Note: This article was written by Paul Fisher, Ph.D., a Professor and Extension Specialist; Ulrich Adegbola, a graduate student; and Alan Hodges, Ph.D., an Extension Scientist at the University of Florida. The authors thank funding support from the USDA-ARS Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative and industry partners in the Floriculture Research Alliance.
It is increasingly challenging to hire workers for transplanting unrooted cuttings (sticking) during peak production seasons. At the University of Florida, we are evaluating the labor cost of manual and robotic sticking of plant cuttings, as part of the Floriculture Research Alliance. To gather this data, we are visiting collaborating growers around the U.S. Our findings emphasize the need to evaluate the cost and efficiency of your current manual process of transplanting cuttings and use this information to both reduce waste and make informed investment decisions on automation.
Evaluate the Labor Cost of Your Process
To manually stick cuttings into a tray, the labor cost for workers and supervisors on the sticking line at 14 U.S. floriculture companies averaged $0.018 per cutting, but varied nearly five-fold between growers, from $0.008 to $0.043. This indicates potential for improved efficiency in higher-cost locations. The approach we took to quantify labor cost (see table below) was to mine payroll data for worker time and cost during the peak week of transplant. The advantage of this approach is that it catches down times such as lunch breaks and may be more realistic than standing over employees with a stopwatch.
Identify Opportunities to Reduce Labor Time
Cuttings stuck per hour ranged from 282 to 1,360 cuttings per worker hour, including sticking workers and supervisors. Plant type (e.g, hard-to-handle tissue culture and double-stuck items) was one of the biggest variables and is largely out of a grower’s control. However, businesses only sticking bedding plants varied by a factor of 2.8 between the fastest to slowest operation.
Improve efficiency where you can and bring in a lean consultant to evaluate your process. You should also minimize wasted movement. For example, the sticking crew should have continual access to supplies from conveyors and/or supervisors without leaving their station.
Many growers provided little training for new employees beyond sitting them next to experienced workers, and few had a standardized process of how to remove plants from bags, hold cuttings, and place cuttings into cells. Some growers tracked individual or team performance by scanning trays and displaying the results on a goal and performance board.
Critically Evaluate Labor Availability and Wages
The hourly wage for seasonal workers ranged from $8.50 to $10.72, and did not include benefits besides mandatory payroll taxes. This average hourly rate compares with a national average of $13.23 (no high school graduation) or $17.25 (high school graduation) (reported by the Economic Policy Institute in 2017).
Not surprisingly, we struggle to compete for employees with other industries. Entry-level work in a greenhouse is not unskilled. It requires attributes such as the ability to work in a warm and wet environment, working rapidly at repetitive tasks, staying motivated during long hours, etc. There is a tradeoff between labor availability and wage. Are you providing the needed incentives to hire and retain excellent individuals?
A shiny machine is not always the answer. For decades, the trend in manufacturing is toward automation. New automated transplanters from ISO Group and Visser are exciting developments. However, factors typical of U.S. production make automation challenging and mean that manual sticking will probably always play some role in greenhouse production. These factors include plant diversity (short runs that increase machine changeover time), diversity of suppliers (which reduces standardization), and a steep production peak (which means that machines may be idle for an extended period). In addition, we provide a social benefit to our communities by providing employment. Therefore, even though automation may dominate the future, it is still worth optimizing your manual process.
For more information on topics related to labor efficiency, automation, and costing, enroll for our Costing and Profitability online course for growers (Oct. 30 to Dec. 1, 2017) at hort.ifas.ufl.edu/training.