Preparation Is Key To Preventing Greenhouse Disasters

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A sight nobody wants to see. Proper maintenance and inspection can make sure the greenhouse structure remains strong. Photo courtesy Hortica Insurance

If this past winter’s severe storms and yo-yoing temperatures are an indicator of the new normal, growers need to be prepared to deal with increasing weather extremes. National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini told USA Today in March that the recent wild weather, including more frequent destructive tornados, severe winter storms and drought and flood extremes, appear to part of a “new normal” for U.S. weather patterns. Uccellini says climate change could be contributing to the increased intensity of the storms and heavier amounts of precipitation.

The extreme weather events that have occurred recently are likely to continue. At a May 2011 press conference held by the Union of Concerned Scientists, participants indicated that states, municipalities and businesses, especially the insurance industry, are well aware of the trend toward more frequent extreme weather events. During the conference, Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech University climate scientist, called it global “weirding.” She says many places around the world can expect to see more frequent weather extremes, from more intense storms to prolonged droughts.
U.S. growers in some parts of the country are bearing the brunt of these weather extremes. According to Bob Heffernan, executive director of the Connecticut Green Industries Council, this year’s winter storms destroyed more than 300 greenhouses at 51 Connecticut businesses. The cost to replace the structures was estimated at $12 to $15 million.

Be Prepared Before Disaster Strikes
Tom Richey, vice president of property/loss control at Hortica Insurance in Edwardsville, Ill., says one of the biggest challenges facing growers today is unpredictable weather.

“Whether or not you believe global warming has an effect on the higher probability of more frequent and stronger destructive storms and wildfires, the fact is the destructive power of these events has increased an estimated 50 percent in the last 30 years,” Richey says. “To face the unpredictable weather challenge growers need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Richey offered the following recommendations to implement before a disastrous event occurs.
• Be sure structures, including greenhouses, head houses, production barns and storage buildings are insured to value so you will not incur penalties at a time of loss. Know the difference between replacement cost coverage and actual cash value coverage. Greenhouse structures may be the largest financial investment for a grower, and they are also the most important. The key to sustaining a business is not to lose the structures.
• Know if personal property in open areas is covered by your insurance policy and for how much value.
• Be sure your insurance policy covers loss caused by the weight of snow, wind, power interruption and other perils that lead to loss. Know what specific conditions apply.
• Know what you want insured and ask questions of your agent. If you have a crop exposure, ask about coverage as your business’ income relies on these plants. Ask about future income loss in the case of a catastrophic event that doesn’t allow you to rebuild quickly enough to plant your next crop and maintain production.
• Keep backup greenhouse coverings and temporary bracing on hand. These can help to expedite temporary or permanent closure of a structure or sectioning off of areas so that climate control can be maintained.
• Be sure generators are working properly and that a stabilizer has been added to the generator fuel.

Richey says the condition of the property can affect the insurability of structures and potentially the price paid for insurance coverage.

“Efficiencies and productivity can be maximized in a well-maintained structure,” he says. “From light transmission to energy savings, a well maintained greenhouse contributes to obtaining maximum ROI from employees, equipment and facilities. If a grower currently doesn’t have a greenhouse maintenance program in place, he should ask his insurance provider for suggestions on how to get started.”

Avoid Getting Burned
CJ van Wingerden, general manager of operations at Green Circle Growers in Oberlin, Ohio, knows firsthand the importance of being prepared for a disaster. This past February, the company sustained a fire that caused more than $10 million in damage to structures, equipment and crops. Destroyed in the fire was a 1-acre production barn with four production lines and soil equipment. van Wingerden says at this time of year, the production barn is fully operational and loaded with plastic containers, growing media and plant material.

“We had about 4½ to 5 acres of greenhouses damaged, from Venlo style to plastic fan-and-pad,” he says. “It was our oldest facility that took the brunt of the damage. We consider it to be our workhorse facility. When your workhorse shuts down, it definitely hurts from a production and efficiency standpoint quite a bit.”

The one piece of advice that van Wingerden has been giving to growers since the fire is to have a good insurance policy.

“Make sure you have the Cadillac of insurance,” he says. “It may sound cavalier saying that, but having a good insurance policy for our business, greenhouse and crops has helped us out a lot.

“We had replacement cost insurance, not actual cost. That makes a big difference in the greenhouse business, because things change so quickly. Having the replacement cost coverage is the higher premium end of insurance, but it is well worth it when a disaster like this occurs.

“Actual cost versus replacement value is where most growers skimp on their insurance policies. If they pay the actual costs, it can be considerably less than the replacement costs. The insurance company has a formula regarding paying for the actual cost of the facility or to replace the facility.”

van Wingerden says Green Circle has been dealing with Nationwide Agribusiness and has been very satisfied with the company’s service.
“We are a very unique industry. Make sure the insurance company understands your business and knows how it works,” he says. Nationwide Agribusiness understands the horticultural business. They understood business interruption and what this fire means for our customers. They understand just because there was a fire, we aren’t done for the season. We still need to take care of our customers.”

Green Circle plans to start rebuilding on June 1, and van Wingerden hopes to have the new facilities finished by Nov. 1.

“We have been working with LL Klink & Sons to put as much back together as possible,” he says. “The company is a local contractor that specializes in greenhouse disasters. They have done a fantastic job of putting this back together. The production barn has been completely torn down. Of the 4½ acres of greenhouses that were damaged, we were still able to fill up 3 acres for the spring.”

In Hindsight
The company learned some valuable lessons from the fire, van Wingerden says.
“We had safety procedures in place in case of fire, like having fire extinguishers and specific people to be notified,” he says. “All of those things worked. Our fire department did a phenomenal job. Greenhouse owners need to be sure they are familiar with the local fire department. We have them come out once a year to walk through the facility. We keep them up to date with things as our facilities change.”
One lesson Green Circle learned was the need to have quick disconnects for water in every greenhouse.

“We had 2- and 4-inch lines in every house, and the firemen couldn’t use them because they couldn’t connect their hoses to them,” van Wingerden says. “We’re going to install quick disconnects for hoses in key areas. We are also going to make sure that our production/storage barns are equipped with sprinkler systems. We have too much inventory sitting in these structures not to have sprinkler systems. Nationwide did recommend that we put sprinkler systems in some of our barns. It would have been expensive to do, so we chose not to. Lesson learned.”

A representative from the fire department and Nationwide come out to Green Circle once a year to look for potential problems and to suggest changes.

“Make sure you listen to people who know more than you about your facilities when it comes to fire and accident prevention,” van Wingerden says. “Have someone walk through your operation who understands your facility.”

David Kuack (dkuack@gmail.com) is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas.
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