'Robots are coming,' say growers

Meeting looks at use of robotics in glasshouse growing

Harnett: importance of technological advancement
Harnett: importance of technological advancement

The use of robotics technology in glasshouses was a big focus of the British Protected Ornamentals Association meeting held in Stratford last month.

Kernock Park Plants managing director Bruce Harnett discussed his Nuffield Scholarship report Intensive Horticulture - man versus machine, concluding "technological advancement is just one of several critical, interrelated factors that horticulture should not ignore".

The report found that labour and efficiency are key drivers towards technological advancement in production processes, while logistics and finance are principal barriers to investment in mechanisation, adding that the advancement of technology will be rapid for horticulture.

Harnett, who visited Japan, Israel, North America and Europe, said: "The robots are coming whether we like it or not". The endurance of robots, which can stick cuttings 40 per cent faster than humans and never need to sleep, could future proof labour issues, he suggested. A $28,000 pot mover robot pays for itself in 15 months.

"The future is not necessarily 'man versus machine" but a suitable balance of 'man in harmony with machine'," he said (see http://nuffieldinternational.org/rep_pdf/ 1452526765Bruce-Harnett-report-2014.pdf).

US-based Bell Nursery vice-president production Cole Mangum said the bedding grower has gone from $2m to $120m sales in 20 years and has expanded products to Home Depot from 200 to 1,200 in a decade. "They want exclusive and consistent," he added, while customers want hardy, longer lasting, lower maintenance for planters and baskets as well as summer products.

Mangum said Bell has moved from standard small square pots to premium production, such as vegetative geraniums and marigolds rather than petunias. The "millennial" generation rather than baby boomers are not interested in dirty, hard work but still want their houses to look nice so are interested in buying containers rather than packs, he added, with 20-30 per cent year-on-year growth over the past three years.

To meet demand, Bell is introducing more automation and technology to plan, produce and ship plants, as well as more production space at other people's farms. Neonicotinoids are a "hot issue" in the USA as retail customer Home Depot phases out plants grown with the insecticide, but peat is seen as "sustainable".

Dr Simon Pearson from the University of Lincoln highlighted an "unprecedented number of pressures on the industry" - the euro, skills shortage, deflation, lack of labour, Modern Day Slavery Act, EU membership, workforce demographics, National Living Wage and apprentice levy. He said deflation is leading to "suicidal retail prices and a £500m loss to the produce industry in 2015". The number of trained farm managers is 12 per cent, far less than the rest of the EU, he added. Allied with low productivity, he said this means robots and LEDs are needed to reduce labour costs.

Dr Tim Pettitt spoke on disinfection of irrigation water to rid it of Pythium/Phytophthora. He said mains and borehole water is lowor no-risk but reservoirs, rivers, roof water and other sources are mediumto high-risk. Greenhouse roof water can be "absolutely minging", he added. Pasteurisation, ultraviolet, ozonation, chlorination, microfiltration and biofiltration are options, he said, while slow sand filters (SSFs) are "very robust and have an air of sustainability".

At the Eden Project, a china clay sand - a type of horticultural grit - proved easier to clean and created fewer blockages of filters than average sands. Bordon Hill Nursery successfully trialled the grit on top of sand. Pettitt concluded: "SSF just got faster and more efficient."

Gideon Avigad of the Vineland Research Innovation Centre in Canada spoke on robotics and automation, emphasising advantages such as labour savings, enhanced productivity and yield, improved quality, reduced costs through optimised operations and energy consumption, greater consistency and quality control and improved health and safety. He said smart irrigation, tulip bulb planting, apple picking and packaging are options for "technology layering". But readiness to change to embed technology remains a challenge for the industry, he added.

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