By Connor Lynch
LEAMINGTON — A Leamington-area greenhouse has turned to a specially-trained dog to sniff out a problem pest in its pepper crop.
NatureFresh Farms, like many greenhouse growers in the area, had the occasional problem with pepper weevils. The tiny pests, native to Mexico, are extremely difficult to detect, are highly resistant to insecticides, and can’t be tempted into traps. It was a recurring but manageable problem for the growers of sweet peppers, until the weevils overwintered and their population exploded last summer. The weevils wreaked havoc on last year’s crop, to the tune of $75 million in production losses in 2016 for greenhouses in the Essex-Kent-area alone.
“We were in a desperate situation,” integrated pest management scout at NatureFresh Farms, Cameron Lyons, told Farmers Forum. Desperate times call for desperate measures. The weevils were pernicious: Resistant to treatment, impossible to spot, and devastating to crops. The greenhouse covers 130 acres, far too much area for the company’s 10 human scouts to handle. So Lyons thought of a desperate solution.
“They use dogs for detection of drugs, land mines, and practically everything else. So we thought, ‘Why not?’”
Enter Chili, a two-year-old Belgian Shepherd. Trained by handler Sid Murray of ATS K9 Ltd in the Niagara region, Chili can sniff out the weevils even when they’re inside a pepper plant. Then, the scouts isolate the weevils, quarantine the area, and strip the fruit and flower of the plant, removing the weevils from the situation entirely.
It’s a novel solution that many other growers were very curious about, said Lyons, but for many, it will be simply too expensive. Chili requires constant training, and a full-time handler is likely outside the budget for smaller greenhouses. NatureFresh Farms is the largest bell pepper greenhouse in North America, and one of the largest private greenhouses in Canada.