Willoway Nurseries is one of a small number of growers testing robots from Harvest Automation as a more efficient and cost-effective method of moving plants in the greenhouse and nursery yard. We asked Willoway’s Tom Demaline for an update on the testing process.
GG: How are the robots working?
Demaline: It has been good. We worked with Harvest Automation on the alpha and beta testing and working out the kinks with that. We trialed the first production models in October. We ran them about 6 weeks, focusing on consolidating plants for winter. We’re still in the learning curve on how to use the technology. Did the robots physically pick up a plant and move it? Yes. But in these trials they didn’t seem to like to consolidate the plants as much as they like to space them. We just have to learn how to make them more efficient.
We’re really positive about it. I think this spring we’ll have a lot better feeling for how the spacing process works, but right now it looks good.
GG: What made you decide to try robots?
Demaline: It’s all about gaining efficiencies and reducing labor costs – and labor, period. There isn’t enough available labor out there to do things the way we used to do them.
I’ve always been pushing to use more mechanization since back in the ’90s when we started to see labor shortages and issues with undocumented workers. We’re in the H-2A program, so we have documented workers, but the H-2A program is still full of bureaucracy and red tape and costs. Someday, as them demographics change, our source of cheap labor from the south is going to dry up. We have to find out how to do stuff mechanically and it will eventually be more efficient.
GG: Other opportunities?
Demaline: We constantly are looking. We’re using pot forks and all kinds of different things to pick up efficiencies. Some work and some don’t but there’s always ways to do it better and cheaper and mechanically than having people out there doing it.