Labor and time help to determine whether to upgrade transplanters.
Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

From labor force size to the ability or inability of employees to differentiate between tasks in the greenhouse, several important considerations determine when growers should upgrade their transplanters.

Dr. Paul A. Thomas, professor of floriculture and extension specialist at the University of Georgia, estimates that less than 26 percent of U.S. commercial greenhouse operations have automated transplanters, and an additional 15 percent have manual, hand-operated transplanters.

The main reason growers consider purchasing transplanting machines is to save labor, Thomas says. A second reason is time savings. Cost has to be attributed to a specific crop when the time it takes to transport its plug tray to the bench exceeds a certain time period.

In smaller greenhouse operations, investing in hand-operated transplanters saves employee hours and improves their morale, Thomas says. “It cuts down on overtime, it cuts down on missed deadlines [and] it cuts down on employee frustration, because it allows us to get a very tedious task done quickly,” he says.

By switching to a levered or automated transplant machine from an entirely manual transplanting process, greenhouses can significantly decrease the room for error, Thomas says, adding that for every one percent increase in salable crop, the profit margin for that crop increases 27 percent. “If the crop fails to yield a salable item, you still have to put all those expenses into the crop, and that eats away at things very, very quickly,” Thomas says. “So, the more efficient you are at having 10 plugs and selling 10 plants, the more profit margin you make for that particular crop — not for the whole greenhouse, per se, but for that particular crop, all factors being equal.”

Greenhouses that don’t have any transplanting machines should consider getting one if they have several people employed who rush to catch up on plugs, and bottlenecks occur, Thomas says. Greenhouses that have several transplant lines running for several weeks in the peak of spring should invest in automated transplanters.

As labor force size and time constraints determine the need for a first transplanter purchase or an upgrade from a manual to an automated transplanter, the same factors determine whether a company should purchase additional transplanters, Thomas says. “If their volume starts increasing or if they’re specializing in different areas and the number of employees they can assign to transplanting is limited — because they’re all out doing herb production somewhere or something else — then another transplanter should come on board,” he says.

Like many decisions in the greenhouse, choices about transplanter purchases and upgrades come down to economics, Thomas says. “The most important thing to do is sit down with a CPA — certified public accountant — look at the cost of purchase and the cost of any kind of loan that you might put on the product, look at the time and labor savings that operating the system for as long as they normally run a crew in transplanting, would generate,” he says.