Award-Winning Greenhouse Growers Offer Labor-Saving Solutions

Award-Winning Greenhouse Growers Offer Labor-Saving Solutions

Many of Greenhouse Grower’s Grower of the Year award winners and finalists have something in common: the ability to come up with practical answers to challenges facing their businesses.

We asked some of these individuals about the advice they might offer to their peers to address labor challenges at their operations. Here’s what some of them had to say.

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Albert Grimm, Jefferys GreenhousesAlbert Grimm, Jeffery’s Greenhouses, St. Catharines, ON, Canada (Grimm was the 2016 Head Grower of the Year)
Greenhouse work primarily consists of individual jobs that have to be performed by the hands and fingers of the workers. The speed and accuracy with which we perform these tasks determines the efficiency of plant production. Yet, we expect greenhouse workers to master these manual skills after receiving no more than some token training and with only minimal allowance for practice and improvement.

Might it help our efficiencies if we acknowledge that manual greenhouse work is just as much a realm of professionalism as, for example, a piano concert stage? Piano teachers don’t train their students by merely explaining the task and the expected outcome. Teaching music involves years of supervised repetition, repeated correction of details, and encouragement when the student gets too frustrated with the difficult acquisition of a new skill.

How does this compare to the training of new greenhouse workers in our industry? We typically explain what to do, but we generally fail to demonstrate how to do a task efficiently and ergonomically correct. If we are honest, we may even admit that we cannot do a better job at teaching, because our supervisors no longer have the opportunity to learn it themselves. They cannot teach what they don’t know.

Today, we typically give new employees 10 minutes of explanations and send them off to a variety of jobs in the hope that some efficiency rubs off when the newcomer works alongside more senior colleagues. Such lack of training illustrates the public image that our workers are replaceable and that manual greenhouse work is expendable and without virtue. Can we expect from our workers the dedication to become experts, if we are not willing to give them the necessary expertise?

Proper training, in the simplest case, should include days of coaching for each task and regular follow up on such details as to how to move and position one’s body for a task to avoid fatigue and how to move one’s hands and fingers to optimize accuracy and speed. Proper training will improve the posture of workers to avoid physical strain. It will improve dexterity to improve productivity, and it will create improved routines that become second nature, so that the worker will be able to do more with greater accuracy. The trainee typically gets some satisfaction from being able to master a task that appeared difficult at the outset.

For a long time, one key attraction for entering a skilled trade has been the satisfaction that comes from mastering skills and building a professional life around them. We have an opportunity to teach these skills and promote the value in learning them, and we should put effort into appealing to prospective students, because these skills and know-how will disappear when the last generation of experts retires.

Hans-Lenselink-Multiflora-GreenhousesHans Lenselink, Multiflora Greenhouses, Hillsborough, NC (Lenselink was a 2018 Head Grower of the Year finalist and Excellence in Process Improvement Award winner)
There are two practical suggestions on improving labor efficiency that I can offer. One is that we need sufficient wholesale carts based on our shipping and production needs in the busiest time of the year to be able to make deliveries to customers, and pull new orders for the next day at the same time. Having enough wholesale carts when you need them all is important and saves us a lot of time. The same is true for electrical tow carts: it’s always good to invest in purchasing an additional tow cart. It improves the efficiency and morale of employees.

My second suggestion is regarding variety selection. I prefer seed items that I buy in as a plug, compared to unrooted cuttings (URC) of a similar genus and species. An example is New Guinea Impatiens ‘Florific’ as a plug purchased from a plug grower. It costs the same as a URC of a New Guinea Impatiens variety, but it’s already rooted and has a shorter crop time. Petunia and several other bedding plants also have many good seed varieties that can be bought as a plug and grown more efficiently than URCs.

Stephen Barlow of Barlow's Flower Farm

Stephen Barlow, Barlow’s Flower Farm, Seagirt, NJ
(Barlow’s Flower Farm is the 2018 Operation of the Year award winner)
1. We purchased a bale breaker for towers of soil. It cut out one employee that would have to load the smaller bales into our soil machine. We are looking to have a payback in two years. We also get more soil per truck load.
2. One simple thing we did was to install a loading dock. We can load a truck 10 times faster than using a lift gate.
3. We installed a fingerprint time card system that doesn’t let you clock in until your shift has started, and it will prompt managers of any overtime about to occur. It also does not allow for others to clock in and out for you.

Two GROW Partners Weigh in on Labor-Saving Strategies

“One thing that we have been sharing with our grower customers is the idea of treating plugs in the plug trays instead of waiting until after they are transplanted. This has helped them save in time, labor, and cost.” — Andy Seckinger, Marketing Manager, OHP, Inc.

“Use pesticides with longer residuals to reduce the frequency of applications. Use a drench when possible versus a spray as you are applying a pesticide while watering (instead of watering, then having to come back later and spray). Incorporate horizontal airflow fans and ventilation to improve air circulation, therefore reducing the risk for disease and having to take the time to spray and/or clean or discard decaying material. Purchase soil that contains a biofungicide already incorporated, eliminating the need for a first drench. Finally, start with good cuttings/liners. If they are inferior when they arrive, contact your supplier, as you will spend more time and money trying to nurse them along.” — Heidi Warner, Ornamental Account Manager, Nufarm