Updated: Jun 20
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:
Setting up alerts
Use of backups
A quality installation keeps the doctor away forever
Well, it's not an exact science, but you can still make your own luck!
Furnaces from another millennium might decide to take a surprise retirement on an April night at -10'C.
Valve connections lying around in the mud could fail. Sometimes it takes days before the producer notices. I've seen this happen many times, yet it doesn't take much effort when installed properly from the start.
Investing in good, properly installed equipment will save you time when you need it most.
Along the same lines, you want it CLEARLY marked, if important devices need to stay connected. I can count the stories of producers who shut down the wrong breaker without realizing it!
Even worse! More than once, I've heard someone disconnect the Orisha controller to run the sweeper! It may seem obvious, but imagine if your mother-in-law came to help with the cleaning. She doesn't know that this box is a lifesaver!
Monitor your greenhouse with alerts
Installing an alert system that notifies you of problems can give you confidence. You can do this easily with most automation systems.
The alerts I would recommend are the ones that indicate an extreme temperature in the greenhouse.
You also want to be notified if that alert stops working. A courtesy phone call to let you know when you can't trust the alerts will let you sleep soundly the rest of the time.
You can also set up alerts to check humidity, irrigation and so on.
The important thing is to keep your alerts alarming. If you get called all the time, you'll ignore it when it's crucial!
2 furnaces are better than one
When it's freezing outside, you don't want to have to stress about your plants either! Unfortunately, the most problematic unit in the greenhouse is the furnace.
To prevent an ice patch in the greenhouse in case your furnace fails, make sure you have a backup heating solution. For example, choose 2 small furnaces instead of one large one. If one of the two furnaces abandons you in the middle of an April night, the other will save your plants from certain death without you having to leave the comfort of your bed!
To prevent a problem with the control system, you can install a backup thermostat. For a propane furnace, a $40 house thermostat does the job and is easy to install!
In short, installing a quality system with backups will save you time during the season! Another thing to watch out for with technology is the time it takes to operate.
When we started designing the Orisha system, I would ask the producer what their dream climate controller would look like. One thing always came up: the automation system must be simple!
Since then, I've realized why this is so important. In learning about greenhouse production, I learned that plants need frequent adjustments to climate and irrigation targets.
The problem is that figuring out how to orchestrate your equipment to meet your climate targets can waste hours and hours of trial and error...
There is nothing less satisfying than configuring each piece of equipment to meet the temperature and humidity targets. So that when it works well, the weather changes and you have to start over!
Arghhhh! It's hard enough to make sure that the heating and ventilation aren't fighting each other...
Believe me, it took me a while to figure out how to configure the units in our first greenhouse!
After a month of adjusting each day, I realized that it was no good that all growers had to do this!
At that point, I programmed the expertise into Orisha so that no other grower would have to waste time struggling with the ever-changing conditions.
I don't think there is any other control system that solves this challenge for you! For other systems, here are some features I recommend to save time in setup.
First, since the plant is light-sensitive, you want to be able to configure your automation according to the sunlight of the day. That way, you can avoid changing your irrigation and temperature settings every day.
Then, you want to be able to base your settings on the sunrise and sunset. This will prevent you from changing your irrigation times because the sun is earlier in June than in September!
I also recommend that you choose your greenhouse controller to quickly diagnose if everything is fine. If you have to set up activity reports every time, you'll waste a lot of time!
For Orisha, I spent 2 weeks just researching how to present the information collected by the controller. Making data sexy is damn hard! Thanks to Fitbit designers for the inspiration by the way!
Several agronomists took the trouble to tell us that it changed the game. Since it's easier to see what's going on, growers are taking the liberty of monitoring the climate in their greenhouses.
Before, climate control was time-consuming. The growers preferred to produce blindly. Make sure you are not in that situation!
The vegetable farmers I've met who manage to make a profit from their greenhouse while maintaining a healthy lifestyle all have something in common. Rather than trying to do more, they find ways to do less! To do this, they set aside time for continuous improvement.
Improving your production system to save only 5 minutes/day may seem like a waste of time. But at the end of the season, it saves you almost 25 hours of work.
Imagine if every week, you could improve your production system to save 5 minutes/day. At the end of the season, you would have saved 450 hours. That's more than 10 hours per week. Over several years, your farm quickly becomes a well-oiled and profitable machine.
Where can you find the time and mental space to do this?
Automating your greenhouses is your starting point to begin the virtuous circle of improvement. Set aside some of your free time each week to take a tour of your farm and apply an improvement to your production system.
In the long run, this is what will make your farm a healthy and profitable success!
You want to save time but don't know where to start? Let us know, we'll help you! Don't worry, we do it for free ;)