Bucking The Trend

Bucking The Trend

Rising fuel costs and labor inefficiency brought the brain trust of Buckley Growers Illinois (BGI) together more than three years ago to discuss solutions that might brighten the company’s future.

Moving was a major possibility, and Buckley got its best tip from a customer who suggested that the company consider a partnership with Waste Management in Taylorville, Ill. Ultimately, Buckley acted on that suggestion, and it now operates in a single facility that uses hot water produced as a byproduct from a neighboring methane-powered electricity generation plant to heat its own facility.

“We are the first greenhouse to take a byproduct of a methane gas energy plant and utilize it to heat,” says Doug Buckley, operations manager at Buckley. 

Unique Heat

The greenhouse heating process at Buckley actually starts at a landfill that creates methane gas, powers the generation plant and creates hot water as a byproduct. That hot water is then channeled to aerial pipes built along hanging basket lines and through floors of the greenhouse. So far, the system has padded the company’s pocketbooks considerably regarding money Buckley used to spend on natural gas. 

Buckley Growers Illinois

Founded: 1880s
Location: Taylorville, Illinois
Main Crops: Potted bedding plants, premium pot plants, chrysanthemums, poinsettias, unrooted cuttings and liners
Market: Select garden centers, florists, landscapers and interiorscape services
Web site: www.buckleygrowers.com

“They got the system up in February this year, and we’ve saved about 90 percent from last year,” says David Wagner, CFO at BGI. “We figured we would save somewhere around 85 percent.”

According to Al Zylstra, a TrueLeaf Technologies sales manager who designed and managed the BGI project along with Mike Muchow, other greenhouses have attempted to work with neighboring facilities in the past and buy methane gas directly from them to use in their generators or boilers.

But the problem he’s seen with that method of heating is that methane gas is dirty and high in sulfur or other impurities. The gas needs to be cleaned before it can be used appropriately, and that’s a fairly expensive process for any greenhouse operation to take on.

Buckley could have gone that route with Waste Management, Zylstra says. But using hot water as a byproduct for heating needs makes more sense financially for a four-acre greenhouse facility like Buckley Growers Illinois.

“Large corporations like Waste Management do things at what I call a municipal level,” Zylstra says. “That simply means that it deals with government dollars, which are a lot more than what a grower like Buckley Growers or almost anybody in the greenhouse industry has to spend. Their answer to everything might involve a $10,000 piece of equipment when a $1,000 piece of equipment might be able to do the same job just as well.”

To Zylstra, the biggest challenge he met on this job was integrating the needs of Buckley with the demands and needs of Waste Management. The technology integrated was nothing new to TrueLeaf, though.

At the neighboring Five Oaks Disposal Facility, which sits just a few hundred feet from Buckley, TrueLeaf identified the amount of heat energy produced by each of the four generators installed. TrueLeaf then designed a system to filter that heat energy to the greenhouse facility through valves, pipes and heat exchangers before radiators could cool it.

TrueLeaf supplied and installed all of that equipment at both facilities, and its design spans 163,296 square feet of greenhouse and 18,000 square feet of headhouse and office space.

“We put in-concrete floor heat in all of the offices, headhouse area and germination chambers,” Zylstra says. “Then, we put in-slab floor heat in approximately half of the houses. We put in-ground heat in the soil in the other half of the houses.” 

A Family Affair

Over the years, Buckley has evolved from a small Springfield florist to a major Illinois grower. Henry Pete Buckley began the family tradition in the 1880s, and Harry M. Buckley continued it by building a 40,000-square-foot greenhouse that led to the creation of H.M. Buckley and Sons. In 1965, Buckley built a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse in Springfield. Buckley Growers Illinois is now in its fifth generation. The next Buckley generation includes Harry “Lad” Buckley, Doug Buckley and David Wagner. Longtime production manager Bill Boehm joined Buckley in 1982.

A Whole New World

The heating system isn’t the only new feature at Buckley, which focuses most of its production on young plants for growers, finished and seasonal plants for retail garden centers and landscapers, and holiday pot crops for garden centers, florists and interiorscapers. Buckley now has six Argus Controls computer-controlled environmental zones, 18 GTI automated watering booms and 36,288 square feet of blackout curtains, which span over 163,296 square feet.

The facility has open-roof and poly-arch glasshouses by Rough Brothers, a diesel-powered backup generator by Caterpillar and 5,300 linear feet of Tava Systems electric-powered conveyors.

Of all those added features, the conveyors excite Doug Buckley most. They should speed up production dramatically compared to Buckley’s previous facilities, where production was a rather in-depth process. It was too in-depth, Doug says, because the company had more than one facility sprawled across a half mile.

“We had a soil-filling machine area at one of our facilities,” Doug says. “We would fill the trays and pots. For the facility where the filling was not being done, we would have to palletize, shrink wrap, load onto a truck, haul down to the facility, unload off the truck, roll out into the greenhouse where the product would be laid out, take the shrink wrap off, hand carry all the products down, lay them out on benches and then have crews come back through and either set the cuttings or transplant products at the benches.”

That old way of doing things made managing Buckley employees difficult, as well. This new way is simpler. Buckley can generally group employees together on a transplant line, and it expects to reduce labor costs as a whole by at least 20 percent.

Watering booms have also reduced BGI’s labor costs. The company went from a staff of about 10 growers under about six roofs in Springfield to a staff of three under one roof in Taylorville.

“At the old facility, we were so inefficient that we were spending probably twice as much on labor as our competition,” Wagner says.

Fortunately for Buckley, the move to a new area has not affected its customer base, Doug says. The new greenhouse location is more rural, being about 30 miles southeast of Springfield, but Buckley is already feeling the effects of its added features–and it expects that trend to continue.

The new facility should also help Buckley’s brain trust practice sustainability through programs like EasyScape plastic reduction. Buckley was too disjointed in the old facility, Doug says, to sustain much recycling.

“We like the new facility a lot, and it’s completely different from what we’re used to,” he says. “We’re seeing ways to make our product better for our customers.”

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