By Kristen Hampshire
A push to improve efficiency is prompting growers to explore innovative technologies that streamline processes, alleviate tedious tasks, and provide more control over crop quality and yield. From basic conveyer belts to robotic transplanters and advanced light systems, there are a range of labor-saving tools on the market today. But, how does a grower decide which technologies to implement?
“As you are going through peak production, observe what parts in your system are hampering production,” advises Heidi Lindberg, Michigan State University Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Educator. “If you are spending a lot of time moving plants from one area of the greenhouse to another, consider making changes in how you transport them. And, as you make infrastructural improvements to your facility, work to improve the flow.”
Here are some labor-smart strategies growers are putting into play to tighten up operations, alleviate the labor burden and
Smart Technology Moves
Some growers are investing in cutting sticking machines, such as the Visser AutoStix system that can reduce the number of employees required on the sticking line. Others are reducing the number of types, styles, and
sizes of containers they offer. They’re opting to transplant into final, decorative containers.
Meanwhile, advanced lighting systems are giving growers greater control over crops — and the flexibility to grow anywhere, any time. Case in point: helioCORE is a platform that allows growers to control light. They can organize lighting by crop type or production stage, group together multiple lights into zones to standardize schedules and settings and build “libraries” of saved settings. The LED grow lights can be customized to help shape the crop cycle. For example, by inducing red-color light at the end of a growing cycle for red lettuce, you can increase production.
“We can optimize the cycle time and yield,” says Peter Nyberg, Chief Technology Officer at Heliospectra. “Because of our knowledge of light and how to use it in the most effective way, we can use light to control and reduce growers’ costs.”
Controlling light helps establish consistent growth cycles and yields. “You can predict what crops you will get, and you will get the exact same results every time,” says Hanna Rudel, Vice President of Technical Services at Heliospectra.
Light control systems also address America’s fluctuating weather patterns. “There have been significant changes in seasonal weather and light levels during the course of the year,” Rudel says. “By turning to LED technology and these types of control platforms, you get consistent produce year-round.”
Not to mention, light platforms give growers the flexibility to grow anywhere. “You don’t have to grow where there’s natural light — you can grow indoors, in warehouses, outdoors in the ground, anywhere you want to have your crops,” Rudel says. “So, in areas with dense populations, you don’t need to make food travel because you can grow it in food factories in the city.”
Growers can gain quick time to market, from the moment crops are harvested to the shelving of fresh produce on store shelves. “Instead of moving food across state lines or importing it, you can offer folks locally grown produce,” Rudel says.
The variety of strategies to boost efficiency goes beyond implementing technologies like light and boom irrigation systems, or mechanical pruning, shearing, and trimming machines. Growers are reviewing best practices and getting creative with marketing to stoke sales in the mature floriculture market.
“What I’m most excited about is the innovative ways that growers are going about marketing plants, such as doing collectible succulents that catch consumers’ attention,” Lindberg says. “There are decorative plants with containers that have edgy sayings, and they make excellent gifts.”
Rebooting the image is driving sales, Lindberg notices. “The potted floral industry is doing quite well,” she says.
The key for growers is to continue evaluating their operations for opportunities to reduce cost and improve efficiency, and to adopt technologies that will deliver a practical return on investment, Lindberg says. “The level to which they implement technology will depend on where they are in their careers and whether they are prepared to make large capital investments.”
That said, Lindberg says, “Every operation needs to consider at least some strategies to improve efficiency to make sure they will be viable in five to 10 years and beyond.”