Greenhouse Management: What is the most common reason that most growers will look at adding automation to their greenhouse workflow?
Steven Biles: The biggest one is clearly labor. A grower I was working with recently told me she estimates that she spends close to 70% of her time each week dealing with labor and hiring and managing her employees. That is time she is spending not directly managing the grow and the plants themselves. Say you’re a smaller grower and you’ve got somewhere between five and 10 year-round full-time employees, and maybe every spring you bring in five or 10 seasonal full-time people to ramp up. Typically, with automation, we can cut that total labor force in half, and the grower can still produce the same number of plants and the same quality.
GM: Aside from labor and saving money on employees, are there secondary benefits that growers will enjoy?
SB: One of the significant secondary benefits to the smaller grower is that, with automation, they can often delay the start of planting by a few weeks, they don’t have to start planting so early in late winter anymore because now it doesn’t take three weeks of crews working around the clock to get those plugs transplanted. With a transplanter like our PackPlanter 1450S, they don’t have to start so early, so they’ll save money on heating the greenhouse, because while many will still be heating the roof to melt snow load, they’ll still see savings on their heat expenses because they won’t have to heat the bays around the clock for growing.
GM: How does the start of shipping season constrain an operation’s labor, and how can automation help alleviate that?
SB: Once shipping starts for a lot of these smaller greenhouse operations, they will have the same labor crew that was manually transplanting plugs, now those same workers are also responsible for pulling plants and getting them prepped to ship. If you do not have a large employee pool to pull from, you might not have anyone to continue planting new plugs while the rest of the crew ships. With an automated transplanter, they can send a crew to the shipping area to deal with shipment orders, and then they can keep a few employees in the planting area to keep that part of the business humming as well. Now, you can get those three to four crops turned in the greenhouse that the smaller growers need to generate better revenues. Growers know that their first to second turns pay their costs of labor and material, and the last turns are their PROFITS!