Sniffing out weevils: How Chili the dog is saving greenhouse peppers

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Chili the Belgian shepherd is a dog whose nose could save millions of dollars, protect hundreds of jobs and potentially ensure the future of Canada’s burgeoning greenhouse pepper industry.

The industry, which is worth $275 million and is concentrated in Leamington, outside Windsor, Ont., was devastated last year by a tiny invasive pest called the pepper weevil.

The weevils burrow into bell peppers on the vine to feed and lay eggs. The peppers eventually drop to the ground and die.

Workers at NatureFresh Farms, one of North America’s largest greenhouse pepper growers, could only watch as hundreds of thousands of their plants — worth millions of dollars — succumbed to the blight.

Cam Lyons, in charge of hunting pests in the company’s 53 hectares of greenhouses, tried everything in his arsenal to control the weevils.

“It was by far the worst pest I had ever run into in my career.” Cam Lyons, NatureFresh Farms

“We looked at trapping methods and scouting methods to find it, quickly found out that everything we tried was in vain, the weevil was taking over,” he said. “It was by far the worst pest I had ever run into in my career.”

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Cam Lyons helps control pests in the 53 hectares of NatureFresh’s bell pepper greenhouses in Leamington, Ont. (Marie Morrissey, CBC)

Lyons says the company avoids using pesticides to combat invaders. Instead, he looks for natural predators to whatever’s harming the peppers. Typically, that would involve releasing parasites to sicken and kill the weevils, or deploy other bugs that can catch and eat the weevils without harming the peppers.

But because the weevil is originally from Mexico, it has no natural predators in Canada.

High stakes

For Lyons, the stakes were high and the pressure was on. That’s when he remembered hearing about dogs that are trained to sniff for bedbugs. If a dog could hunt and find those tiny crawlers, he thought, why not weevils?

“I started talking to close co-workers about it and we had a laugh about it at first,” Lyons said. “But then, as we started losing so much product, the situation became extreme and the idea started to actually sound viable.”

He contacted Sid Murray, trainer of the bedbug-sniffing dogs. At his compound an hour’s drive outside Toronto, Murray also trains dogs to sniff for drugs, explosives and fuel used in arson.

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Two tiny but potentially devastating live weevils are safely kept in a sealed pill bottle.

“I told [Lyons] that if you give me the odour, I can train the dog to find whatever you’re looking for,” said Murray.

Murray found Chili through specialized breeders in Mexico, the source for most of North America’s sniffer dogs. The canines — typically shepherds, malamutes or Labrador retrievers — are bred from animals adept at focusing on one task for one reward.

To train Chili, Murray used live weevils in small pill bottles with perforated caps. Chili came to associate the smell of the weevils with the reward, a chew toy. Murray then hid the weevils out of sight, so that finding a weevil got Chili her chew toy reward for a few minutes.

The right dog for the job

After five weeks of training, Chili was able to sniff out a weevil inside a bell pepper. Murray takes no credit for that success.

“Honestly, the dog was phenomenal when she came in.” Sid Murray, trainer

“Honestly, the dog was phenomenal when she came in,” he said. Murray also had praise for Tina Heide, the person NatureFresh chose to handle Chili. “Very seldom do I get a handler as good as she is.”

That’s probably because Heide, from NatureFresh’s bug brigade, had experience caring for horses and her own dog.

For about three hours each day, Heide leads Chili through different sections of the sprawling NatureFresh complex. They first concentrate on the loading docks and massive distribution centre where weevils can get in by hitching a ride on equipment and supplies, such as rented wooden palettes that could have been used on infected farms.

SidMurray

Trainer Sid Murray’s chocolate lab, Hunter, is ready to search for bedbugs. (Marie Morrissey)

The greenhouses are each the size of six city blocks. They can contain 210,000 pepper plants growing four metres into the air from hydroponic tubes suspended about 20 centimetres off the floor — a lot of ground for Chili and Heide to cover.

This early detection comes at a price. NatureFresh spent $15,000 on Chili and her training.

So far this year, NatureFresh has not had a serious weevil problem for Chili to sniff out. But she will prove her worth in the next four months, as new pepper seedlings are planted and mature. Lyon says that’s prime time for weevils to take hold.

The region’s other pepper producers will be watching closely, including Vitali Jdkov, a grower at nearby greenhouse operation Dicicco Farms.

The company lost four hectares of peppers last year. Wary of another calamity, Dicicco switched much of that production to tomatoes this year. He hopes NatureFresh’s investment in Chili bears fruit and makes pepper-growing a safer investment.

“I’m impressed how brave they are to plant such a big crop again, knowing what they went through,” said Jdkov. “With the dog, it’s a very interesting idea. Early detection of the bug is very important.”

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Sniffing out weevils: How Chili the dog is saving greenhouse peppers

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