Precision irrigation for perfect lettuce

Rows of leafy green heads of lettuce viewed from above.

Precision irrigation for perfect lettuce

Université Laval researchers have developed soil-moisture monitoring techniques for Canada’s largest vegetable producer
April 11, 2016

When lettuce farmers use conventional methods to figure out when to irrigate their crops — such as watching the weather or simply touching the soil to feel how wet it is — they leave their crops vulnerable to human error. If the soil is too dry, for example, it can result in tipburn, a calcium deficiency that causes the outermost edges of lettuce heads to brown. When tipburn is present, farmers have to remove the entire crop because the disease significantly reduces the lettuce’s shelf life. Each hectare of ruined crop costs farmers $8,500, and in particularly dry years, they can lose up to 40 percent of their lettuce crop to tipburn.

Agronomist Jean Caron and his team at Université Laval developed software that allows real-time monitoring of a variety of conditions, including soil moisture, through a system of sensors.
The precision irrigation tool alerts farmers to exactly when to water their crops, and when to leave them be.

The software was developed from field and lab experiments as well as tests conducted in Laval’s state-of-the-art greenhouse complex, which was funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

To develop the software, Caron partnered with the Van Winden, Hotte and Guérin group of family farms, one of the largest lettuce producers in Canada. The group co-founded VegPro International, based in Sherrington, Que., which was the first company in Canada to specialize in the production of young lettuce leaves, known as mesclun. It provides nearly 50 percent of the fresh lettuce in Canadian grocery store chains in Eastern Canada, such as Walmart Canada, Sobeys and Loblaws, and generates $40 million in sales a year.

The new software has paid off: the Van Winden, Hoote and Guérin farms have significantly increased their yield and reduced their tipburn losses to less than five percent.

NSERC presents two minutes with Jean Caron (this video is only available in French)

Video caption: Jean Caron, who won an NSERC Synergy Award for Innovation for his partnership with the Van Winden, Hoote and Guérin farms, is currently developing new drainage methods to conserve water and help the farms maintain healthy crops.