Regardless of what part of the country you are in, it seems labor is tight for nurseries in need of help. We all know our businesses must reckon with limited options if we are going to remain open.
One way to address the labor shortage is to do more with less. Everywhere we look, we see or hear about comrades, colleagues, and competition taking steps to be more efficient.
But what is efficiency? What does efficiency look like to you?
When I think of efficiency, my mind quickly goes to the farm side of our family business where we have big acreage, big tractors and few people. Literally, there are three guys and lots of equipment producing thousands of tons of row crops and specialty seeds on more than 2,000 acres.
If I dwell a bit more on efficiency, a few other things come to mind. I think of robotics and mechanization for every specialized task like we see in the car commercials with their fancy assembly lines. Then, I think of streamlining product mix to avoid low-margin, labor-intensive crops, much like we see at so many large growers in the Netherlands.
But are these visions meaningful to our nursery, our products and our market?
There is nothing wrong with wishing for a magic topiary machine with its mechanical eyes and arms zooming in all directions; transforming a four-foot arborvitae into a perfectly manicured topiary in split seconds.
Is that realistic, though? Probably not, considering the likely cost of building such a machine and the fact that topiaries are a small part of what our business produces.
With this understanding, I have tried to take a different perspective of what efficiency looks like lately — and a simpler one: Efficiency is as basic as a clean and well-organized workplace where employees have easy access to the tools they need.
At our nursery last summer, we took three days — and at least as many Dumpsters — to remove things we no longer need to improve various work areas on the nursery. We outfitted these areas with labels and signage, which helped us save time searching the entire premises for tools.
I know I personally have saved hours looking for a mower or a plant tag. Gosh, I wonder how much time I would save if I organized my desk?
Efficiency also means being able to run the same potting machine at a better pace all day — with fewer stoppages — because tasks were better distributed among the team members. Before evaluating our workflow, we saw the machine’s frequent stops to restock pots and liners or advance a trailer as benign. These tasks only shut the line down a half-minute or so at a time, right? But they added up to hours each week. Now, we focus on minimizing those stops before worrying about which fancy gadget promises to deliver more.
There are lots of other examples, such as the way the office processes orders to the way we hope to pull orders (that one’s a work in progress). We can try different things and see what the trusty stopwatch has to say about each of them.
It may seem like small potatoes, but with the rising cost and shrinking availability of labor these small investments can go a long way. Usually, it only costs us the time it takes to pause and try something new!
It hasn’t been easy to steer away from old, inefficient and often costly habits, but it has been a fun challenge that should help — at least a little — with the current labor supply issues.
Now, machine and equipment makers: How about that topiary machine?
|Explore the EFFICIENCY ISSUE
Rising costs, labor scarcity and competition create challenges for growers. Greater efficiency can be the answer.
We talked to more than a dozen growers and industry colleagues who have become more efficient, and increased their bottom line, by improving their management, workflows, inputs and workspaces