When TreeSource Citrus Nursery can’t find labor-saving technology suited to its operation’s specific needs, it joins forces with other companies to develop it. The payoff of collaborating to innovate is groundbreaking technology that helps the company crank out a heavy volume of citrus trees and liners.
From its home base in Woodlake, CA, with the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the East, TreeSource Citrus Nursery propagates more than 1.2 million citrus trees a year, produces around 500,000 citrus trees for orchard planting, and provides more than 500,000 citrus liners to nurseries and greenhouse operations. The company serves growers and wholesale businesses across the U.S. and is in the unique position of having one foot firmly in the agricultural industry while the other is leaving its imprint in the horticulture industry.
While citrus greening (a.k.a., huanglongbing or HLB) has yet to make serious inroads into California’s main production areas, that hasn’t stopped TreeSource from taking proactive steps to prepare for the event. Leading up to 2013, the company was mainly a field production nursery. That changed when governmental regulations and disease threats made it prudent to move 100% of production indoors to APHIS-approved insect-resistant structures certified by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the USDA.
While the move indoors to screenhouses and greenhouses made sense for the company, the operation’s 40% drop in production capacity due to the cost of the facilities did not. A $3 million expansion started in 2016 has helped to close the gap.
While planning for the expansion, General Manager Roger Smith says the company put careful thought into how to integrate automation and other labor-saving technology into its daily practices, in ways that helped the company meet its production goals. For example, when the company transitioned to indoor facilities, it under designed the space it needed for the head house. During the recent expansion, designers allotted more space, which allowed for workflow methods and strategic placement of automation where the most efficiencies could be realized. That change alone helped the company reduce its need for labor by as many as eight seasonal employees, Smith says.
“Just because you can put in new technology, doesn’t mean you should,” he says. “What most people don’t grasp, especially with automation, is that it is not just about labor-saving technology. Oftentimes, it’s a complete rethink of your processes and being open to new ways of getting things done.”
One of the company’s objectives is to use the labor-saving technology it installs to jettison labor-intensive, physically demanding jobs, especially for seasonal labor. The payoff from this approach is two-fold: It helps with the labor crunch and reduces investment costs.
“We figured out that a five-month seasonal employee costs us as much as $20,000 a year,” Smith says. “If we could eliminate three seasonal employee positions, that’s a savings of $60,000 a year that can offset the costs of automation, especially if you factor a three-year pay back into the analysis.”
Over the years, TreeSource Citrus Nursery has collaborated with other companies to design and develop technology specifically tooled to meet its unique needs.
Smith says when the company meshed its greenhouse expertise with the strengths of companies outside the industry, what they designed together was much better than if each had tried to do it independently.
Scan the photo gallery above to take a brief look at the results of some of those collaborations.