What Is the Current State of Labor in the Greenhouse Industry?

What Is the Current State of Labor in the Greenhouse Industry?

Labor in the greenhouse

Labor (cost, availability, and regulatory environment) is top of mind for greenhouse growers. Photo by Paul Skowronski

One of the questions posed in Greenhouse Grower’s 2018 Top 100 Growers survey was, “What are your long-term concerns about this industry?” A quick word search among the open-ended responses quickly highlighted one overriding issue: labor.

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  • “There just aren’t enough people willing to work in a greenhouse.”
  • “Labor costs coupled with the availability of skilled labor are currently our largest concerns. Each year it becomes more difficult to obtain qualified labor and each year the skill level of the existing labor pool drops while the demand for higher wages increases.”
  • “Labor issues are the most troublesome, and they seem to be getting worse.”
  • “I purchased a 39-year-old business last year and don’t have the middle management in place that understands the entire business to help run the place.”
  • “Labor and immigration are difficult subjects that seem to never go away or improve.”
  • “Labor costs are forcing us to change our business. We are looking at mechanization, but do not know if we will be able to pay for the investment.”

It’s not just the largest operations facing this problem either. We asked the same question in our 2018 State of the Industry survey, and here’s one reply that echoes how many respondents felt:
“It seems harder to find good personnel. As the economy gets better, other better-paying jobs become available. For the employer, it is hard to increase pay, as it is hard to raise prices on plants produced.”

Actually, this next quote sums things up perfectly: “Immigration makes up 75% of our workforce. To lose them would force me to close.”

The Numbers Don’t Add Up
So, what’s a grower to do? There’s always the possibility of a solution coming from Capitol Hill, but with immigration a seemingly never-ending hot potato issue, that is a dim prospect. Mechanization is another option, but you have to invest in a way that will pencil out for you most efficiently (which growers large and small will tell you is easier said than done).

Staying in the status quo is perhaps the easiest solution. However, even the best growers say this is a risky endeavor, with long-lasting ramifications.

“Rising costs of production, especially labor, have caught up and even surpassed revenue from stagnating cut-flower prices during certain seasons,” says Ivan Van Wingerden, CEO of Ever-Bloom in Carpinteria, CA. “Cheaper imports from South America and Canada have made operating in California incredibly challenging — we cannot compete with their exchange rate advantage and lower cost of goods.”

Ever-Bloom has invested in new automation systems in the past couple years, yet it still had to scale back its production.

Labor statistics from Greenhouse Grower's Top 100 2018 surveys

Growers of all sizes view labor as the most critical issue affecting their business. This was evident in Greenhouse Grower’s most recent Top 100 Growers and State of the Industry surveys.

“Minimum wage is rising 50% over a six-year period, as well as regulations that increase overtime hours, will soon price us out of the market,” Van Wingerden says. “New automation is available, but the start-up costs and projections of further commoditization does not give lenders confidence. Many businesses are moving out of state or abroad, but farmers are tied to their land (and, of course, stubborn to a fault!).”

Management Skills Lacking
Dana Massey, President of Plantworks Nursery in Rougemont, NC, says the inability to find labor has only continued to become increasingly difficult.

“Not only has it become practically impossible to find the workers for the more physical duties of potting, watering, weeding, and maintaining, but middle management has been just as difficult,” Massey says. “The lack of middle management is a limiting factor in our growth and ability to maximize efficiencies. When everyone on staff must work in the business versus working on the business, it drastically limits the time available to spend on planning for the future and making improvements.”

When this happens, day-to-day management responsibilities are being handled by those who should be doing some managing, but mostly leading, Massey says.

“Not having someone who is mostly dedicated to working on the business to improve upon plant offerings, structures, and technology inhibits immediate growth and increased efficiencies,” Massey says.

An increasing portion of Plantworks’ business is contract growing for landscapers and re-wholesalers. The absence of additional middle management limits the number of projects the company can accept.

“We have the growers to grow them, but we are in desperate need of someone to oversee and manage them,” Massey says.

Help From Your Peers
These situations may portend an ominous outlook. However, there are solutions to be found, and that is the intent of the Greenhouse Grower team. In the coming days, weeks, and beyond, you will find more articles posted here featuring practical suggestions on labor-saving solutions and strategies, from hiring and training employees, to making the right automation decisions, to designing your greenhouse in a way that allows for maximum efficiency in production and use of your labor crew. You’ll also find advice on using the H-2A program, and choosing varieties that are less labor intensive.

We hope that you will find some helpful tips and advice in this issue. And please share any labor-saving ideas you may have by dropping us an email at [email protected].