Top photo: Rob Sackyta

With labor shortages all over the country, smart growers are looking for ways to do more with less. Grand Haven, Mich.-based Spring Meadow Nursery has changed its liner production system many times to accommodate a new transplanter or sticking machine.

Spring Meadow Nursery is happy to invest in automation, which general manager Jeremy Deppe considers vital to the future of the industry.

“If we want to continue to grow and provide young plants for our customers, then we need to be able to have either the people or the equipment to be able to continue growing,” Deppe says. “To us, it’s a no brainer to continue to find ways to automate as much as possible.”

Automation is prevalent in every industry, but it’s particularly important in horticulture because of the difficulty of finding quality labor.

“Automation, for us, does not necessarily save us money,” Deppe says. “Machines aren’t necessarily more efficient than humans, but if you can’t find enough workers to do what you need to get done then it’s irrelevant. You have to move to automation just to reduce the number of people that you need because it will become harder and harder to fill all the available spots.”

Willing to change

Automation can be a fantastic help for a grower, but it’s not a silver bullet. The machinery is not “plug-and-play.” To reap the benefits, growers must evaluate the segment of their production system the equipment will attempt to automate. More than that, the nursery must be willing to change their process. And the workers must be able to adjust, as well.

With every piece of automation equipment that Spring Meadow has purchased, Deppe says it takes at least a year to understand the nuances of the machine, configure it properly and adjust the production process so that the new way is faster than the old way.

“You don’t change the machine to fit your production system,” Deppe says. “You have to change your production system to fit the machine.”

The equipment has very tight tolerances. Measurements must be correct down to the millimeter.

So how do you make sure you’re doing it right? The easiest way is to find someone else who has already done it and adapt what you can for your operation. The good news is nurseries can look to most other industries for examples.

“If the growers around the country would go and visit another industry and see what they’re doing with automation, they’d be blown away,” Deppe says. “They’d ask, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’”

Spring Meadow has made a point of visiting other growers who have paved the way – pioneers of automation – locally and nationwide, and asking tons of questions. The horticulture industry is full of people who are willing to share and discuss best practices. Find them and ask what issues they’ve had, what they struggle with, what would have to change in their process, and if they think the investment was worth it.

“You don’t change the machine to fit your production system. You have to change your production system to fit the machine.” – Jeremy Deppe

Running on rails

One company Spring Meadow looked to for automation advice was Westbrook Greenhouse Systems. The Ontario-based company has manufactured all of Spring Meadow’s greenhouses. But Westbrook is more than a manufacturer to Spring Meadow.

“What we like about working with Westbrook is, in addition to being a greenhouse manufacturer, they are a greenhouse grower,” Deppe says.

Members of Spring Meadow’s management team have toured Westbrook on several occasions. Seeing the large grower/manufacturer’s adoption of automation encouraged Spring Meadow to try it themselves.

“We saw some of the homemade things that they were making internally for their own greenhouses and said, ‘We can do that,’” Deppe says.

After their creative fires had been stoked, Spring Meadow set a team to making prototypes. Spring Meadow’s greenhouses were custom-built to accommodate a 24-foot trimmer and a 24-foot sprayer and the rail system that is crucial to their operation. Both devices were inspired by Westbrook, and both run along a rail system that allows them to glide smoothly through the greenhouse.

It took two years and several prototypes to get the first 24-foot trimmer that Spring Meadow felt confident would work. Once the nursery was close to a finished product, they shopped it around to outside companies that could take their prototypes and make something built to last.

Deppe says Spring Meadow’s team is continually looking for ways to utilize the rail system. The initial investment of installing the rails was the most expensive part. Developing the trimming and spraying machines was comparatively cheap. However, Deppe says those two machines have reduced Spring Meadow’s labor in those two areas by 80 percent and given the nursery a more consistent and better product.

The success of the trimmer and sprayer on the rail system underlines a point Deppe makes about adopting automation in the nursery: don’t be daunted; just try it. One of the hurdles growers trip over most often is seeing some immense example of automation and giving up. They want to automate, but it seems too big, too expensive, too complicated.

“Every idea that we have around here started out as a small idea,” Deppe says. “It grew over time.”

Starting small makes financial sense. Calculate your payback period for any new piece of equipment. When Spring Meadow first started dipping its toes in the automation waters, the nursery capped any project’s payback period at three to five years.

“If it didn’t fit that, we didn’t buy it,” Deppe says.

As Spring Meadow has grown and the lack of labor has forced their hand, the nursery has extended those timeframes.

Empower your team

If your employees are willing to put in the effort and you’re willing to allocate some money and time for R&D, you could reap the benefits years down the road. Deppe is clear that his employees are the ones in the company that deserve the credit for thinking up wild ideas of how to simplify the nursery’s production process or make it more efficient. The key is to remove fear from the equation. Many companies fear a project won’t work, so they don’t try. Deppe says it’s crucial to make employees understand that it often won’t work, at least not at first. He compares it to when his growers want to try something new but worry about killing their plants.

“I’m like ‘kill them.’ If they’re not sold, kill them,” he says. “Every single person in our nursery has killed plants. Every time you did it you learned something. You learned what to do and what not to do. Automation equipment is no different. Try it and see what happens. Do your research. Talk to the rest of the industry. Just do it.”

The 24-foot trimmer uses a rail system to glide smoothly through the greenhouse, yielding more uniform plants.
Matt McClellan

Stick the landing

One common refrain you’ll hear from growers who have invested in automation is to pay attention to how the Europeans do it. Deppe and the Spring Meadow team have visited European colleagues in their own industry. No matter whether they are growing annuals, perennials or shrubs, the one constant is that almost every operation is using significantly less labor.

“It’s mind blowing when you walk over there how many people there are not in those greenhouses,” Deppe says.

Spring Meadow’s latest investment is a set of four machines that automate the labor-intensive task of sticking cuttings.

“As a propagator, as one who sticks millions of cuttings per year, the thought of a sticking machine is something we’ve dreamt about and hoped for, for years,” Deppe says.

There were machines in the marketplace already, both small-scale and high-volume models, but none truly fit Spring Meadow’s operation. Still, the hope remained. In 2015, Spring Meadow’s management team saw an article about the ISO Model 2500 automated cutting planter. It piqued their interest, and after some research, they decided to reach out to the Dutch robotics company. Spring Meadow founder and president Dale Deppe and product development manager Tim Wood visited as part of a January 2016 trip to meet with customers and tour the IPM Essen trade show.

As part of the Proven Winners network, Spring Meadow Nursery has partners and customers all over Europe. Those partners were able to send cuttings of boxwood and hydrangea – “things we do every day,” Deppe says – to the ISO Group for them to test.

The videos that ISO Group sent back were enough to convince Spring Meadow to take a chance.

“Our team said ‘That’s a lot of money to spend… but if this works, then it could completely change how we stick cuttings over the next five to ten years,” Deppe says.

The first machine arrived in August 2016. After about six weeks of fiddling with the settings and trialing the machine, they ordered three more. Deppe expects the payback on these machines to be in the five to 10 year range, depending on how often they run them.

Spring Meadow Nursery

With the ISO machines, every cutting is pushed down to the same depth, which results in uniformity. Thanks to the self-learning vision software, cutting types of many species of plants can be planted in a short time. The user-friendly interface ensures the easy and fast input of new plants. The use of the machine is very flexible, regardless of whether the cuttings should be planted into a tray or pot, and in different planting patterns. The same machine can even process different pot sizes. 

One person can operate up to seven machines, loading the conveyors with unsorted cuttings and empty trays. The conveyor shakes the cuttings to make it possible for the machine’s two cameras to spot individual sprigs. The cameras scan for cuttings, and once one is found, relay its location to the robot arm, which zips over to pick it up. Next, the arm swings over to plant it in a waiting tray. The gripper is equipped with a pushing device to make sure the cutting is planted firmly in the medium. And the cycle repeats. The machines can plant in loose soil, paper plugs and peat plugs. At Spring Meadow, each machine can stick 2,000 cuttings in an hour.

The downside of automation is that it requires some tinkering. For these particular machines, there were several variables to consider, including the right type of cutting, size, and depth of placement.

Whether it’s troubleshooting or programming tweaks, Spring Meadow has always been able to get the answers they need when they need them. The ISO Group has been available to help via Skype or traditional telephone calls.

“Even though we’re six hours and an ocean apart, we can communicate almost daily, if needed,” Deppe says. 

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