Located in Naples, Florida and with approximately 100 acres of growing space, American Farms is an annual and perennial grower constantly working to optimize their business. Currently, 50 percent of their business is with big box stores – meaning they have to fill large, specific orders on a regular basis. Much of the rest of their business is for landscaping companies and contract growing for companies like Disney and Metrolina Greenhouses.
According to Justin Orion, American Farms’ young plant manager, that’s part of the reason why the grower has worked to become more efficient with their time and resources. They’ve done this through a variety of efforts ranging from changing cuttings to researching automation.
“[Innovation] is why we send people, myself included, to California Spring Trials and why I’ll be in Holland for flower trials there,” Orion says. “We always want to be on the forefront of what’s out there.”
Meeting customers’ needs
According to Orion, working with big box stores requires precision and flexibility. As a result, American Farms does a detailed sales review with customers to make sure the customers’ growing needs are being met. American Farms also plans its growing around performance. What has performed well for the customers is what will stay in production, so American Farms’ customers receive plants that will sell.
Larger retailers also often require plants to be at or near full boom and color when they reach the store. That requires precise, calculated growing that has plants ready to ship at the exact time they arrive. This involves workers checking the crops at least three times a week and coordinating orders the moment plants are ready. Retailers are also unable to spray the plants once they reach the store, so American Farms maintains a strict pest control program so plants are in tip-top condition once they been shipped.
“When we plant them,” Orion says, “we typically know what the ship date is going to be.”
Cutting growing time in half
One of the problems Orion faces is getting the ideal turnaround on cuttings. Depending on the time of year, one half to two-thirds of American Farms’ business comes from unrooted cutting suppliers, with tissue culture, plugs, and bulbs accounting for the rest.
Around two years ago, American Farms first trialed SunStanding hybrid New Guinea impatiens Quick Turn™ cuttings from Dümmen Orange. With cuttings arriving at a more mature stage compared to a typical unrooted cutting, the turn time for crops started with Quick Turn cuttings is drastically decreased.
Typically, a cutting will take 10 to 11 weeks to be transplanted, grown and shipped. With the Quick Turn cuttings, Orion says plants can be grown and sold within five to six weeks with results varying on where a grower is located and the time of year.
“We are able to plant [the Quick Turn™ cuttings], sell them, plant another crop and sell the second crop in the same time it would have taken us to grow a crop of single Sun Type impatiens,” he says. “The more times we can turn over our space, the more profitable we can be.”
In the last three years, American Farms’ has moved from more shade-friendly varieties to SunStanding New Guinea Impatiens. Currently, Orion estimates that 60 percent of their New Guinea varieties are SunStanding. Three years ago, he says sun type impatiens accounted for just 40 percent of their New Guinea varieties. He says that is at least partly because of the Quick Turn™ cuttings.
“All of our customers are getting them,” Orion says, “when they buy Sun Type impatiens from us.”
The value of technology
Adopting Quick Turn cuttings and maximizing efficiency to meet orders for box store customers is a part of a larger emphasis on innovation at American Farms. According to Orion, one of the hallmarks of the company is finding ways to improve every aspect of the business.
One current area of intrigue is automation, and specifically, sticking robots. In early June, American Farms employees attended a sticking robots seminar at American Farms for the sticking robot made by Visser. The Autostix by Visser can stick up to 10,000 units an hour while the ISO robot can stick up to 2,000 cuttings per hour. A trained employee can stick around 800 – 1,000. American Farms won’t purchase their own machine this year, according Orion, but would like to purchase one in the future once they have figured out which machine best suits their operation.
“Labor is a big issue for us, much like it is for everybody else,” Orion says. “It’s hard to get people in here, so we’re looking at automation wherever we can. That machine could stick the Quick Turn cuttings and I don’t have to worry about it like I would [an employee] calling off.”
Additionally, Orion has made improvements with American Farms’ propagation efforts. In the last year, he has moved their propagating efforts up to 128 cell trays from 105 cell trays. He says this allows him to get approximately 25 percent more product onto the benches each cycle.
“We weren’t going to build a new propagation space,” he says. “So, we focused on our density and fit more plants into our current space.”
Exploring opportunities for innovation and improvement, from propagation cell space to cuttings to automation, is just what American Farms does.
Photo courtesy of Dümmen Orange