The Even-Higher-Tech-Future Of The Top 100 Grower

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As part of Greenhouse Grower’s 30th anniversary celebration, we’ve been taking a look at the current state of various segments of our industry in 2013. But there’s also value in looking ahead at — and preparing for — the next 10, 20 or 30 years. “The Even-Higher-Tech Future Of The Top 100 Grower” was the theme for Greenhouse Grower’s annual Top 100 Growers Breakfast, held during OFA Short Course. The Top 100 program was sponsored by BASF.

The breakfast featured a panel discussion with experts in web technology, robotics and production: Gary Falkenstein, president and CEO of ePlantSource, Charles Grinnell, COO of Harvest Automation and Paul Pilon, owner of Perennial Solutions Consulting. Each shared his vision of the future and identified readily available technologies and opportunites that growers should be exploring for their business today.

Where are the Top 100 Growers on the technology curve?

Falkenstein: On the technology side, if you look at information systems and software solutions, I think we’re behind. Things change quickly. If you are using technology that’s two or three years old, you are behind the curve.

Grinnell: The industry does seem to be behind where it could be. I have been working with a dozen growers and looking at how they do business. What I have seen is the general collection and use of data on the farms is not widespread. There are huge opportunities to be more efficient in how people are using their resources, just by doing some pretty simple stuff that’s done in lots of other industries — keeping track of production data, for instance. There are software packages and ERP systems that can help with that. Between smart phones and other new technologies, there’s lots of opportunity.

Pilon: I agree. The Top 100 has a grasp of current technology, but there are inefficiencies in some of the production areas of our business. Automation has come a long way, but there are many other ways we can reduce the number of touches to maintain profitability. Using software for scouting applications, purchasing plant materials or ordering chemicals — there are ways we can step things up.

So now we’re talking about growers buying live goods online. Isn’t that a different process than buying books or shoes or plane tickets?

Falkenstein: More people are using  the Internet to source information and purchase goods. We think it’s a normal progression to do the same with live goods. We all like to think the greenhouse business is unique, but when you boil it down, we’re in the transaction business. Amazon has set the expectation that you will get exactly what you order. That will be a big change for our industry. We have to be reliable with inventory like anyone else. The Web can help us be more efficient here.

Where are some other opportunities to use the Web in the supply chain?

Falkenstein: In the future we might have grower-to-grower information sharing to balance out inventories. One grower in a rainy region might have product while another might be sold out. How can they work together? How do you connect better with your buyer? How can you give them better information about the progress of your crop? We can use the Internet to do that.

What about the production side? Where are we missing opportunities?

Pilon: I think it’s people. There is a shortage of growers who have the education or experience we need to take the business to the next level. For production managers and general managers, there’s a lot of talent in other industries we could utilize. I’ve seen successful greenhouse managers that have come from the auto industry. We are plant manufacturers.

What’s the future of crop protection?

Pilon: There’s a continuing interest in biologicals. At the consumer level there is a tremendous message there for us, certainly with independent garden centers. But how powerful would it be for Home Depot to educate the consumer on the sachets they might find on a hanging basket and how Earth-friendly we are?  

As far as where biologicals fit and how they will coexist with traditional chemistries, I believe in the future we will see more softer chemistries that are compatible with biocontrols. We’ve already seen a shift to more targeted chemistries. We’re going to use a blend. Until buyers will accept a little bit of imperfection in our product, we are still going to have to use chemistries to clean things up.

What tools are out there now that growers are not taking advantage of?

Pilon: There are some good apps for phones. Biobest has a good app for matching the right biological control to a specific problem. The University of New Hampshire and OHP both have PGR calculator applications. But I really have seen no apps on the chemical side a grower can use on the spot  to make a decision. Apps could be a good area.

Where are the opportunities for growers with robotics?

Grinnell: We looked at the hort industry because we felt the existing state of the art in robotics could be commercially viable. Moving plants isn’t the only thing we can do, but it was a good place to start.
Once the plant is in the robot’s hands, we can automate the application of herbicides or insectides or fertilizers. From the survey work we have done, people are using a lot more chemicals than we need to. So it’s not just labor — there is a cost and environmental savings there.

How does a grower justify the investment in any next-level technology?

Grinnell: Robotics hasn’t been in this industry until now, mainly because of cost. We thought about cost right from the beginning. We compared it to how much growers would save on human labor — that dictates what technology you can use. Someone was asking this morning about GPS. Adding that would drive the cost up and make it unaffordable.

We targeted 24 months of use as a payback. Most people we have talked with in the industry feel like a 24-month payback is reasonable.

What other industries should we be watching for technology?

Grinnell:  We couldn’t have brought our robots to market even five years ago without some key things developed elsewhere. The cost and power of processors and computer chips has been driven by smart phones. Battery technology is driven by electric vehicles and other applications.  

Something we’re looking at now that will have applicability for the Top 100 Growers are cameras. Developments in cameras are driven by cell phones but more importantly by the automotive industry. Advanced automobiles use cameras to keep you in your lane or look for obstacles. Our engineering teams are looking into cameras to help the robots “see.” Other people develop technology, costs come down and we are able to take advantage of that.GG

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.

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