Labor Management Tips For Greenhouse Vegetables

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Greenhouse tomato clipping

Shifting production from ornamentals to vegetable crops can be relatively simple with regard to production. However, there are a number of things you will need to consider with regard to the organization and training of your staff. This article will focus on labor management applicable to a variety of greenhouse vegetable crops.

The labor requirements (hours/acre) per month are different for the three main vegetable crops produced in greenhouses: tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. It is important to know that cucumbers and peppers use 19 percent and 32 percent less labor respectively than tomatoes. Also, it is good to know that tomatoes require more care from employees during the course of the season. Requirements will range from 12 hours per 10,000 sq. ft. (at the beginning of the crop) to 37 hours per 10,000 sq. ft. (at peak where all tasks need to be taken care of). For a long tomato crop, growers can roughly plan a total of 15 to 20 hours per square foot during one year.

Here are some tips with regard to the organization of the work, record keeping and plant maintenance to help you make sure you are using your greenhouse labor resources wisely.

Organization
Designate one person to be responsible for training the employees, monitoring their work and organizing the staff. This person motivates your employees and makes sure they understand the reasons for the work they are doing. He or she will decide if the employees will be assigned to a specific area or if they work together as a team. This person will also conduct discussions with the employees as they progress and do well in their tasks. Make sure good effort is well rewarded.

Record Keeping

Records give you accurate information on the hours required for specific jobs. This enables more precise programming of crops in the future. The data gives you a standard of comparison for your labor use, not only in your own greenhouse, but also in other comparable operations where they may use labor more efficiently. It will help you recognize when an area or employee needs improvement. Record keeping is useful in evaluating new employees.  If you provide them with target rates of work for specific tasks, you can monitor and assess their performance.

Plant Maintenance

Set clear guidelines and performance expectations for plant maintenance. This maintenance is what is necessary to be done on a single plant to get maximum growth and production.

The crops need to be kept at a consistent height. Most tasks are carried out weekly and the targets are usually expressed as minutes per 100 plants or as pounds per square foot for picking.

In order to maintain the plants’ growth you will need to perform those minimum tasks: winding, clipping, suckering, truss pruning, truss support, lowering, deleafing and picking.

Winding is the operation required to keep the plant in a vertical position. The employee holds the plant in one hand and winds twine around the stem. This task is performed once a week. Clipping is an alternative to winding. A small plastic clip attached to the twine is installed around the stem to keep it vertical. This supports the weight of the plant. Clipping can be a real advantage over winding when working with new staff, as plant heads are often broken during winding. The additional cost of clipping is often covered due to less losses resulting from broken heads.

Suckering is the action of removing the sucker, a side shoot that grows at the axilla of a leaf. Suckers need to be removed weekly. The plant should be allowed to grow on only one main shoot.

Truss pruning and truss support have to be done together once a week. The truss is the part of the plant where the fruits are. Before the fruits set, there are a number of flowers. The grower will tell the staff to keep a fixed number of flowers to keep the balance of the plant and the expected production. In tomatoes, sometimes it is necessary to install a support for an individual truss. If the length of the truss is long and thin, the fruit weight will kink the truss stem. A small, specially designed plastic support will help keep the truss stem sturdy enough to fill the fruits properly.

Lowering the crop is a task required when the plants reach the crop wire. When an employee lowers a plant, he “unwinds” the twine around a special hook. If he lowers the plant by 8 inches he has to move the same plant by 8 inches sideways. Most growers ask for lowering every other week.

Deleafing is the action of removing a leaf. The bottom leaves are useless when they are lower than the picked-fruits level. Deleafing helps maintain good air circulation just above the ground level and minimizes disease pressure. This task needs to be done regularly (about once a week). Usually no more than three leaves are removed at a time on one tomato plant. The leaf can be broken by hand from the main stem or cut away with a knife. The use of a knife usually reduces the risk of disease propagation, as long as it is disinfected frequently.

Once the fruits are ready, they need to be picked regularly. Most operations pick three times a week, with or without the calyx on the fruit. Employees may sit or stand while picking, whichever is fastest for the plant height. Picking speed can be as fast as 10 pounds per minute if you use pipe rails.

Other tasks need to be done during the course of the production season. Beneficial insects have to be spread in the growing areas, paths need to be cleaned and leaves have to be taken out of rows regularly. Tear out of the crop is time consuming too. All plants need to be taken out of the greenhouse.

Greenhouse vegetable labor efficiency has improved considerably in recent years. Even if it looks to be a different way to use an ornamental labor staff, well-motivated management can control the labor costs with these techniques.

Régis Larouche (r.larouche@agrisys.ca) is an agronomist with Agrisys Consultants Inc. His specialties include crop protection, biological control and computerized climate control of the greenhouse environment.
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