As part of Greenhouse Grower’s 30th Anniversary, we reviewed the state of production among the nation’s largest operations. Our 2013 Top 100 Growers Survey, sponsored by Becker Underwood, asked three big questions to get a feel for where they see the biggest developments in greenhouse production.
First, we asked them to identify the most important innovation in the greenhouse industry in the last 30 years. We got a variety of opinions, including integrated pest management, bottom heat and heat curtains, open roof greenhouses, plugs and other growing techniques and computer-based environmental controls.
Most commonly cited were breeding improvements, hydroponic production and the big winner, automation and transplanters.
“It’s not even close,” one respondent said. “Transplanters are the best innovation we’ve seen. To plant at the speed we do now, we would have to put 30 people on each production line.”
Next, we asked them to tell us the number-one thing they have done to improve the quality of the plants they grow in the last 10 years. Automating the planting process ranked high, but interestingly, the most commonly cited factor was fine-tuning plant nutrition programs. Changes in growing media also showed up as one of the top three responses. In all, growers in the survey cited a wide variety of factors from structures upgrades to environmental controls to irrigation methods as their most important improvements. As one respondent said, “We realized making one change would not be enough. We studied everything to see where we need to improve.”
Finally, we dug into the Top 100 wish list to see where production might be headed in the future. We asked, “If money and time were no object, what would you change to improve your production system?”
There were some interesting responses, including “hiring more qualified people for managing and growing,” “RFID technology for inventory control, order pulling and checkout,” and “ebb and flow irrigation in all greenhouses.” But, the overwhelming response was simple, and probably shared by growers of just about any size: Add more automation.
Whether it’s conveyors to move plants, retrofits to allow more automation or using robots from start to finish, the Top 100 Growers see mechanization as the path to a more profitable future.
As one put it, “If money and time were no object, we would automate all production and logistics. (But if money and time were no object we probably wouldn’t be in the greenhouse business.)”
Another interesting result from this year’s survey: While there’s obviously a desire among the largest growers to automate whenever possible, there’s also no aversion to sticking with the tried-and-true fundamentals when that’s the way that works best. Of those responding, 77 percent say they are still sticking or seeding crops by hand, 82 percent do some hand watering and 73 percent say they are moving plants primarily by hand.
Crop protection is shifting toward the use of biocontrols among Top 100 Growers. Sixty-five percent of respondents say they are still using mostly traditional chemical controls, but are also adding some biocontrols in their production. Nearly 20 percent have gone further, saying they’re using mostly biocontrols with some traditional chemical controls as needed. Although none of our respondents have gone all the way to using solely biologicals to protect their crops, just 15 percent say they are still relying only on chemical controls.