The Top 100 Growers are already by nature some of the most technologically advanced greenhouse operations, due to their sheer size and need for efficiency. Many of the largest growers also serve big box merchandisers and home improvement chains, where prices are dictated, so producing plants at the lowest possible cost is essential to growers not only staying in business, but also profiting and expanding their operations.
This year’s survey focused on the automation and technology the Top 100 Growers are investing in, and how these advancements have improved their operations, as well as how they have affected growers’ labor issues. We also asked growers about how they’re solving labor issues, where they’re recruiting new hires, and how they’re keeping their people committed. Lean management programs and sustainability certifications have become higher priorities in the past several years, due to growers’ needs to run efficiently and focus attention on sustainable production — both to minimize their effect on the environment, and to run responsible and profitable operations. We asked growers about their participation in these programs, and if they’ve noticed a difference in efficiency and profits as a result.
High-Tech Growers Like Everything Automated
This is a big year for equipment manufacturers, as 77% of the Top 100 Growers said they are investing in automation equipment, including production and functional automation, technology, and equipment that will improve growers’ sustainability.
Factors that cause the Top 100 Growers to invest in technology include: improved efficiency (92%), cost of labor (71%), availability of labor (67%), better uniformity and efficacy of production (56%), expanding growing operations (38%), and to allow employees to concentrate on other areas (34%).
“The cost of labor is increasing incredibly in all regions, but especially in California where minimum wage has increased 25% in two years,” said Matt Altman, COO of Altman Plants. “Meanwhile in all regions of the Southwest, it has become more difficult to find people that want to work in the greenhouse. Machinery that can automate some of the tasks and increase productivity is one of the few methods we have to maintain costs. Adopting new technology and investing in automation is a must in this environment.”
The Top 100 Growers are an inventive group and have traditionally shown a high level of ingenuity in the engineering of new automation equipment for their operations. Most are intimately involved in working with automation and equipment and technology suppliers to customize their investments.
Growers said they buy base model equipment and tweak it on site to fit their needs (51%), or take a base model and work with suppliers’ engineers to tweak it to fit their needs (50%). They’ll also come up with their own ideas and build them on site (39%), and provide ideas for manufacturers to build, which often become adopted by other growers (33%). Eight percent of growers said everything they buy is engineered and customized for their operation, while 4% said they don’t customize anything.
“We do a lot of in-house fabrication. Since we are located close to nowhere, it gets costly to have it handed to us ‘turn-key,’” said Jonathan Cude, President/CEO of Sedan Floral.
Growers investing in technology to make their operations more sustainable are implementing heating technology (29%), alternative energy sources (21%), irrigation filtration systems (50%), and LED lighting (55%).
“Production has continued to become more streamlined and uniform,” said Cole Mangum, Vice President of Production at Bell Nursery USA. “By implementing standard operating procedures and best practices that are driven by technology, we can eliminate, to the degree possible, some of the variability inherent in greenhouse production.”
Art VanWingerden, co-owner of Metrolina Greenhouses, predicted, “Our industry will look vastly different 10 years from now than it does today when it comes to automation. I think we will see production lines that have six or fewer people on them. I think more and more greenhouses will look to some type of robotics for setting down product, spacing, and other tasks.”
Next page: Large Growers Are Growing Lean; Big Growers, Big Labor Problems