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How automation can address nursery labor shortages

Nurseries across the country are facing labor shortages, but automation can ease the challenges of recruiting, retaining, and employing a small staff.

According to research from Dr. Amy Fulcher, nearly 80 percent of nurseries have struggled with labor shortages, with 50 percent finding it increasingly difficult to hire qualified employees. She is part of the LEAP (Labor, Efficiency, Automation, Production) Team, a university faculty helping nurseries address labor issues, improve production capacity and increase profits.

Gathering data from nurseries across the U.S. through interviews and surveys, the LEAP team provides automation solutions to operations struggling with maintaining efficiency with fewer employees.

The competition for skilled workers has intensified as industries outside of horticulture offer competitive pay and benefits, often unmatched by entry-level service jobs. Data compiled in 2020 shows that 66 percent of nurseries are paying higher wages, while 56 percent are adopting labor-saving technologies.

Despite recognizing the need for automation, many nurseries said the cost of investment and installation of new equipment is the most significant barrier to adoption.

Brian Decker of Decker’s Nursery turned to labor-saving technologies, like portable conveyor belts and potting machines, to make his operation more efficient in the face of labor shortages. He has 33 full-time employees, but he says if he had not incorporated automation technology, he would need 200 employees to maintain the same production capability as when he started in 1979.

“A dollar spent on labor instead of automation is lost forever. A dollar spent on automation lasts for the life of the equipment,” he says.

Automation advantages
According to Dr. Fulcher, investing in automation offers many advantages for nursery operations. She cites three ways nurseries have improved performance by automating typical tasks.

  1. Potting
    Automation guarantees consistent potting, allowing nurseries to double their daily output. This reduces labor costs and enables them to take on larger contracts.
  1. Inventory
    Automated inventory counters provide real-time counting during potting, streamlining tracking for management and workers while enhancing accuracy.
  1. Pruning
    Automated pruning not only sets a predictable pace but also significantly boosts efficiency. The resulting consistent quality and faster process lead to plants flowering during the sales window, which can reduce the need for additional labor.

Automation Equipment to Consider
Adopting automation tools does not have to be expensive. Dr. Fulcher shares two examples of simple tools that can improve efficiency without breaking the bank.

Fertilizer applicator
Eliminate the need to spoon-feed fertilizer manually with an applicator machine that evenly distributes fertilizer and other granular products. While it saves time and reduces energy consumption, some users reported minor placement accuracy and distribution issues.

Pesticide automation
Traditional airblast sprayers lack accuracy and application efficiency. Smart apply technology, on the other hand, enhances consistency and precision in spraying, minimizing wastage and environmental impact.

Automation Adoption
When considering automation, Dr. Fulcher says to weigh the opportunity against the cost of doing nothing. While initial investments may appear steep, the long-term gains in efficiency, labor savings, and production quality are undeniable. To ensure a successful transition to automation, consider these five characteristics:

  • Relative advantage
    Evaluate how automation significantly improves your nursery’s operations compared to the status quo.
  • Compatibility
    Ensure that automation solutions align with your existing processes and infrastructure.
  • Complexity
    Assess how your team can adapt to and operate automated systems.
  • Observability
    Seek solutions that offer clear and demonstrable benefits, making it easier to garner support and understanding from your team.
  • Trialability
    Pilot automation equipment on a smaller scale to evaluate its effectiveness and gather feedback before full-scale implementation.

She also says to consider “splurging” for a project manager who can oversee the automation process. It is also important to create a succession plan to ensure the sustainability of your automation efforts. Investing in automation is a long-term solution to achieve greater long-term success.

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