Last year, a tiny pest known as a pepper weevil destroyed bell pepper crops all over Leamington, Ont., baffling pest control managers and farmers alike.
This year, the staff at NatureFresh Farms decided to do something uncommon to fight the problem — they got a dog.
"Chili is the newest member of our scouting team ... she's a registered working dog trained to find pepper weevil," said Cam Lyons, an integrated pest management scout at NatureFresh. "As far as we know, she's the only one in the world looking for this pest in a greenhouse."
Chili is a rambunctious two-year-old Belgian shepherd who was bred in Mexico. On the job at the greenhouse since July, the dog's only mission is to find the small pests that can ruin an entire crop.
"It's a very challenging pest… we didn't have a lot of options," said Lyons, who explained the pest is difficult to eradicate using traditional methods. He said the female insect lays eggs on top of a pepper. After they hatch, they feed on the fruit, eventually killing it.
That's where Chili comes in.
"We start on the outside of the greenhouse actually, I'll take her and we'll search the perimeter of the greenhouses," said Tina Heide, a biological scout at NatureFresh and Chili's handler. "I'll have her sniff out walls, sniff our floors, we do skids like packing crates, boxes anything we come across."
Heide said Chili takes a lot of breaks during her time searching for pests, so that she doesn't get tired or overheat.
Daily games of hide-and-seek
So far this year, NatureFresh hasn't had any pepper weevils in their crops, so Heide hides vials of the pests around to keep Chili's nose in the game.
"We don't know when these things are going to come, where they'll hit," she said. "That's why I work [Chili] with the vials so that in her mind she keeps finding them and it keeps [the scent] fresh in her mind."
Heide said that for Chili, it's a daily game of hide-and-seek.
"I think a scent-detection dog would be valuable on every farm," said Lyons. "We're very excited to have her around."