Kevin Kopanski Photography

For most nurseries considering automating a part of their production process, the most important question is simple: what does it cost? But at Willowbend Nurseries, the most important question is different: “How many guys am I going to need through the year if I buy that machine?” says Chad Unger, operations manager of the Perry, Ohio, wholesale grower. “Some can save five guys, some could save 25 guys; it just depends on what you’re using the machine for.”

Willowbend Nursery was founded in 1897. In 2006, Willowbend underwent its second bankruptcy proceeding. In the spring of 2007 Angelo Petitti of Petitti Garden Centers purchased Willowbend out of bankruptcy and Willowbend’s subsidiary container nursery, Ridge Manor Nurseries, out of receivership.

Petitti ranks no. 3 on Garden Center magazine’s Top 100 independent garden center list. The Ohio-based retailer has nine locations and reported $55 million in sales volume for 2017.

“Willowbend, especially, is an icon of a nursery,” Petitti said at the time of the acquisition to Crain’s Cleveland Business. “We saw that as an opportunity.”

Kurt Unger runs the nursery with his son, Chad. They’ve worked together to grow the nursery while Angelo bought up land in Lake County, Ohio. Currently, Willowbend covers 1,800 acres, about 865 of which is plantable for field production.

The nursery has about 3.7 million plants in the ground, including long-term crops like boxwood and arborvitae. Chad says the nursery typically sells between 800,000 and one million plants annually, which is about 75 percent of what it plants for a given year.

In Nursery Management’s State of the Industry report (starting on pg. 18), 77 percent of nurseries said their biggest challenge was finding labor. Willowbend Nurseries is tackling the labor crisis by trying to automate everything it can, starting with its major production bottlenecks.

“Anything that is a huge job is something we want to turn automated,” Chad says.

Trimming, digging, planting, weeding, shipping, grading – these were all areas Willowbend targeted for automation. The goal is to get all of the nursery jobs done when they need to be done, with minimal staff.

Kurt and Chad Unger
Kevin Kopanski Photography

Wrestling with weeds

Willowbend’s most recent purchase is two Garford Robocrop InRow weeders. They decided to buy the weeders seeing them in action at an organic vegetable grower in Holland, who claimed nothing had worked as well for keeping his rows weed-free. Not only that, but he’d had only two breakdowns in nine years of operation.

The Robocrop video image analysis system takes pictures of the row, analyzes them to find the individual plants, then uses that information to adjust rotational speed and placement of the sharp discs that arc around the plants and cut in between plants, all while moving forward. The first step is inputting the spacing of your rows on the computer screen in the cab. Then, you have to show the computer what to avoid.

“You just pick what color your plants are for that row,” Chad says. “And then it knows that’s the plant, and the computer tells the weeder not to touch that.”

Weeds are a major cost for Willowbend. Chad’s tried tractor-pushed weeding machines before, but they were only effective right after the weeds had germinated. If soggy weather made it impossible to take the weeders through the fields, by then the weeds would have grown too big for the machines to handle. There’s herbicide, of course, but Chad says Willowbend has had problems with runoff and effectiveness.

The Robocrop weeders are not cheap, but Chad sees them as an investment, and Angelo sees them the same way. He expects the new weeders to cover 120 acres per day, with only one person per machine. In October, he’d had most of his staff weeding for a month and a half, and they weren’t close to finished. The new machines can’t come soon enough.

“The amount of labor we’re doing now to clean up the fields is astronomical,” he says. “I’ll probably spend $300,000 to $400,000 on weeding this year. But we’re never going to have that labor bill again.”

Once the machines are in place and if they work as expected, Chad says he may be able to run the nursery with 15 workers; he wouldn’t need 40.

Ridge Manor Nurseries in nearby Madison, Ohio, is a container nursery also owned by Petitti. As a container nursery, they have a different weed control strategy than Willowbend. At Ridge Manor, every container is topdressed with rice hulls.

“We’ve never weeded a day in any one of our container nurseries,” Chad says. “We don’t put any herbicide on top when we pot. [The rice hulls] go on and then in mid-summer they will lightly dress the top.”

At first, workers would dig into a bale of the rice hulls with ice cream scoops. Now every potting machine has an attachment that automatically applies the correct amount of rice hulls. The machines, from Willburg Projecten in Holland, were inexpensive, Unger says, but they let him run the potting lines with 10 fewer people.

A simple shipping solution

The biggest area of labor savings Willowbend had in 2017 was a simple conveyor system to improve the truck loading process. Two FMH MaxxReach conveyor systems were installed in a new shipping dock in January 2017. Before, the nursery used roughly 15 people to load trucks. Chad says the conveyor system lets him load trucks with four or five people and shave one-third of the time.

The conveyors themselves are not built for nurseries. They’re the same ones used in Amazon’s warehouses. However, the electronics and motors are all well-protected. With the dirt and water involved in packing bareroot trees into a truck, that’s an important factor.

“There’s really nothing that can get damaged,” Chad says.

The conveyors telescope 50 feet, which is long enough to reach the back wall of the trucks. One or two workers load the belt.

“Guys love loading trucks now,” Chad says. “Because it’s easy and it’s not backbreaking work. And we saved a ton of money on every single truck that we load just by putting a building up and putting two conveyors in. The return on that will be done this year.”

Chad says he was able to cut 25 workers, overall, thanks in part to the conveyors.

“To be able to do that in spring when it’s hectic, and you need to dig, grade the plants, tie the plants, do shipping and be able to go do field work, planting who knows what else – it was our biggest area of labor savings, absolutely,” he says.

This trimming machine from Lommers Tuinbouwmachines improves crop uniformity and cuts labor costs.
Kevin Kopanski Photography

Tractor hacks

Another way Willowbend has increased efficiency is by doing more with its tractors.

“In Europe, every tractor has a three-point hitch in front,” Chad says. “They’re using the tractors for a lot more than just pulling an implement behind them.”

Willowbend previously used four tractors to prep fields for cover crops. At a trip to the Farwest Show, Angelo and Chad saw a spading machine from Imants. The wheels started turning in their heads, and a more efficient combo machine was born.

Using the front hitch, they attached a mower to the front of the tractor. The spader turns the soil. Chad added a ripper in front of the spader to break up the ground. A seeder is the last link in the chain. This lets Willowbend do four jobs with one person on one tractor.

“You’re going to mow, rip, plow and reseed all in one pass,” Chad says. One guy does it and he can get a lot done in a day, by himself.”

Chad points to labor savings on cover cropping and the benefit of putting the nutrients back in the field.

“It’s a bigger tractor, so if it can handle it, let’s put as much stuff on it as we can and get done fast,” he says.

Another big purchase that led to increased efficiency was the tree digger Willowbend bought from GK Machine, Inc. of Donald, Ore. Before, Willowbend used three John Deere tractors for its digging. With 35 people, it took about eight days to get all the trees dug.

“The first year I had [the tree digger], I had 15 guys and did it in 3.5 days,” Chad says. “You can fly with this thing.”

It telescopes open to accommodate the width of a tractor, and its tracks make digging in wet ground much less miserable. No wheels means no pressure points of tires that tend to sink, which makes the operator less likely to get stuck.

The Ungers are always looking for ways to improve on an existing process. Willowbend had been using bareroot transplanters from Holland, Mich.’s Mechanical Transplanters. On a good day, that machine could plant 25,000 plants a day with a 15-person crew. But Chad saw room for improvement. The planters took five to seven minutes to turn at the end of a row. After a few years, Willowbend upgraded to a planter from Basrijs that enabled them to double their workload with one-third of the people. The Basrijs machine is 50 percent faster, has a larger capacity so there is less stopping and reloading, and it also has the perk of padded seats.

“It’s easier on the guys,” Chad says. “Those seats are much more comfortable.”

Also, this year all of Willowbend’s planting was done using GPS software. It’s built into all of their existing tractors and Chad makes sure it’s a feature on any new machinery. Employees don’t have to worry about driving the tractor; it drives itself. Plant spacing is set using zip-ties.

“If we didn’t have these this year, we wouldn’t have finished planting this year,” he says. “The speed is amazing; the plants are spaced perfect.”

For trimming plants like arborvitae and boxwood, Willowbend worked with Lommers Tuinbouwmachines, a Holland-based manufacturer that specializes in horticultural automation. Trimmers can be adjusted to accommodate different types and sizes of blades. The one Willowbend uses for boxwood employs sensors and measurements to determine when to cut. One person monitors it and walks behind cleaning up trimmings. The arborvitae trimmer is manually operated and pushed through the field.

Chad says the trimmers contribute toward a better overall product.

“Everything’s going to be uniform because the machine’s doing it,” he says.

The bottom line

Willowbend is still figuring out a way to track how its automation efforts have affected profitability. But Petitti looks for the impact on payroll. And it’s noticeable there. Willowbend went from 65 to 45 workers in spring 2018. They’ll maintain that number to finish spring digging, grading, shipping and start planting. But in June, Chad expects to be able to reduce that number further to 23 for the rest of the year.

“We haven’t figured out the exact amount of labor it takes to run this nursery yet, but once we get all the equipment here and get a full year under our belt with everything, we’ll know what it takes to do every job and how it needs to be done.”

Chad thinks there are two reasons that the nursery industry hasn’t seen widespread adoption of automation. No. 1 is they simply don’t know that it’s out there. He’s done a lot of online research on the topic, and Kurt and Angelo have made several trips to Europe where many more growers have automated. No. 2 is the price tag.

“Obviously, people go right for the sticker, and say ‘What’s it cost?’ Then they balk at spending on anything that they don’t think they need,” he says.

But for more and more nurseries, the way they’ve always done it has become unsustainable. Local labor is often nonexistent, and immigrant workers are getting harder to find. Willowbend uses the H-2A program for seasonal workers, but the increasing H-2A wages are just another reason the nursery is pushing to automate.

“You have to throw down an investment, but your return is going to come. You’ll have less labor and your quality’s going to go up. So obviously your profitability goes up. The plant that cost you $2.50 to grow now costs you $1.50. And we’re still selling it for more money. Every year my prices go up.”

One side effect of automation is making nursery jobs more desirable – which Willowbend is hoping will attract more people to the industry. After the weeding machines arrive, staking the trees will be one of the few manual labor jobs left.

“No one wants to go out and weed by hand,” Chad says. “But sit on a tractor and you don’t even have to drive it? Let the thing drive itself and plant the fields for you.”

Chad’s waiting for the Robocrop weeders, he has another root trimming machine and a heavy-duty shrub trimmer on order from Lommers, and a drip tape digger from SMZ that will allow him to use the shrub digger he bought last year. He never stops looking for ways automation can improve the bottom line.

“Eventually everyone’s going to have to go that way just because of labor, and we want to be in front of that before it happens,” Chad says. “There is going to come a time where you have to or you’re not going to survive as a nursery.”

For more: www.willowbendnursery.com