Labor-saving technology and smart systems are giving greenhouse growers a modern-day toolbox to improve their operations.
By Kristen Hampshire
Labor is a pain—and the pool of potential agricultural workers is thinning faster than many growers can find ways to fill the gaps. “Demographic and societal changes have unfolded over the last 100 years or more, and those have built up over time,” says Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President of Industry Advocacy and Research for AmericanHort.
A complex and costly H-2A program is a last resort for growers, but it’s challenging to navigate the process and its expense. Plus, longtime agricultural workers are aging out — they’re finding other means of employment that suits their lifestyle, either here or in their home countries. This aging out is compounded by a lack of young blood entering the industry, Regelbrugge adds. And, in many instances this work is seasonal.
“Most Americans who are motivated to show up at a workplace and work hard aren’t looking for intermittent employment,” Regelbrugge points out. “They’re looking for full time, and for the most part, they have a lot of choices.”
Not to mention, the economic landscape in countries that have historically provided workers is improving. So, foreign workers won’t necessarily have to immigrate in order to find employment.
“Regions that have traditionally been big labor suppliers are changing rapidly,” Regelbrugge says. “Also, birth rates are falling where they are only slightly above what we see in the U.S. and northern European countries, so the combination of push-and-pull factors that cause people to be willing to walk away from home and strike out to work in a different land are changing.”
Beyond the difficulties of attracting labor, the floriculture industry’s profit margins are shadowed by those of the growing cannabis industry, which can pay more. And, there’s an overall margin squeeze growers are feeling as the cost of business elevates.
What’s the answer? There isn’t one.
“The best solution is an all-tools-in-a-toolkit approach,” Regelbrugge says. That toolkit includes standardizing processes so operations can embrace mechanization. Also, growers need to adopt technology that reduces rote tasks so they can focus on creating more engaging work experiences that will attract labor. If we move in a serious way toward more mechanization, automation, and labor-saving innovations, we are going to need smart people who want to work in horticulture to run the machines,” Regelbrugge points out.
It’s harder to mechanize a process that isn’t standardized. Technology will prompt growers to dig into operations and create uniform systems that can be automated.
“Prices are rising, and producers are struggling to get enough for their product,” Regelbrugge says. “We have a big margin squeeze, and in the face of that, the place to start is to push for ‘lean flow.’”
In other words, growers will have to identify how product flows through their operations, address barriers to flow, and pinpoint processes that can be improved with technology.
“The pressure of consolidation and logistics is driving growers to improve processes, and that includes technology,” Regelbrugge says. “For example, sensors for a variety of functions—plant nutrition, pest and disease management, inventory — can alleviate the labor burden. It can mean fewer bodies are necessary to do ‘the rounds.’”
In a 2018 Greenhouse Grower Top 100 Grower survey, 83% of respondents said they are investing in technology and automation wherever they can to counter labor shortages. Of those, 72% are focused on boosting efficiency, and 58% are adopting technology to improve production uniformity and efficacy.
Technology investments include: production automation (59%); software (47%); building and replacing structures (42%); watering efficiency (41%); and LED lighting and growing media equipment (34%).
“Greenhouse is ahead of outdoor production nursery because it’s easier to embrace technology in a controlled environment,” Regelbrugge says. “But, I think that gap will close pretty rapidly.”
Reimagining Hort Careers
“Labor challenges are up and down in our companies and include growers, propagators, pest control managers—it’s not just entry-level, manual-labor jobs growers are struggling to fill,” Regelbrugge says.
Technology is a key piece of changing perceptions of working in this industry. Mechanizing some manual processes can allow growers to “upgrade” positions, Regelbrugge says, so they are more varied, more interesting, less rote and manual.
“It’s not about replacing workers; it’s often about making a job more attractive,” he adds. “As an industry, we need to collectively figure out how to better position and market career opportunities.”