From rolling benches to Dutch tray systems to moveable containers, benching technology has improved significantly in recent years. More and more, though, it seems growers are looking to the floor as their first option for production.
“It’s absolutely a trend I’m seeing,” says Bill Vietas, vice president of sales for Rough Bros. “You go to most places and you’ll see people growing on the ground again.”
For Rough Bros., which sells both greenhouse structures and benches, that shift has been very apparent. “We do flood benches, rolling benches and Dutch tray benches, and we have seen a decrease in all three of those areas,” Vietas says. “Our bench sales are maybe a third of what they used to be. It’s very interesting but you just don’t see them as much anymore.”
“I don’t think they’re doing it because it necessarily produces a better quality product. I think the bench can actually give you better quality.”
The main drivers moving plants off benches and down to ground level are costs and flexibility, he says. “I’m not saying benches aren’t useful. The ground just gives you more flexibility, and in many cases, gives you more bang for your buck.”
“Certainly, the floor is the best utilization of your square footage versus putting stuff on stationary or rolling benches, says Nexus Corp. sales representative Greg Ellis. “If you have stationary benches in the greenhouse, you have all the aisles between them. That’s unusable greenhouse space you’re paying for. You’re paying for the floor area, the heating, the cooling – all of your overhead is going into that aisle space.”
Budgets definitely play a role as well, whether it’s a part of designing a new structure or retrofitting an existing one. “We have conversations with growers about what they want to accomplish with the space and a lot of decisions go back to cost. It’s one of the big reasons I think we’re seeing fewer benches,” Vietas says.
For example, many growers will look at the cost per square foot of installing benches and decide they could better use that money elsewhere. “They might want to add more square footage to their growing area, or put a curtain in,” Vietas says. “Cost is often the biggest factor in the decision.”
Another plus in floor production is the potential for simpler automation. “Unless you’re talking about palletized benches, benches are generally harder to automate because they’re fixed, side to side. To automate that, your only options are a monorail, or lifting the benches,” Vietas says.
For the most part, that means employees are left to hand place or hand pick each of the trays or containers when they need to be moved.
“On the floor, you have options like a forklift, or the Visser Space-O-Mat system, for example. And I think there’s more work being done looking at how to automate on the floor. That will help even more,” Vietas says.
Bench production is obviously easier on the back than bending down to work on the floor. Ergonomics, however, aren’t necessarily the leading factor in deciding on a production method for many growers.
“It is a lot harder to do some tasks on the floor. Pinching or other maintenance on crops are definitely harder on the floor than on a bench,” says Chad Olson, vice president of operations with Olson’s Greenhouses in Salem, Utah. “But that said, we haven’t had any problems with that. We’ve never had an injury.”
In fact, he says, most of Olson’s employees seem to actually prefer floor production to working from benches because it is so much easier for them to pull orders.
“Our employees would much rather be able to push a shipping cart to the product and have to bend over to the floor to pull and load the product right there. If there’s a bench in the way I can’t push a shipping cart down to load it. It’s harder to pack from the benches because they’re having to carry stuff longer distances,” Olson says.
Vietas agrees. “I don’t think you necessarily ship any faster with benches. In fact, if you make your aisles correctly and can bring a cart down the aisle to the product you’re pulling, I think you can probably ship more quickly from the floor,” he says.
Benefits Of Benches
All this isn’t to say there aren’t some significant pluses to bench production, of course. “We grow on benches as well as on the floor. There are certain items we prefer to grow up there,” Olson says. “We think it’s probably easier to grow a little better quality crop on a table.”
One of the reasons, he says, is that it’s easier and more cost-effective to heat the plants. “It’s a little cheaper for us to heat on a bench. You get a little more heat up to the plant than you do on the floor. And we might be able to turn a crop a little more quickly on a bench.”
The type of crop can also dictate where you grow the plants. “If you’re a commercial bedding plant grower, most of what you’re doing is on flats and it’s easy just to put it on the ground, be done with it and pick it up when you’re ready to sell it,” Ellis says. “If you’re doing a potted crop or a specialty crop that requires a lot of pinching and handling throughout the process, you don’t always want to be bending down on the floor for that type of work. Getting it up on a bench makes things easier for your employees.”
Plant sanitation is another plus to raising production off the ground. “Particularly if you don’t have a concrete floor, plants grown up off the ground are going to be less susceptible to disease problems,” Ellis says.
Puddling on floors from irrigation can also be an issue that leads to disease problems in floor production, Olson says. “It hasn’t been a huge problem for us where we’re growing on the floor, but it’s definitely something you need to be conscious about.”
And the cost of benches doesn’t always have to be that much more than growing on the ground, Olson says.
“Obviously, if you’re growing on gravel floors, that’s going to be a lot cheaper than installing benches. Cost-wise, though, I think it’s probably pretty close when you compare the cost of benches versus the cost of concrete floors. I think concrete with heat and benches with heat are probably pretty close in cost, too.”
Of course, for the growers who have the capital to invest, there are more expensive benching options that do make good business sense. “The palletized/Dutch bench system is the next step up into automation from rolling benches, but it’s a more expensive way to go,” Vietas says. And beyond that are systems with monorails, robotics and even large cranes that pick up and move entire 36-foot benches from the floor to wherever they need to go.
But for most growers, the decision comes down to simpler options, and that increasingly means floor production.
“If you’re a smaller operator with benches and you’re trying to get the most turns in your greenhouse and it’s a low-maintenance single crop that you put down and don’t come back until later, you’re wasting a lot of space in the greenhouse,” Ellis says. “For those growers, being down on the floor is just more cost effective than being up on a bench.”