To view the 2021 New Annual Varieties Digest, please click on the cover image, or click here.
Greenhouse Management: What did it take for AmericanHort to not just have Cultivate’21 in person, but to do so safely?
Ken Fisher: Our industry is ready to get back together and Cultivate’21 is our first opportunity to make it happen. Our team has done a great job planning another fantastic Cultivate event — trade show, educational programming, tours and professional networking opportunities, among others.
The health and safety of everyone involved in Cultivate, from exhibitors to attendees, speakers to volunteers, and our own staff is our top priority. In the months leading up to Cultivate’21, our team prepared for several possible scenarios based on anticipated health protocols. We worked closely with the Greater Columbus Convention Center and city officials as we prepared a risk mitigation plan. Because of rising vaccination rates and falling COVID cases in Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine rescinded all health restrictions on June 2. The city of Columbus recently followed suit including removal of social distancing guidelines and mask mandates. Of course, we encourage everyone to participate in the manner in which they feel most comfortable. For many Cultivate’21 participants, particularly those who are fully vaccinated, this will allow for a more enjoyable experience at Cultivate.
We will have hand sanitation stations located throughout the convention center, and we have made allowances for the education sessions to be held in large rooms to allow for people to spread out more. We have also designed the education schedule to help better control the traffic flow to minimize large crowds between session breaks.
GM: What are you most looking forward to about being back in person this year?
KF: Like everyone, I am excited to see our industry peers face-to-face. During the past year we have done our best to leverage available technology to stay connected through webinars and other digital programming, facilitate learning and industry best practices, and promote networking. But nothing can replace in-person meetings. It will be great to be able to address our members and the industry at our keynote programs on Sunday and Monday morning. Much of our industry has benefited from strong sales during the past two spring seasons, however labor and rising costs — among others — continue to challenge our members. Convening in person at Cultivate’21 will continue the important discussions necessary to best address these issues.
GM: What have you learned in the last year that you think can still apply now as the world opens up more?
KF: The experiences of the past year confirmed what we have always known: Businesses must create unique value for their customers and a positive customer experience is critical to any successful business. We learned to extend those characteristics to a digital platform and that will expand our programming options in the future. Garden retail centers quickly adjusted the business model to allow for online sales and curbside pickup, and we expect many will continue these business practices in the future. For AmericanHort, engaging with our members is as important as ever. We will continue to provide opportunities to serve our members and the industry by advocating on the critical issues in Washington D.C., delivering high quality educational programming, planning high-value industry events and providing avenues to connect to industry experts that will help our businesses and industry perform better, grow faster and prepare for the future.
The National Greenhouse Manufacturers Association (NGMA) is a professional trade organization for the manufacturers and suppliers of greenhouses and greenhouse components. NGMA members are committed to building greenhouses with a level of professionalism you won’t find elsewhere.
When you become a member, you will reeive the following benefits:
Advocacy. NGMA works for you! It is a strong voice advocating on behalf of the industry to reduce the negative impact of building and energy regulations.
Legislative Awareness. NGMA regularly shares legislative information with its members.
E-newsletter. This quarterly publication contains useful information for NGMA members. NGMA Insights also presents an opportunity for members to submit news for distribution to other NGMA members and to write articles about industry issues and trends.
Web Presence and Advertising. An alphabetical listing of each member of NGMA is listed on the website at ngma.com. The listing includes contact information and is available by member category. The website also includes “Helpful Hints,” which may be printed and distributed to clientele, and copies of NGMA standards and guidelines. NGMA offers its members a discounted website advertising program as well.
“Members Only” section of website. Members obtain access to the “Members Only” section of the website, which includes copies of past presentations from Spring Meetings, minutes of meetings, photographs from Spring Meetings and other pertinent information that only members can access.
Public Relations. NGMA and its members are promoted in industry magazines. This activity not only puts our members in front of the readers, but it promotes membership in NGMA. In addition, NGMA provides “Member of NGMA” signs to companies that exhibit at AmericanHort’s Cultivate show.
Networking. NGMA provides an opportunity for networking, education, business and fun at the Annual Meeting. Current industry topics are reviewed from top-notch speakers and networking opportunities between members abound! Members will find many beneficial reasons to attend the Annual Meeting. NGMA also hosts an annual Membership Reception at AmericanHort’s Cultivate show, which provides members with the opportunity to connect.
Social Networking. In addition to the event networking opportunities, NGMA provides its members with a virtual networking opportunity on its Facebook page. NGMA also has a YouTube channel that members can utilize as educational or marketing tools for their business. Members are invited to submit video content to be published on NGMA’s YouTube channel.Industry Leadership. Members have the unique opportunity to serve on the NGMA Board of Directors and serve on the committees that steer NGMA and guarantee its future as a leader in the greenhouse industry.
Atlas Manufacturing greenhouse sales rep Stuart Sumner says interest in new structures has never been higher. “We have customers in various sectors of this industry that had very productive years despite COVID-19,” he says. “Due to this, we are seeing more interest and enthusiasm in 2021.”
According to Sumner, the following five trends in greenhouse structure innovation seem to be popping up more and more across the projects he has worked on over the past year:
Positive pressure (PP) ventilation cooling — Greenhouse growers are taking a closer look at PP ventilation systems, especially in hot and humid climates where a traditional system that draws more humidity from outside is not ideal, Sumner says. “When growing in a high humidity climate, adding additional humidity through an evaporative cooling system in a negative pressure setting can have a detrimental effect on crops,” he says. “You will be much more likely to experience issues with fungal pathogens and have a greater need for humidity control equipment.”
Supplemental lighting — Sumner answers a lot of questions about supplemental lighting during the design phase. “There is a lot more interest surrounding LED options for supplemental lighting and the technology itself is rapidly evolving,” Sumner says. “Companies are constantly innovating these lights to be more energy efficient and effective at targeting the desired spectral wavelengths of PAR light. The traditional HPS fixtures may be the most commonly used at this time, but I believe the LEDs may overtake them as the most frequently used at some point in the future.”
Taking sidewall height even higher — Growers are also interested in installing the highest sidewalls structurally possible in new builds, Sumner says. This strategy allows for a larger area at the top of the structure to push and store hot, humid air far away from the plant canopy down below. In the past, growers were wary of going too high on sidewall design due to having to heat or cool that larger volume of air. That is a commonly held misconception that is changing as growers learn more about how the structure itself, HVAC systems, climate controllers and ventilation all interface together, according to Summer. “It’s true that the higher you can go [on sidewalls], the more optimal situation you are in from a ventilation and cooling perspective,” Sumner says. “With everyone wanting to get those sidewalls as high as they can be, I like to joke that by 2050 we’ll all be growing crops in skyscrapers.”
Hydroponic grow systems — From the ubiquitous “Dutch” bucket style for peppers and tomatoes to the popular vertical farming and deep-water culture growing systems, grower interest in replacing soil with growing media and oxygenated water has never been higher. “We are seeing commercial growers utilizing hydroponic grow systems such as Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) systems that can reduce the expected harvest time considerably when compared to more traditional grow methods.”
Insect exclusion structures — Companies like Atlas are recommending growers, regardless of crop, consider built-in insect protection measures. Sumner refers to these design add-ons as “insect exclusion structures.” Extending the frame of the greenhouse out on opposite ends a set distance, and then covering that area between the ventilation equipment and the outside with woven, insect-proof materials helps prevent insect intrusions. “This is something that we really think is worth a grower’s investment in the long term. It will save you money,” he says.
NGMA member-company GrowSpan (South Windsor, Connecticut) agreed to answer some of our questions regarding developments of late in the greenhouse structures segment.
Greenhouse specialist Adrian Valois spoke with us on behalf of the greenhouse manufacturer.
Greenhouse Management: What are some common requests that you are seeing more of when it comes to greenhouse expansion projects?
Adrian Valois: Every project that we work on is different, we have projects all over the country and different growers have different needs based on location and crop. When people are planning for expansion, we recommend getting an irrigation system that is easy to expand upon, and a controller that can handle future greenhouses for automation. Corridors are another popular request when looking to expand. These can either be an extension of the greenhouse using polycarbonate, metal cladding, or insect netting.
GM: When it comes to expanding production, are you seeing more growers that want to build new? Or are growers more focused on how they can get more out of the structure they already have – by doing things such as raising production lines to a second or even third level?
AV: In greenhouses, we do not typically see multi-level systems as it defeats the purpose of having a greenhouse that can take advantage of sun light as their main source of light. Adding layers means that there will be a higher need to add artificial lighting in your greenhouse. Therefore, when people want to increase production, they build more greenhouses. Gutter connected greenhouses make this extremely easy as they can be easily added to an existing structure (like our S1000 and S2000 commercial models).
GM: How has the supply chain issues with building materials affected the greenhouse construction business?
AV: Supply chain has been a struggle for many businesses, including greenhouse manufacturing. Shortages of steel and polycarbonate have affected all greenhouse manufacturers, but we made sure to have enough of these in our warehouses to keep up with demand. We are hoping to go back to normal by 2022, but nothing is certain.
GM: Labor has also taken a huge hit during the pandemic. Are more growers looking for automation technologies integrated into the greenhouse?
AV: Automation is a huge part of the greenhouse industry nowadays. This is mostly true when it comes to automating the environment, but it is hard for new growers to automate their growing systems as the capital expense is too high. This is something people start investing into once they have multi-acre facilities.
GM: Anything else to share with our audience of growers?
AV: Always consult with a greenhouse specialist when trying to modify your greenhouse. I have traveled to some greenhouses where they decided to make some modifications that made expansions extremely complicated, and they lost a lot of money in the process. Such as, evaporative coolers that needed to be moved, exhaust fans that needed to be replaced with proper sized ones, automated shade systems that needed to be fixed, and more.
Editor’s Note: Excerpts within this article originally ran in the November 2020 issue of sister publication Produce Grower Magazine.
With the utmost respect to my colleagues in the gas and electric utilities, energy companies and the services they provide are frankly not the sexiest.
All too often, we treat them as simply a vehicle to get the power we need to run our businesses. In the controlled environment agriculture world, utilities are more than just companies that sell you electricity or gas. In fact, it is essential to have a proactive and open relationship with your utility providers. Being engaged with them will help you avoid pitfalls, and they can advise you about serious cash-saving opportunities.
Below are six key considerations to run by your utility provider.
1. Get input early.
During all phases of your facility’s development, your energy utility contacts, and their colleagues can serve as de facto members of your project planning team. As you conceive of and design your new space or expansion, you will need input from your gas and electric utilities to ensure that your site is able to meet your energy needs.Similarly, if you are scoping out locations for a new facility, keep in mind that even those sites that appear to be adequately equipped with electric or gas service may not be able to meet your needs without additional infrastructure investment. Upgrades for electric service may range from simply having an electrician install a new panel to exploring with your utility adding three-phase power to your site. Natural gas infrastructure expansion will often include laying new pipe, the costs of which are driven primarily by the distance of your site to the nearest distribution system.
It is equally important that, if you are interested in installing a power-generating combined heat and power (CHP) or solar-power system, you may be obligated to apply for an agreement with the utility to connect your equipment to the power grid.
2. Ask about loads and upgrades.
Energy supply upgrades can easily exceed tens of thousands of dollars. Not accounting for these costs early in your process could result in a painful surprise and will undoubtedly put a dent in your financial projections. Don’t just take the word of the real estate broker that the site is adequately served; a simple phone call to the local utilities will help you make an informed decision about your site location and ultimate equipment selection choices.
Key immediate utility items you will want to ask about are the maximum load that your site can handle without any upgrades, what upgrades will be necessary to meet your expected load, and whether natural gas is available at your location. The answers to all of these will be fundamental to your cost projections and equipment selection options.
3. Check for incentives.
As you consider the equipment for your new build or expansion project, your utility can be an important resource for grants to help you adopt energy-saving (and often performance-boosting) technologies. To the extent that state or local regulations allow, utilities may incentivize growers to purchase and install light-emitting diode (LED) lights, custom HVAC systems, environmental controls, and even technologies such CHP or gas-driven chiller systems that use natural gas to reduce grid-provided power. Some states, such as Massachusetts and Illinois, have energy regulations that mandate use of energy-efficient equipment in cultivation facilities. In these instances, the local utility may not be able to offer you a cash incentive to purchase and install these technologies. Your utility, or their assigned energy efficiency program administrator in some states, including Maine, Vermont and Oregon, should be able to share information about their specific programs.
But the onus will be on you, the greenhouse owner or operator, to learn about any relevant incentives and pursue the appropriate channels to get them. The good news is that there are professional energy firms who can assist you with the application process and maximize your incentive opportunity.
4. Estimate operating costs.
As your design moves forward and if it includes technologies that are eligible for a custom energy efficiency incentive, your electric and gas utility can be a good resource to help you corroborate your estimates of your ongoing energy-related operating costs. In a rush to build out projects, too many facility operators neglect to give adequate attention to ongoing operating energy costs.
However, because these costs are often among the first three items on a cultivator’s expense sheet, operators who ignore opportunities to understand and seek reductions in their energy use do so at their own peril. Before committing serious money on hardware, cultivators should have a very good sense of the total amount of power their desired equipment setup will require. Big items are lights and HVAC, of course, but don’t forget other items such as fertigation, fans and automation and processing equipment.
5. Track data.
As a best practice, constantly track energy usage throughout your facility. Analyzing your energy consumption data will help you diagnose potential aspects of your facility that are not performing properly or causing your overall energy productivity to drag. Furthermore, because of the strategic imperative to be a smart energy consumer, it is more essential than ever that you know how, where and when your facility uses power.
For example, a large percentage of your power bill may be made up of demand charges, which are determined by the height of your facility’s largest demand “spikes.” By using sub-meters in your facility that provide rich minute-by-minute energy-consumption data, you can better plan your power use to keep those spikes as low as possible. Even if you do not have sub-meters in your facility, your primary utility-owned meter should be able to provide you with facility-wide historical usage in 15-minute increments; many offer access to this information by enrolling in the utility’s optional “energy manager” or “energy tracker” program. Ask your utility if there are programs you can take advantage of to capture more data related to your energy consumption.
6. Consider rate changes based on demand.
Finally, your utility account manager can share details about how gas and electricity rate changes will affect your monthly bill. An ideal time to check in with your electric utility is in the spring, prior to the beginning of the summer cooling season when demand charges can increase to reflect higher demand on the power grid. Being in regular communication with your utility will also help ensure that you are on the rate that best matches your power usage and time-of-use patterns. If you are considering installing CHP systems, backup generation, or solar panels, your utility will also let you know how installation of those technologies will affect your rates and overall bills.
In summary, think of your utility provider as a friend, not foe. They can save you money by providing you with tools and resources to help you understand and track your energy usage, adopt energy-efficient technology and discover ways to reduce your power usage and costs. For your facility planning process, utilities hold key information about the technical requirements needed to provide your location with the electricity and gas services that your facility needs to produce your crop.
The author is principal of Climate Resources Group (CRG), a consulting firm whose Enlighten Your Grow service focuses on helping cannabis businesses on their journey of becoming smart energy consumers.
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Cannabis Business Times magazine.