Attacking Growers’ Diverse Challenges

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No two greenhouses are alike. Each has its own set of differences, such as the crops, the climate, the production volume, the existing facilities and more. It is also true that no two greenhouse builders are exactly alike in their approaches to the challenges provided by the diversity of growers.

"Most of the commercial growers we deal with have a little bit of glass and have a little bit of polyethylene, as well as some longer-term plastics covering," says Scott Thompson, executive vice president at X.S. Smith Inc., Washington, N.C. "They like to see a mixture, because at certain times of the year or in stages of their production cycle, those areas are constantly in operation. Our mission is to try to design and create systems that will accommodate their particular production needs for the crop they grow, as well as the region where they are producing that crop."

Maintaining temperatures is challenging. X.S. Smith designs according to the crop, but gives the structure the ability to take the facility they have and alter that crop with the proper cooling, ventilating and shading system if market conditions change.

"That’s something we pride ourselves on," Thompson says. "With a new facility, we encourage current or potential clients to increase the side walls and rooflines of the building to accommodate the equipment required. That is true whether it is for screen systems or shading systems – so as to produce the amount of sunlight or solar gain that they have in the house. Also, there are screening systems that may be used for heating and retention purposes."

There also can be the opportunity to design natural ventilation in the roof area. It can be an open roof application, where the entire, or as much as 80 percent of the roof, opens and closes. The grower can mimic or create an outdoor growing environment when used with that screening system and/or just a simple roof vent.

"The technology that was developed hundreds of years ago in glass greenhouses – to convectively move air more effectively or naturally through the house with cooler air coming in through sidewalls and hot air being exhaled through the peak area – is something that has come back to be very effective," Thompson says. "Currently operated and controlled by computer systems, the grower is not only monitoring the conditions inside the house, but is interacting with a weather station outside the house. The grower adjusts conditions inside the greenhouse prior to weather conditions, impacting what might take place inside. The grower is one step ahead with those controls." 

Payback

In X.S. Smith’s designing and engineering stages, it is important to demonstrate paybacks based upon what is being paid per kilowatt hour. Initial upfront costs may be greater with natural ventilation than they might be for fans, but out of a five- or 10-year payout, a grower will see a return on investment because he is going to be able to do a better job maintaining that environment.

"Obviously, all of this starts at the outset of a project. It is imperative, of course, to determine what the need is of that particular customer," says Thompson. "It is smart for us to go to our vendors and share that information with them and then work with those vendors we feel are the best at giving us what we need. We don’t limit ourselves to that. As a company, we try to get around the world to see what else is out there, as well as working the Internet," Thompson emphasizes. 

Special Situation Retrofit

Retrofitting projects require special attention. X.S. Smith starts by asking questions: Are you in love with the building as it currently exists? Does it create character for your facility? What’s the perceived value by you and what’s the actual value when you get other professionals involved to assess it? Will more dollars help the grower effectively reach short term and long term goals?

"Doing things to a facility that don’t warrant the time, the effort or the funding may be unwise," Thompson says. "It may be a lot wiser and easier to dismantle or scrap the existing building on its existing site and build new." Another option for X.S. Smith’s production greenhouse clients is diversification into some aspect of retailing, and an increasing number are expanding into that market.

There is a variety of reasons why this is happening:

• Land close to many growers’ properties is being taken over by housing developments. The growers’ new neighbors have a need for a fair amount of planting material and are attracted by the greenhouses and what they can see growing inside.

• Neighboring businesses of various types – including restaurants, churches and funeral parlors – seek out sources for stems or plants at less than florist prices.

When it’s the grower that takes the initiative, the act of retailing may begin and end with a modest outdoor presentation of what is fresh that day. Once the grower tastes success, he may take ads in local media, mail out flyers and put together a Web site. Suddenly, he discovers that he doesn’t have adequate or appropriate space, fixturing or personnel. If all or most of his major accounts are miles away from his growing operations, he may reason that because of distance, he’s not taking any consumers’ dollars out of their pockets. With that rationale, why not really get both feet into retailing by dedicating an entire, existing greenhouse to that purpose?

What is involved in such a conversion? High on the list is customer comfort. Shoppers are not comfortable with wet feet, dripping water, loud fans or strong currents of forced air, for example.

Ambitious conversions have become a specialty for X.S. Smith. In other situations, they have designed, engineered and built a retail entity from the ground up.

Bob LaRue is owner of LaRue Marketing Consultants in Pompano Beach, Fla. He specializes in the marketing and merchandising of lawn and garden and DIY products.

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