Photography by Carlos Amoedo

Labor scarcity makes efficiency a priority.

Some of the tenets of success at Hibernia Nursery include a team of resolute employees, purposeful processes and effective automation. Nursery founder David Counihan knows that working smarter yields quality plant material and exceptional customer service.

“We’ve taken a number of steps to improve efficiency and adopt automation so our crews can make the most of their time and we can still address the needs of our customers,” David says.

The nursery, based in Webster, Florida, grows ornamentals, shrubs and trees for the rewholesaler and landscape contractor markets. Plants are shipped west along the Interstate 10 corridor to Texas and up I-95 along the Eastern seaboard to Virginia and Maryland.

Thanks to a recently acquired potting system from Agrinomix, the Hibernia crew is potting 1,000 3-gallon pots an hour.

“We’re now getting our production done in a timely manner, especially in the spring. Once we empty blocks, we can replace plants very quickly,” he says. “Prior to adopting this system, we’d still be planting in June. Now we pot for a month during the year instead of three months and our crew can move on to other tasks and take maximum advantage of the growing season.”

In another labor-saving move, Hibernia transitioned to applying liquid preemergent herbicides. A 30-foot boom with an Airtec sprayer is attached to a tractor and one crew member can treat half an acre in 7 minutes, which is equivalent to 30,000 3-gallon pots when they’re pot-to-pot, or 10,000 plants when they’re spaced.

Prior to adopting this method, there was a lot of hand-weeding and granular herbicide applications.

“The difference in the cost of efficiency was just humongous,” David says. “There was a learning curve, but we got a lot of help from Dr. Marble at the University of Florida.”

Hand pruning is immensely labor intensive, so the nursery built automatic pruning machines that trim plant material from 4 inches up to 3 gallons. They’re made of lightweight aluminum for ease of use and floating tires to eliminate trenching in the sandy soil beneath the ground cloth and can be operated by one person. The attached sickle blade helps keep the foliage from fraying during pruning.

“We try and only prune just a quarter of an inch to a half an inch at a time,” David explains. “We feel that if we’re pruning off more than that, we are pruning off what we paid to grow and we want to promote the lower growth and branching of the plant.”

One person can prune about 1 acre in half a day with the machine, compared to using five people to prune by hand over two days.

Hibernia enjoyed its best spring to date in 2021.

“They’re easily maneuverable, weighing maybe 50 pounds,” David says. “We’ve got three of those going all the time during the summer.”

Irrigation can also be a laborious task, and Hibernia partnered with researchers from the University of Florida to adopt a system that cuts down on water waste and staff time. Tom Yeager from the university’s Environmental Horticulture Department approached Hibernia in 2018 about CIRRIG, a web-based system he’d helped develop with colleagues Jeff Million and Craig Warner. In a nutshell, CIRRIG takes information from leaching fraction values and weather data to help better manage irrigation scheduling and volume. The nursery was already checking leaching fraction to monitor the irrigation needs of the plants, but CIRRIG made the process more efficient.

“With the CIRRIG system, we sample leaching fraction in a block of plants and feed that into the computer system. And using information from weather stations, which is also tied to the system, CIRRIG calculates the irrigation needs of that block and overrides the system when needed,” David explains.

The on-site weather station, which interfaces with the software, is critical to the success of the system, says UFL’s Tom Yeager.

“Weather data and leaching fraction are the major inputs for this system,” Tom says. “Rather than have someone running around adjusting time clocks – or when no one is at the nursery to do that – the system makes the proper adjustments.”

Hibernia founder David Counihan says sales of branded plants are increasing in rewholesale yards and with landscape contractors.

The next labor-saving project in the pipeline at Hibernia includes a new loading dock for more efficient loading.

Much like the rest of the country, Florida growers are faced with labor shortages, so Hibernia entered into a contract with a firm that specializes in H2A labor.

“That labor is expensive, but we need the H2A workers to get all the work done, and we get eight or 10 people early in the year through this contract,” David says. “Instead of housing them here, the person we contracted with takes care of all the necessary H2A regulations. A lot of companies in the orange groves operate this way.”

Grower Pat Miller stops by the weather station that’s interfaced with the nursery’s CIRRIG irrigation system.

Labor costs have increased about 30% year over year and David expects that number to increase.

“We’re competing with other industries like warehousing and construction. A good example is Amazon is putting a big warehouse in down the street from us. And Walmart built a big warehouse nearby. Someone can go in there and be in the air conditioning all day for $15 an hour, work full time and be out of the elements. Those particular jobs are competition for the workers we need – they’re pulling labor away from us,” David says.

Florida recently passed legislation that increases the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026, but many nurseries (including Hibernia) are paying that wage to build a proper crew. David wishes people knew more about the opportunities in horticulture and better understood the industry.

“They’re taking a product from inception all the way to sale, and it’s an exciting industry to be in. It’s very automated and technical and we need to do a better job getting people interested in the industry,” he says.

Those labor-saving processes came at the right time with the surge in business during the pandemic. Efficiency was important when so many plants were being shipped out.

“When Covid hit, our immediate objective was to keep everyone safe,” David says. “Then when we were deemed ‘essential,’ we kept working. I thought things would come to a shrieking halt, but that didn’t happen. We had one of our best years. Then comingle that with the freeze in January, which increased the demand for product even more, and we had our best spring ever. And we’ve been here for 20 years.”

For more: www.hibernianursery.com; www.bmptoolbox.org/cirrig