Top 100 Growers Talk Labor, Automation, And Sustainability

Top 100 Breakfast Panel for 2016
Left to right: Remco Jansen (MPS), Cole Mangum (Bell Nursery), Craig Regelbrugge (AmericanHort), and Art Van Wingerden (Metrolina Greenhouses)

More than 60 growers got up with the sun at Cultivate’16 to hear a four-person panel discuss hot topics such as labor, automation, and sustainability at Greenhouse Grower’s Top 100 Growers Breakfast, sponsored by BASF. The expert panel, moderated by Greenhouse Grower Editor Laura Drotleff, included: Cole Mangum, Vice President of Production at Bell Nursery; Art Van Wingerden, Co-Owner and CEO of Metrolina Greenhouses; Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President of AmericanHort; and Remco Jansen, Retail and Trade Manager for MPS.

Major Shifts In Labor Will Continue To Impact U.S. Growers

Regelbrugge addressed growers’ increasing concerns with the labor situation in the U.S., saying that it is a coast-to-coast challenge due to major changes in the labor market, and there is no reason to believe the labor situation will improve right away. For now, the best strategy for growers is to have a toolkit of options at their disposal that includes automation and innovation, along with embracing new technologies.

“We also need to be strategic about diversifying the countries we are working with for foreign labor,” Regelbrugge said.

As far as recruiting labor from foreign countries goes, Regelbrugge said there has been some success with looking at other options for labor from non-traditional sources, such as programs using refugees from other countries, and to a lesser extent, U.S. veterans. Refugee and immigration specialist Sarah Williamson is also doing some good work with a worker exchange program for Haitian refugees.

What can our industry expect on the horizon with the growing labor problem?

“The good news is there should be no surprises in the near future,” Regelbrugge said. “AmericanHort is working hard to secure and defend the existing programs that we have, and working on a broader platform for reform.”

He also said that despite the gridlock in Congress, we do have good leadership there, adding that as long as Rep. Paul Ryan remains as Speaker of the House, there is good reason to be optimistic that a reasonable package of reforms for immigration will become a reality in the near future.

Automation Key To Cutting Labor Costs

Van Wingerden and Mangum discussed the need for growers to put in place new labor-saving practices and invest in automation technology as a way to cut labor costs.

In addition to the usual robots for spacing and other time-saving devices, Van Wingerden said Metrolina is implementing practices such as setting plants down on final spacing to reduce touches and cut down on labor costs. The company is also investing in a new sticking machine that correctly orients cuttings when picking them up and can stick 2,000 cuttings per hour.

Swings in the labor market have made it harder for Bell Nursery to find quality labor in its seasonal workforce, said Mangum. As a result, Bell’s priority to invest in automation over the five or six years has become even more important to cutting labor costs.

Mangum said Bell Nursery has seen the benefits of automation first-hand. He talked about a blank-slate North Carolina facility Bell acquired in an area without a lot of rural labor. The operation installed automation technologies like buffer tables and sticking lines there, which have helped cut labor costs in half.

“The important piece of investing in new technology is to remember when you buy that it is not just about what you need today,” Mangum said. “It is also about what you need in two years, or in five years. You need to ask yourself: How will this fit in with my operation? How will it help me grow my business?”

Make Sustainability A Part Of Your Strategy

Both Bell Nursery and Metrolina Greenhouses have integrated sustainable practices throughout their operations. For example, both have extensive recycling programs and work with retailers to reuse and recycle plastic trays. Metrolina recycles up to 3 million pounds of plastic per year, and Bell Nursery now ships all of its perennial production out of recycled trays.

Metrolina has also invested in an extensive water-recycling program. In three years, Van Wingerden said the operation would be using 100% pond water. Mangum said Bell Nursery has saved energy and experienced cost savings by buying from the wind-power grid.

Metrolina Greenhouses recently played host to the North Carolina Secretary of Environmental Quality, Donald R. van der Vaart, to learn about the successful sustainable practices the owners have implemented. Van Wingerden suggested growers get to know their local representatives by having them tour their operations. He says it not only lets them know what an operation is doing, it is also easier to talk to them when there is a problem.

Growers Need To Work Together

As retailers look to improve their public image, sustainability and protecting the environment have jumped to the top of their list of priorities. When asked about corporate-retail pressure on growers to implement sustainable practices, van Wingerden and Mangum said their customers are working hard to make their supply chains more environmentally sustainable and react positively to growers who do the same. Both said they felt that any changes their operations made to be more sustainable benefited both sides.

Retailers aren’t always aware of what growers are doing to protect the environment, Mangum said, so it is important that you let them know about your efforts to be sustainable. You won’t get credit if you don’t tell them.

“Transparency is important to make the industry better for all,” Van Wingerden said. “We want to be working together to make the industry better for everyone today and tomorrow.”

Growers need to work together on improving sustainability throughout the entire supply chain, Jansen said, encouraging growers to create best practices for sustainability on a vertical level.

“Prove it. Show it. Tell it,” Jansen said. “If you have a good story to tell, it will help improve your image with the public. And don’t always do it just for your customers, do it for your company, as well.”

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