Tare consumers are turning to perennials, and there’s a few reason why. For one, they’re seeing greater value and flower longevity in the garden. And the economics of investing less time and effort is making more sense to today’s busy gardener.
Leading breeding companies have responded to these customer needs by upgrading several classes of perennial plants, namely echinacea, salvia and coreopsis.
“Customers want a colorful show in their garden,” says Karl Batschke, perennial product development manager at Ball. “In short, they want perennials that flower like annuals. That means taking a plant that traditionally flowers for a few weeks and turning it into a plant that flowers for a few months.”
An explosion of new perennial development began in the early 2000s. Breeding work elevated the color palette of echinacea, and the addition of other key characteristics helped people see the possibilities. It was those possibilities that led to the launch of the Sombrero series from Darwin Perennials in 2009.
“When Sombrero came on the market, not only were we able to fix preexisting echinacea problems of flower longevity, branching and winter hardiness, but we also enhanced the tissue culture process and made it producible for reliable market supply,” Batschke says. “We put all the pieces together.”
2019 Time to Upgrade - Greenhouse Ventilation
Automated systems: How environmental controls assist in greenhouse production and plant growth
Ryan Dickson, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, specializes in greenhouse and controlled environmental agriculture. With a background in floriculture production and previous experience as a commercial grower for a greenhouse operation in Denver, Dickson knows his way around the greenhouse, including the advantages of using automated environmental controls.
“There are five main environmental variables that influence plant growth,” Dickson says. “There’s nutrients, water, temperature and gases.” The gases Dickson refers to are oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is what plants need for photosynthesis, he says.
According to Dickson, managing temperature, light and gases is important for climate control, which can be difficult. But with automated controls, the process is more efficient and allows growers to focus on other aspects of growing.
Since plant growth is driven by light and temperature, Dickson says automated environmental controls can save money because they optimize the environment in which the plant grows. With the system, growers can automatically enhance temperature and adjust light levels accordingly. Secondly, since the system is automated, labor costs are essentially reduced since there is no need for manual labor.
However, prior to using automated environmental controls, there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration.
“You need to identify where your problem areas are, like, ‘Is crop loss a result of poor climate management?’ You [also] need to take into consideration the cost of the system and all of the features and where it will add value,” Dickson says, mentioning the price range of automated environmental controls. “… Depending on your operations and what crops you grow, you may not need all those bells and whistles. You just need to match up what you need in order to develop a good crop and find the right unit that fits within your budget.”
Although automated environmental controls are a great addition to production, growers often use them as a crutch, Dickson says. “It’s not a done deal. When you invest in automation, you have to keep calibrating the system.” By this, Dickson means maintaining the wear and tear that comes over time, along with monitoring greenhouse temperatures — as in hot and cool spots. “Your plants will grow differently in those areas and you need to make sure that the system is being maintained and is being calibrated and continues to run properly,” he says.
While automated systems do require some manual sustaining, Dickson still believes the technology is convenient. “It can be very useful in terms of maintaining very strict environmental conditions that will benefit plant growth and I think that’s huge,” he says. “… Being able to maintain proper temperature, proper lighting and cooling is very critical to producing a quality plant.”
Is it time to upgrade plants and equipment? Check your finances first.
As you think about meeting demand and sales projections for next year and beyond, it’s tempting to want to move ahead quickly with plant and equipment expansions or upgrades. However, before you begin spending money, it’s important to consider the financial impact these decisions will have today and in the future.
Determining the right time to finance capital improvements can often mean the difference between success and a very stressed cash flow situation. When you review your actual performance this year and projected performance next year as well as cash flows for the next several years, you will find the best time to take on new term debt. This review should also include your tax situation, current repayment schedules of existing loans, working capital required to fully utilize expanded capacities, interest rate considerations and other anticipated changes to the business in the near and intermediate term.
By maximizing your cash flow availability and matching it carefully with required payments, you can manage your cash needs more effectively. By doing this, you can also make better quality decisions as to financing your capital needs going forward. This can include the ability to prepay debt in good years and stretch amortizations in more challenging years.
This year was the “poster-child year” for cash flow problems experienced by many growers. For most, shipping orders were changed significantly due to abnormal spring weather across the country. These changes put pressure on working capital and forced many growers to alter their anticipated loan structures at a very inopportune time. Flexibility is the key to successful capital financing. The right banking partner can help you look at various loan structures to design the one that best fits your needs, operating requirements and anticipated growth.
Your bank should be a key partner in working through these calculations alongside you. When selecting a banking partner, be sure that they understand your business, capital needs and that they are willing to communicate with you directly about your needs — and not just about the bank’s requirements. Most importantly, be sure your banking partner represents a relationship that you feel confident in working with through the challenges that are sure to come in the days and years ahead.
Producing about 100 million plugs every year, Kube-Pak in Allentown, New Jersey, adopted automation early to transplant plugs faster and reduce the headache of finding and training new labor.
In 1999, TTA USA made a 64-gripper transplanter specifically for the plug, rooted cutting and finished plant producer, says Kube-Pak General Manager and President Bill Swanekamp.
“We had probably 25 to 30 people manually transplanting — so, again, this is going back 20 years,” he says. “And it’s expensive, there’s a lot of management issues with people and we wanted to get away from that.”
Over the years, TTA USA’s technologies have continued to aid Kube-Pak’s operations.
This December, Kube-Pak will receive TTA USA’s PackPlanter Split-Frame Wireless 48 Gripper. It’s an upgrade — transplanters are faster now and the market has changed. Kube-Pak used to transplant 1,200 flats per hour. Now the business has significantly reduced its number of transplanted flats at 30,000 per week.
“Part of what has changed is that the demand for bedding plant flats has gone down and the demand for five-inch has gone up,” Swanekamp says. “So we don’t need as big of a machine now as we used to.”
Kube-Pak still does some hand-transplanting but has cut out about 90% of it. It has also automated about 70% of its plug-fixing with TTA USA’s CombiFix Gen II that it bought in 2018.
The plug-fixer works for growers who sell plugs, Swanekamp says, adding that Kube-Pak is one of about 10 major plug producers in the United States.
“We bought [plug-fixer] because we were having such difficulty getting labor to fix the plug trays,” Swanekamp says. “So that’s the main reason we got it. And the second reason is it has cut our expenses for fixing.”
Swanekamp, who calls the plug-fixer an “impressive piece of engineering,” says it has a two-step process to fix plugs significantly faster than even well-trained human labor could.
In the first step, the plug-fixer uses an infrared camera to map a plug tray to determine whether the tray has plants in it or just soil. It also uses jets to blow soil out of cells where there is no plant.
In the next step, the plug-fixer tells the user how many donor trays — which have plants in all their cells — he or she will need to do the fixing.
“Then there are these grippers that come down and take a good plant out of the donor tray and put it into the good tray,” Swanekamp says. “And then all the cells that were blown out are now refilled with good plants.”
After 20 years, Swanekamp says TTA USA continues to be a great vendor to do business with.
“They have good service, good equipment [and are] very reliable,” he says.
Editor’s note: This article originally ran in the September 2019 issue. Due to an error, the number of flats transplanted were mistaken for the number of plugs transplanted. The numbers have been updated in this reprint.
2019 State of the Industry report: Rising tide
2019 State of the Industry Report - Cover Story
Industry outlooks are positive as sales and profits increase.
Each year, Greenhouse Management magazine reaches out to growers across the U.S. and Canada to take the industry’s pulse and discover the biggest opportunities and challenges greenhouses are facing. And each year, we find something new. Below, you'll find the latest exclusive research on the state of the industry.
This year, we also checked in with individual greenhouses to see how they’re faring, where they’re seeing success and what challenges they’re facing. You can read more about that in the market updates in this issue's digital edition.
The overall feeling in the industry is positive, with growers reporting good profits, an optimistic outlook and increasing sales. While unpredictable weather and hardships with hiring continue to hinder success for many, profitability is looking good.
With a recession looming on the horizon, next year’s survey may have some different results. Experts are predicting that the possible recession to come won’t be as devastating as the 2009 market upheaval, but a downturn in the economy is always unpredictable.
Check back with us again next year to see how the industry is evolving and changing.