Save time in your Greenhouse: How Can Automating Help You
Updated: 2 days ago
Every farmer I've met has a special relationship with time. That entity that slips through our fingers...
In addition to dealing with production, farmers also face the challenges of sales, accounting, human resources, etc. Delegating is particularly difficult for these warriors. To delegate, they have to find employees (a rare gem these days) and pay them with the precious margins of their vegetable sales. Ouch!
That's why the most successful vegetable farmers focus on efficiency. Let's quantify that by revenue per hour worked ($/hr).
According to the data collected in RJME and the report by Geoffroy Ménard of CETAB+, the following information is available, the average grower produces $25 worth of vegetables per hour worked. With the employer's charges, an hour's wage comes to $20 for the farm. This means that for every hour of hard work, only $5 is available to pay for all other farm expenses!
Fortunately, market gardeners have found greenhouses as a way to increase their margins. According to Geoffroy Ménard's report from CETAB+, producers make $50/hr in greenhouses. That's twice as much as the average production! We even have several clients who make between $100 and $150/hr in their greenhouses.
With the superpowers of the greenhouse, comes great responsibility! To have these yields, we must maintain an optimal climate for our plants. And if we're not careful, it eats up our time and decreases our $/hr.
In this article, you will read how the $150/hr grower uses automation to save precious time. The first step is to reduce interruptions. Next, we'll look at how you can use automation to limit the amount of time you spend caring for the plant. We'll finish by looking at how you can maximize the time you save with automation.
We always underestimate the time that interruptions cost us. I am the first one!
In the case of market gardeners, irrigation is a typical example. Starting a valve only takes 2 seconds, right? Think about it.
If you are already next to the valve, it takes 2 seconds to start the irrigation... but then what do you do? Do you wait 5 minutes for the irrigation to finish before closing the valve? Or do you temporarily keep yourself busy to be a little productive?
Besides, when it's time to leave the valve, you're often elsewhere. Doing something else. In the field, weeding, for example. So how long does irrigation take you?
Stop weeding and go to the greenhouse 5min
Open the valve, wait for the duration of the irrigation then close it 5min
Return to the field and take the tools to weed 5min
15 minutes for a valve is not so bad?
Keep in mind that a greenhouse needs between 3 and 25 starts per day. This means that you lose almost 4 hours every day going back and forth.
Quick calculation: Automating irrigation can save you 5 to 40 hours of productivity EACH WEEK!
It is possible to automate irrigation for $150 per valve. In 1 week, you're back in your money just by counting the time you save. Okay. Let's make it 2 considering the installation time. And I'm not even talking about the impact on your yields and stress!
Like irrigation, greenhouse ventilation causes a lot of disruption. In addition to bringing a mental load that we could do without. It is always possible to do a rough ventilation job, but it increases heating costs. Not to mention that it's not the way to get to $150/m².
Even with rough control, you have to manage the opening sides and roofs:
Open in the morning (at sunrise... urgh my sleeping hours!)
Close at sunset
Adjust in case of rain
Adjust in case of strong winds
Adjust when a cloud passes in spring and it's cold outside
And that's on the weekends too!
Consider how many interruptions that is per week. Multiply that by the average time it takes to get to and from the greenhouse + the time it takes to open or close the sides/roofs. Don't forget that you may be out for a delivery, a trip to the hardware store, etc.
I estimate that it takes 5 hours per week for a rough check of 2 siding panels. If you want to save that time each week, you can pay back your investment in sash automation in half a season. As a bonus, you will have :
One less thing to worry about (Including evenings and weekends!)
A gain in yield Many of our customers are making 2x more than the average efficiency according to Geoffroy's report mentioned above
Savings on your energy bill We have calculated that by following the targets based on sunshine, you save 20% in energy
Some say that automation saved their marriage! Others say that with automation, they no longer need to run to the greenhouse in their boxer shorts in the morning to avoid burning. What is certain is that I have yet to meet a grower who regrets automating his ventilation!
In short, you will save a lot of interruptions with automation. In practice, you can easily save 10h of productivity per greenhouse per week.
The alternative would be to put an employee on these tasks. Considering all the costs associated with an employee, it would cost you $8,000 to $10,000/year. That gives you a good budget for automation. It's a long shot, but after that, you'll have 400 hours per season to make your farm more productive.
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In the greenhouse, diseases and insects are a thorn in the side of the grower. It's stressful, it costs money and it takes time that you don't want to spend on prevention or crisis management.
You can use automation in 2 ways to save time with disease management:
Maintaining a better climate
Keeping plant leaves wet
Maintaining a better climate
A better climate will help you for several reasons. First, you will make your plants more resilient to various problems. In the same way that a human who eats well, sleeps well and is physically active will be less sick.
Finding the right climate is complex, though. There is no perfect temperature or humidity. It is rather a balance to find between light, temperature, humidity, irrigation, etc.
To maintain a climate in the greenhouse, automation is the only option... unless you stay in the greenhouse 24/7 watching the sensors. And even then, humans can't make the decisions to control humidity while avoiding a hair-raising heating bill.
In addition to helping the plant's immune system, you can prevent fungal problems such as gray mold or mildew with humidity control. Drying intermittently breaks the fungus cycle without breaking the bank on heating. It is also a great way to increase the life span of your cucumber plants.
Limiting condensation on the plant is another way to control humidity in the greenhouse to avoid losing the war against fungus. You can avoid condensation on your tomatoes by forcing gradual temperature changes. Especially in the morning, you don't want the temperature to rise faster than 1'C per hour. You can easily do this with automation.
Many growers make the mistake of not dehumidifying because it is expensive to heat. About 25% of the heating bill. Before you get discouraged, I invite you to consider the cost of NOT dehumidifying:
The time you spend on disease management
The cost of treatments
The loss of yields
I lost 70% of my cucumber production to disease. - Anonymous market gardener
If you want to learn how to dehumidify like Orisha, we've already written an article on how we use humidity deficit to manage humidity in the greenhouse.
Keeping plant leaves wet
Water on the plant can cause fungal problems. Still, in some cases, you want to keep the leaves of your plants wet to control insect growth. With spider mites in cucumbers, for example.
A misting system allows you to do this. To automate the misting, you need an electronically activated valve. It's the same as for irrigation. Without automation, you have to count the management of the misting in the interruptions taking us time (see the section on interruptions with irrigation)
By automating irrigation with a light sensor and using misting to counter infestations, I tripled my pepper yields! - Marie Morin, St-Laz Greenhouses
In summary, you can save time in disease management with automation. You can delegate the prevention of problems to your automation system and thus reduce the time you spend on mold management!
In the next section, I'll talk about some things to think about when designing your automation solution so that it takes up as little time as possible during the season.
Beware of Technology
The climate controller is a tool to help the grower achieve their goals. Automation is not an end in itself. To ensure that automation allows you to do more, you want to make sure you take the time to design your project properly.
That may sound complicated, but I assure you, it's not that bad. The problem is, when you're doing it for the first time, it's intimidating. I'll give you a few things to think about and if you want some personalized help, give us a call!
Make sure everything is fine
I'll tell you a secret about automation: sooner or later it will fail. The controller, the furnace, and the pump. Whatever the source, there will be a problem.
Obviously, you don't want that failure to affect your production. But you don't want to be paranoid about making sure everything is working properly all the time.
I wouldn't want to replace the task of starting the irrigation with checking that the irrigation was done! The interruption for checking is as long as for starting the valve!
You will never be able to eliminate human verification. But you can reduce it to just getting into the habit of checking that your soil is wet when you walk through the greenhouse.
3 easy techniques: