Originally published in Issue 3
Industry consultant Bryan Hart talks about what it takes for growers to run a successful business and issues they are facing regardless of where they are located.
Bryan Hart is a greenhouse industry consultant who has 24 years of experience working as a consultant and/or grower. He has worked with growers in seven countries, including the United States. Hart sat down with Urban Ag Products to discuss issues growers are dealing with regardless of their business size, market or location.
Q. When consulting with new growers about starting a greenhouse business, what is the most common misconception/mistake that most growers make?
A. The “new” grower has a number of motives to start an enterprise. In my experience the misconceptions typically relate to issues around those motives.
For example a few years ago when the recession hit and middle management personnel were being laid off, a number of new horticulture industry entrants were looking to “buy” some job security/self-determination. Typically these folks had no idea of the time inputs required to make a business happen.
Visits to successful greenhouse operations typically show neat, organized work environments growing flowers or vegetables. So many of these unemployed “would-be” greenhouse growers thought a venture into this world would be able to provide them with the lifestyle and income they were seeking. The reality for many was quite different, including long hours, hard physical labor, struggling with supermarkets or other professional buyers and incomes that didn’t match their expectations.
Other examples of misconceptions can be large investors that see the “factory” style development of Venlo-style glass operations and think it should be all computer-controlled, weekly-programmed crop production with guaranteed ROIs. Those guys only see profit-and-loss statements and balance sheets. They forget or were unaware that Mother Nature still has a part to play in a horticultural business.
Also for large operations, people drive the business and for new builds, obtaining experienced staff to run the operation and do the crop work can be difficult. Productivity is intimately linked to staff tenure and it takes time for efficient production to get up to speed. Attaining some reality and pragmatism about production-related issues can take a while for some investors.
Q. Is this the same misconception/mistake made by growers who are looking to start producing ornamental plants as it for growers who want to start producing greenhouse vegetable crops?
A. Many of those issues relate to all horticultural sectors. Over optimism or not doing all the homework isn’t particular to any one group.
Q. In terms of the various systems (i.e., heating, cooling, fertilization, environmental controls, irrigation, etc.) used within a greenhouse, where do growers make the biggest mistakes and why do you think these occur?
A. It is difficult to generalize about technology because it constantly changes. As business models change operational requirements often change too.
The fundamental issue is trying to balance and not over-capitalizing on a “Rolls Royce” when the standard model is quite suitable, but not under-shooting the system so as not to have sufficient control. The best strategy is to decide if your business model is to be the highest production/highest technology for year-round supply or is it to be low cost/low input seasonal supply. Somewhere in there is the answer to start your planning point.
Q. Is there any one particular area of production where you would tell a grower not to cut corners or skimp because it will end up causing him long-term problems or will end up costing him more money to resolve the issue later?
A. Root system development is often ignored. Plant roots are hard to see and require some effort to investigate, but they drive the plant pump. You need to get down on your knees and get your hands dirty to ensure proper root development.
A poor root system always leads to problems. Consequently drainage, irrigation and substrate/growing media are critical components.
Q. Do you think it is more difficult to start a business growing greenhouse ornamental plants or greenhouse vegetables?
A. Both are not easy. Both require a willing buyer for the intended product. A good relationship with customers is essential to a successful business. From there it’s a matter of sufficient capital and know-how to operationally pull it all together.
Q. When consulting with established greenhouse growers, what is the most common issue/problem that you are asked to deal with or resolve? Is it the same issue for both greenhouse ornamental and greenhouse vegetable growers?
A. Proportionally I have spent more time consulting with vegetable growers, but the most common issue is the same for both vegetable and ornamental plant growers. It is how to balance production goals with cost of inputs like energy and labor and to not overload or drive crops too fast. Achieving consistent growth, setting and harvest for the entire crop cycle while managing inputs and maximizing profit per square meter year-round is the ultimate challenge.
Some consultants like to slash costs out of a system. Others like to drive production as hard as possible. There are risks/consequences to both strategies and matching the strategy with the business model and owner’s goals is critical to success.
Q. You have consulted with growers in various countries, including the United States. Are there any common issues that growers consistently have to deal with and why do you think these issues are common?
A. A common complaint from growers is “my buyer” wants this quality, but doesn’t want to pay for it. Grow to the specifications, but don’t grade produce or ornamental plants harder or you can end up going backwards.
Also, the U.S., Canada, Mexico climates have some large extremes. Developing a growing strategy to ensure crops cope with these extremes is a major significant factor.
Q. Are there issues/problems that are unique to growers in the United States that you haven’t encountered in other countries?
A. Not really.
Q. The interest in locally-grown food is becoming a bigger issue in the United States. Even large retailers like Walmart are looking to buy more locally-grown food to be able to offer consumers fresher produce. What advice would you offer to someone looking to start their own growing operation (field or greenhouse) to take advantage of the rising demand for locally-grown food?
A. Be sure you understand what your customer wants before starting down that path. Once the size of the prize is clear then travel around and visit as many growing operations as possible to learn how they do it. Once you have seen firsthand what looks right to you and similarly what you don’t like, then get some advice from an experienced consultant/grower to plan a way forward.
Q. Is locally-grown food as important or more important in other countries or is it just a given or a matter of fact because that’s how most food is produced?
A. Everyone is looking at their food these days. Quality, taste, freshness, security, nutritional benefits, etc., are common factors to many shoppers worldwide. Locally-grown doesn’t necessarily guarantee those things.
A professional grower could achieve all those points and ship 3,000 miles in a truck to a market on the other side of the country. But local growers should have some advantages in terms of flexibility, responsiveness and contact/relationship with customers that long-distance suppliers would have to overcome. For cost of supply, both local and long-distance suppliers may have some strengths/weaknesses.
Q. With the recent recession in the United States the interest in organic food seems to have leveled off because it’s typically higher priced than traditionally grown food. Have you seen an increasing demand for organic food, particularly fruits and vegetables, in other countries or has there been a leveling off in other countries just like in the United States?
A. Organic is as much a values system as type of food. Food safety is probably most topical now. Producing healthy food, safely in an environmentally sustainable manner is key to any business.
Q. Genetically modified or biotech foods don’t seem to be as great of a concern in the United States as in other countries like in Europe? Why do you think that is? And do you think that these foods will become more widely produced and accessible to growers worldwide?
A. Genetic engineering is quite an emotive issue. From a technical perspective, if global population is predicted to exceed 9 billion people in 2020 then with constraints to land and water supplies, the question will arise as to how to feed everybody. There is limited land to simply convert extra forest to farmland, so productivity must increase. Genetic engineering is one tool in the toolbox available to agronomists, breeders and the broader horticultural industry to consider. The United States has been the leader in this technology so perhaps that is why it is less of a concern there.
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.