examined how Niagara’s thriving agribusiness sector — which runs from basic operations to high-end commercial products — could be even stronger if there was closer co-operation with sectors such as manufacturing, tourism, government and institutions conducting research.