Labor Savers

While energy costs may be weighing heavily on our minds in chilly November, labor continues to be the greatest cost in running greenhouse operations. As part of our 25th anniversary celebration, we thought it would be good to present 25 ideas to help you save labor.

Basic Concepts

1) Identify product movement and activities. “When it comes to looking at ways to save labor, it’s really happening in front of you every day,” says Mike Kanczak, a sales representative for Agrinomix, which provides automated solutions for growers. “Once you are trained to look for it, you can see it. If someone is touching something, there is a cost associated with that. Any type of movement or activity with people has a cost associated with it. Once you identify extraneous movement and activities, the next question is, ‘Is this something people have to do or something a machine can do?'”

2) Collect data on which operations require the greatest amount of time. John Bartok, Extension professor emeritus and agricultural engineer from the University of Connecticut, has been helping growers achieve efficiencies with labor and energy use for decades. He says the key areas that require the most labor are transplanting, hand watering, plant selection for shipping, and moving plants in and out of growing areas.

3) Track true labor use with software. Gain an understanding of your cost per unit and quantity per hour and the impact changes in workflow make by tracking labor. Handheld devices make this even easier. One program designed for our industry is Picas Labor Tracking.

4) Don’t create extra work to keep people busy. Many growers will find more work for employees to do in the off season to justify keeping them year-round. “A lot of growers will have inefficiencies brought on by that thought process,” Kanczak says. “They think it’s okay if it’s wasteful if the person is already here. Rather than fill pots as needed, they will fill in the off season, thinking it doesn’t cost anything and they can work ahead. But the inventory has more cost than hours people are working. In addition to filling the pots, you have to palletize them with shrinkwrap, store them, pay someone to go find them, and move them. If you’re running labor at a different time of the season because it costs less than when you need it, there is a lot of additional cost in handling.”

5) Slow down to work more productively. “Because of our seasonal nature and critical timing of holiday crops, we feel we need to go fast but often find it ends up affecting quality,” Kanczak says. “If machinery outpaces your ability to bring material to the production area or take material away, you have to stop and wait. The perception is that we’re working fast and productively. There’s a lot of stuff flying around, but at the end of the day, the actual throughput doesn’t support this notion. Slowing down flies in the face of everything production people are told to do.”

6) Reduce walking time. “Walking adds considerable time to the cost of plants,” Bartok says. “An average time to pick up or set down a flat of plants is 1.5 seconds. Carrying or walking can be figured at 4 feet per second. At a $10/hour labor rate, making a round trip 10 feet away to place a flat of plants on a bench adds 2 cents to the cost. Walking to the far end of a 100-foot greenhouse costs 15 cents.”

7) Standardize your operations. Keep the number and types of containers to a minimum to reduce inventory and time needed to make changes to equipment, Bartok says. “When possible, ship in standard units, such as carts or pallets. This simplifies loading and invoicing, too.”


8) Keep things simple. Equipment or systems that you and your employees understand work best, Bartok says. “It is easier to upgrade a basic system than to replace a complex one that doesn’t do the job,” he says. “I frequently see expensive equipment sitting idle in a corner because it didn’t perform the way the grower had hoped.”

9) Analyze your needs thoroughly. Equipment is expensive to own. Consideration should be given to where your resources will give the greatest return to the business, Bartok says. “An automatic watering system that can be used year-round may be a better choice than a precision seeder that will be used only 10 days a year,” he says. “Compare alternatives on a simple payback basis–divide the initial cost of new equipment by savings realized per year.”

10) Automate jobs that are repetitive, tedious or time consuming. Container filling, plant spacing, moving plants and watering are good examples, Bartok says.

11) Can’t beat booms. Growers consistently report the fastest return on investment with watering booms. “For uniform watering, it is hard to beat a watering boom,” Bartok says. “Commercial booms generally have computerized controls that allow double watering, skipping sections and multiple nozzles that change the rate of application.”

12) Install equipment that reduces peak period labor requirements. “Carts or conveyors can move plants more quickly than hand carrying,” Bartok says. “These may also reduce the need to hire and manage more employees.”

13) Select equipment that will pace workers. Conveyor belts work well for potting, transplanting and packaging, providing uniformity and consistency, Bartok says. A variable speed motor adjusts the belt speed.

14) Consider alternatives to purchasing equipment. Renting, leasing or sharing with a neighbor allows the use of equipment for short periods of time without a large investment, Bartok says.

Production Lines

15) Consider a movable transplanting table. “An alternate work station is a movable transplanting table that is placed in the greenhouse next to where containers will be grown,” Bartok says. “The table should be kept close to the growing area to reduce walking with the containers. Prefilled containers can be supplied on pallets near the work area.”
16) Reconfigure the way production lines are set up. Gary Cortes of FlowVision LLC, who has been working with growers on implementing lean manufacturing processes, says something as simple as rearranging the way transplanting and sticking lines are set up and placement of workers can improve productivity by as much as 40 percent. For instance, a triangular setup could be better than linear if workers have easier access to supplies within reach.

17) Process the same types of trays together. Minimize changeover disruptions in the transplanting line by running the same size trays together. Each changeover leaves the machine idle for 10 to 12 minutes, Cortes says.

18) Label or tag plants when they are transplanted to reduce labor during shipping.

19) Plant crops consistently. “Something as simple as transplanting depth affects growth and what’s available for sale,” Kanczak says. “If crops are not uniform, labor is involved with using chemicals to correct them, or pull some product that’s ready and leaving the rest behind and not gaining full utilization of the facilities. You also could have the production area more controlled and supervised, leading to greater consistency and efficiency, better crop timing and utilization of space. If you can move product into the greenhouses more quickly and get extra turns per season, you can get extra acres worth of plants out of the same facility.”


20) Don’t produce faster than you can ship. “As the technologies in production have increased, the ability to ship product is a bottleneck in operations,” Kanczak says. “If you produce plants faster than you have a place to put them, you haven’t gained any real benefits.”

21) Load in teams. “Select a team of two or three employees to gather and prepare an individual truck load,” Bartok says. “They should be experienced in plant identification and loading.”

22) Create a dock supermarket for pulling orders. Instead of pulling each order from the greenhouse, gather a half day’s worth of inventory in a central location, Cortes says. “In the morning, workers can pick from the supermarket and load trucks right away or stage the loads,” he says. “Instead of going back to the greenhouse 10 times to pick 10 orders, go back once or twice to the supermarket.”

23) Make boxes as you need them. Prebuilding boxes takes up space compared to flat cartons and requires more handling. It’s better to build the boxes during shipping than have them be in the way, Cortes says.

24) Market plants by full carts or pallets to reduce errors in both assembly and delivery. This also makes invoicing easier, Bartok says.

25) Purchase a hydraulic tailgate to speed loading and unloading carts.

As you gear up for your next busy season, we hope these tips help you manage your labor costs.

Leave a Reply

More From Labor...

July 1, 2015

Rough Brothers Is Acquired By Gibraltar Industries

RBI Solar Inc., Rough Brothers Manufacturing Inc. and affiliates have been acquired by Gibraltar Industries, a manufacturer and distributor of products for residential and industrial markets, for $130 million. Capitalizing on its 80 years of design-build experience and leadership as the largest greenhouse manufacturer in North America, Ohio-based RBI has established itself during the past five years as North America’s fastest-growing provider of photovoltaic (PV) solar racking solutions. The transaction will enable Gibraltar to leverage its expertise in structural metals manufacturing and materials sourcing to meet global demand for solar racking solutions. The company also announced that it anticipates its second-quarter 2015 financial results will be in line with its previous expectations. “Acquiring RBI is an important step in the transformation of Gibraltar into a company with a higher rate of growth and best-in-class financial metrics,” says Gibraltar CEO Frank Heard. “This acquisition directly aligns with key end markets and product platforms […]

Read More

June 30, 2015

Opportunities Abound For Women In Horticulture, Says Dosatron International’s Lela Kelly

My love for horticulture goes back to my grandparents who were farmers in upstate New York. My family’s involvement in agriculture left a lasting impression that has spanned decades, and still drives my passion for our industry today. I started my career in horticulture when I owned a greenhouse, nursery and garden center in Sayville, Long Island, N.Y. We specialized in ground cover production, later branching out to producing perennials and bedding plants.     I then went onto wholesale hard goods distribution. In the 1980s, I was the first woman salesperson on Long Island. What an eye opener that was! New York is a very special place, different from anywhere else in the country. You cannot imagine how difficult it was walking into greenhouses and nurseries as a woman, in a man’s world. Luckily, I grew up in New York City in an Italian family, who taught me great […]

Read More
Medal of Excellence Award

June 30, 2015

Get To Know The 9 Variety Finalists For Editor’s Choice And Industry’s Choice Awards

Greenhouse Grower‘s Evening Of Excellence reception is rapidly approaching. Here, you can learn more about the varieties that are finalists for the Medal Of Excellence Editor’s Choice and Industry’s Choice Breeding Awards. Thank you to the 2015 sponsors of Greenhouse Grower‘s Medal Of Excellence Awards, Landmark Plastic, Nufarm and Stockosorb. Editor’s Choice Asclepias ‘Monarch Promise’ (Hort Couture) Basil ‘Balsamic Blooms’ (EuroAmerican Propagators) Celosia ‘Dragon’s Breath’ (Sakata Seed) Dianthus Jolt Series (PanAmerican Seed) Salvia Grandstand Series (Green Fuse Botanicals) Scabiosa ‘Kudos Pink’ (Hishtil Nurseries) Industry’s Choice Basil ‘Balsamic Blooms’ (EuroAmerican Propagators) Bidens BeeDance Series (Suntory Flowers) Celosia ‘Dragon’s Breath’ (Sakata Seed) Dianthus Jolt Series (PanAmerican Seed) Lobelia ‘Starship Deep Rose’ (Kieft Seed) Vinca Valiant Series (PanAmerican Seed)     Join us Monday, July 13 in Ballroom 2 at the Columbus Convention Center to find out which varieties will receive the coveted awards. The reception begins at 5:15 p.m. and the ceremony […]

Read More
Latest Stories
Vegetables with knife

May 14, 2015

Keeping Your Fruits And Vegetables Safe: Best Practices…

Part three of the food safety series focuses on worker hygiene, visitor policies and other biosecurity measures to safeguard the greenhouse.

Read More

April 8, 2015

AmericanHort And State Associations Advocate For Workfo…

AmericanHort, along with roughly two dozen other state association partners, joined nearly 140 organizations in a letter to the House of Representatives responding to the Legal Workforce Act (H.R.1147), which is being voted on without provisions that would ensure legal workforce options for agricultural and seasonal employers. H.R.1147 would mandate that all U.S. employers use the federal E-Verify program.

Read More

March 18, 2015

H-2B Situation Goes From Bad To Even Worse

On March 5, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced that it will no longer accept or process H-2B labor certifications or requests for H-2B prevailing wage determinations in light of a March 4 decision. Shortly after the DOL announcement, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Citizenship and Immigration Services followed suit, announcing it will at least temporarily cease approving visa petitions. These announcements essentially shut down the H-2B program for any company that has not completed the DHS H-2B visa petitioning process.

Read More

March 4, 2015

H-2B Cap Hit, Adding to Visa Program Woes

The H-2B visa cap for the first half of fiscal 2015 was hit late in January. As a result, some growers may not have access to the H-2B workers they need during the months ahead. The visa cap and resulting labor shortages will have impacts throughout the horticulture industry.

Read More

December 9, 2014

Immigration — Obama Acts Without Congress

On November 20, President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration policy, which are already proving to be politically divisive, and many Republican legislators say this unilaterally "poisons the well" for reform. In AmericanHort's view, that dire prediction need not be the case.

Read More

November 17, 2014

USDA Names First Liaison For Veterans Interested In Agr…

The new Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison position will coordinate ongoing USDA support for active duty military and veterans.

Read More

September 26, 2014

GROW Perspective: Government Compliance Issues On The H…

Lack of focus on human resources can sink your ship

Read More

September 26, 2014

Great Things In Store For North Creek Nurseries

With a brand new greenhouse in the works and lean flow manufacturing boosting its bottom line, North Creek Nurseries ventures into a new era of growing for its customers.

Read More

September 11, 2014

Is Lean Flow The Competitive Edge You Need?

If you’re feeling worked to the bone, cramped for space or starved for profits, now is the time to look into lean flow.

Read More

July 22, 2014

Proposed Worker Protection Standard Changes You Need To…

The comment period for the proposed Worker Protection Standards ends on August 18, 2014. Find out how the proposed changes will affect your greenhouse operation.

Read More
Laura Drotleff

July 8, 2014

Consider Hiring Non-Traditional Growers To Secure Our I…

Your operation can benefit from hiring returning veterans, professionals changing careers and non-traditional students, in addition to horticulture graduates. Where have you had luck recruiting?

Read More
SAF Congressional Action Days 2014

February 20, 2014

Healthcare Law, Immigration Reform Are Top Priorities F…

The event, being held March 10-11 in Washington D.C., will bring together horticulture industry members to lobby members of Congress to revisit legislation that is important to the industry.

Read More

October 14, 2013

E-Verify Website Down During Government Shutdown

Recent visitors to the E-Verify website came face-to-face with the same message they see on other government sites: Closed.

Read More
Robin Siktberg

April 19, 2013

Speaking With One Voice On Immigration Reform (Opinion)

I am from a family that holds widely divergent political views that are hotly debated at gatherings. My mother was once chairwoman of our county’s Republican committee, and my father cast his first presidential vote for for Franklin Roosevelt. My husband and I have agreed not to put political signs in our yard — ever — because they would just cancel each other out. You get the picture. So, it was with a great deal of interest that I attended the Society of American Florists (SAF) Congresssional Action Days in March to see government in action. I’d been to Washington before, but only as a bystander, never as a participant. Despite the cliffs and sequesters, I still believe the process works — maybe not as well as we’d like right now, but more than ever, we, as citizens, need to make our voices heard. The briefings before the event and […]

Read More

April 16, 2013

Agriculture Agrees on Immigration Package

The struggle to achieve immigration reform took a giant step forward late Friday, when an agreement was finally reached on the framework for agriculture’s portion of the comprehensive immigration bill. The Senate “Gang of Eight” is drafting the bill, which may be introduced as early as Tuesday. “Society of American Florist (SAF) members who attended Congressional Action Days (CAD) and helped lobby for immigration reform can feel proud of their work,” says SAF’s Lin Schmale. “Keeping Congressional attention focused on floriculture’s needs will continue to be of critical importance. We are delighted that the negotiators have reached agreement, and commend them on achieving what is truly a great success!” After weeks of often very intense negotiations, agreement was reached Friday between the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), of which SAF is a member, the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the key senators involved in the process, on the details of agriculture’s […]

Read More

March 7, 2013

Anyone Can Automate [opinion]

Automation of production lines and greenhouses is typically thought of as something that is only an option for bigger growers, but that's not necessarily the case. Greenhouse Grower presents some realistic automation options for every size of operation.

Read More

February 22, 2013

Common Objections To Mechanization In The Greenhouse

The first thing I would say about automation is start somewhere. Even if you go with any type of sprinkler or overhead irrigation system that is stationary and not a boom system, start somewhere. Get your feet wet. Get comfortable with the fact that you are starting to rely more on machines and not people. One of the biggest hurdles we have is with small and medium size growers. They will say, “It’s going to make my growers lazy.” My response to that is, “At the end of the day, that’s a management problem. That’s not an equipment problem.” What you need to worry about when you get new machinery is making sure everyone understands why you are buying machinery. If the boom systems or any automated overhead irrigation systems are making your growers lazy, that’s not because of the grower. That’s because the grower is worried about his job. […]

Read More
SAF Members Bring Flower Power To Capitol Hill

February 22, 2013

Immigration Reform To Help Greenhouse Labor Issues

Right now The Society of American Florists is getting ready for Congressional Action Days. We ask our members to fly into Washington, D.C., and travel around the Hill, meeting with their specific members of Congress about the issues we think are most important to the industry right now. It gives our members an opportunity to carry their messages to their members of Congress. This is really important because you can say anything in Washington as a lobbyist, but it has to be backed up by the people out there running businesses. We are grateful for the people who come in and carry that message around the Hill. It is also a great opportunity for business owners to connect with their members of Congress. Lobbying For Immigration Issues One of the issues we will be taking to the Hill this year, as we have for the past ten or more years, […]

Read More