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Ivan Van Wingerden, Ever-Bloom:

US (CA): 'Automation vital to survive'

Californian growers are facing a challenging future. The prices of the flowers are stable in contrast to rising costs -and the labor costs in particular. This development forces many growers to undertake steps toward increased automation. Californian gerbera grower Ivan Van Wingerden of Ever-Bloom is one of these growers that is taking action. Due to the high increase in labor costs, he is heavily investing in techniques that will save labor and will enable them to stay in business.

Ivan Van Wingerden: president of Ever-Bloom

Increasing costs
"For years we have been dealing with a continual increase in costs. In general the costs increase by about 10 percent a year. However, in the coming years, the costs will increase even more as the minimum wage is set to increase by 50 percent in the coming five years. The current minimum wage in California is 10 dollars an hour and it will increase by 1 dollar per year for the next five years, to 15 dollars. And as the minimum wage increases, the wage of every employee in the company needs to go up proportionally. So in the end this means that our payroll will go up nearly 50 percent. On top of that, at the moment there is legislation on governor Brown’s desk to change Agricultural wage orders and overtime pay. While this contentious bill does not actually help our employees, it could increase our payroll by another 8 percent. All in all, it puts growers in a difficult position as we compete in an international market and depend upon the global gerbera prices which remain flat and are not expected to rise in proportion to costs."

Save labor
With labor already the highest cost, it is hard for California growers to imagine it going up another 50% in five years. This also counts for Ever-Bloom. In order to survive they are looking for ways to save labor. "We need to decrease the amount of employees. This is a very tough job as they are hardworking people and in the company for such a long period. But it is necessary. Currently we have 49 employees and in about five years we need to get closer to 30-32 employees, otherwise we will be out of business. The goal is to replace 4 people a year", says Van Wingerden.

Investing in automation
In order to reduce the amount of employees needed, Ever-Bloom decided to start automating several processes and make them more efficient by using new technologies. One of these technologies that they are implementing at the moment is a Worm system. "We are shifting from 1 meter by 10cm rockwool slabs to a Worm system with 19 cm pots, with 90cm wide beds, 70 cm pathways and pipe rails", says van Wingerden. Ever-Bloom bought this system used and is installing it themselves. "It is a widely known and often used system among the Dutch gerbera growers. It is more efficient and saves a lot of work. We currently pick around 550 stems per hour, and in the Netherlands, with this system, they pick about 900-1100 stems an hour. So far, we are have retrofitted about 1/3 of our 4ha sized greenhouse. On schedule with our crop rotation, we are changing the entire growing infrastruture. In the end, it will save about three to four people."

Another process that recently has been automated, are the spraying practices. "We just bought a new spray robot from Steenks. This robot is placed upon a Meto Trolley and moves up and down the greenhouse automatically. So far, it is used in 1/3 of the greenhouse and replaces one person. In the end this efficient machine will save about three to four people.”

Roberto Vega, head grower for Ever-Bloom and Ivan Van Wingerden with their brand new Steenks spray robot in their new gerbera compartment.

Also the process of transporting the gerberas from the greenhouse to the cooling area will be automated. "Currently, one person is doing this. We are now looking for treckers that will transport the flowers automatically. We are planning to buy them after our next crop rotation."

And in the packing house there are also opportunities to save labor. "We are looking at Havatec packaging machines. Mark Fikkers of Havatec was here and he noticed a lot of inefficiencies. Our employees are very hardworking people but they are looking for materials and products a lot. In short, the layout is not efficient and we are paying them to walk. So, if we invest in packaging machines and find out the best ways to let the product flow through the packaging area more efficiently, we can save five to seven people.'' 

However, not only the flow in their packaging house needs to be reconsidered, also the flow in the entire greenhouse. "We currently use manual doors, but we are looking to replace them with speed doors", says Van Wingerden.

Automation technician
Even though Ever-Bloom is heavily investing in techniques to save labor, these new techniques also require different knowledge. "We are adding expensive and specialized machines. Operating these machines is a specialized tasks and this job can be done better than I can do it", says van Wingerden. For this reason, the company is looking for an automation technician. "This position is for a technician that can manage and run our automation equipment as well as calculate the opportunity for more efficiency." (Click here for the entire job description)

Forecast in five years
According to Van Wingerden, the future does not look that rosy for many Californian growers. "In five years I think that a lot of flower growers in California will be out of business, or out of the state. This will have a huge impact on the flower business in the USA as about 84% of the flowers, and about 90% of the gerberas, cultivated in the USA are being grown in California. The majority already work with thin margins and as the costs keep increasing some growers may not survive. Of course, this also depends on the crop they have and if they operate on the global market, but the dramatic increase in labor costs will impact every one profoundly. Some growers even decided to move to other states, but we are not planning to leave. Ever-Bloom is making these investments in techniques at the moment, which will hopefully keep us in business in the future."

For more information
Ivan van Wingerden
Email: [email protected]