Like many industries in the U.S, the nursery industry is facing the challenges a shortage of workers brings, and it doesn’t seem the situation will improve in the short term. Learning from the ﬂower and plant producers in Europe who have become experts at eﬃcient production, American growers are turning to technology to increase productivity with fewer employees.
As technological applications expand and the cost for those applications decreases, growers are devising new processes to manage inventory, control quality and increase deliverables without having to increase their production teams. Some solutions are simple, and some require creative engineering and custom-built machinery.
In Apopka, Fla., Agri-Starts, Inc., a tissue-culture plant production company, has been utilizing senior engineering students at the University of Central Florida in Orlando to solve production problems through engineering and design ideas. Although still in the development stage, the students and team at AgriStarts are working to automate the process of dispensing growing media into growing vessels, putting caps on those vessels, and then later removing them again for harvesting and emptying the vessels.
Using this new technology, Ty Strode, vice president and marketing director of Agri-Starts, expects a 30 percent increase in production without any increased labor for that process. One of Agri-Starts’ most successful innovations was combining pruning shears and a vacuum in such a way that beds of plants on moving benches can eﬃciently be trimmed of excess growth. A task that took one hour to trim one bed of plants by hand is now accomplished in one minute. In addition, the process sucks up the trimmed pieces, which are moved through the equipment to land in a debris bin outside of the greenhouse. Not only is there a dramatic savings in production labor costs but the quality of the plants has also improved with more-timely trimming.
For orchid grower Silver Vase, located in Homestead, Fla., monitoring crops is a continuous process. Growers assess factors such as height, number of bloom spikes and number of ﬂowers to determine necessary rotations and sales-ready products. The company is putting into place a process using cameras, computers, sensors and lasers to provide accurate and consistent data on each plant.
Marcella Lucio-Chinchilla, vice president of sales and marketing, explained that the better the information they compile, the more the nursery can provide a cohesive and consistent selection of orchids that meet Silver Vase standards. Currently, plant assessments are made by humans, but the new technology will provide for greater accuracy and give a number of employees the opportunity to transfer into positions within the company that oﬀer a chance for further skill development and new experiences.
Metrolina Greenhouses, located in Huntersville, N.C, is known as one of the country’s most automated greenhouses. Art Van Wingerden, Metrolina’s co-CEO, explained that automation priorities focus on assessing which jobs their people really don’t want to do and being able to transition them to more favored jobs.
Art and his brother have designed many of the company’s automation machines. Through the use of GPS technology, machines can properly space pots for optimal growing. Cameras allow for other machines to accurately transplant the right size and formed plants into the correct media and pots. Up to 60,000 plants can be transplanted per hour using this technology.
New to Metrolina is state-of-the-art equipment that will pick up soft plant cuttings and plant them into the soil. This new process produces 2,400 planted cuttings per hour compared to the 800-900 planted cuttings per hour a worker can complete. For a company that on their busiest weeks sticks two million cuttings per week, that’s a significant increase.
By Linda Adams, FCHP
Linda Adams, FCHP, is the chief operations oﬃcer of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association. (fngla.org)