A Grower’s Structure By Mackenzie Gaffney

In the past, GPN has concentrated on greenhouse manufacturers as the source of information for our annual structure update. Focusing our attention on structure producers has always given us a wealth of information, but what about the people who matter most in the decision-making process — the growers. This year, we decided to turn our attention to growers who have purchased a greenhouse recently to see what they have to say about the experience. After all, you can come up with an innovative greenhouse design utilizing the latest systems, but if that structure doesn't meet the needs of the grower, it doesn't matter how technologically advanced it is. What we found out is that the manufacturer's offerings, how they present themselves and how they follow-up are equal predictors to the satisfaction of the customer.

then and now

Many improvements have been made over the last 5-10 years that have helped growers in everyday production. Marrs Gist, manager of engineering and automation at Monrovia Growers, Azusa, Calif., explained that one of the biggest improvements in his opinion has been in plastics. "It wasn't long ago that you saw plastic on a house, and you just knew that you were going to have to replace it in a few years," Gist said. "It is not like that so much anymore; the plastics seem to last longer." One of the other things Gist mentioned is the coating that is now used to keep condensation from dripping. "Greenhouses are far better than what they were 10 years ago," said Gist. Nonetheless, there is always room for improvement.

Gist explained in detail the five new structures Monrovia is putting up. The five structures are not all being done by the same manufacturer. Like the many structures, Gist said there are many reasons why they decided to go with different companies. "One is that we wanted different environments, which required different structures," explained Gist. Another manufacturer, "really gave us the best price, so that is why we ended up going with their house — the traditional polycarbonate house that is a little more cost-effective," Gist continued. "Also, because all five of those houses are being built exactly at the same time, there wasn't really a single company that ç could come in and do the construction as fast as we needed it, and that is another advantage to multiple vendors."

What's important

So if the logic is not so much company A over company B — but what do companies A and B offer that you need — then what else is important when negotiating with a manufacturer? Paul Pilon, head grower, Sawyer Nursery, Hudsonville, Mich., said service is one of the most important factors. Having just completed construction on another large build, Sawyer Nursery is very familiar with building greenhouses. "Service can be a big thing because sometimes you can buy the structure with a certain amount of labor," said Pilon. "But having the tech supportÉif a company is going to build it on their own, [you need] to have a company that will readily work with [you]. In most cases it is played out pretty simply, but all it takes is one person to put the wrong bolt in the wrong place, and that kind of messes everything up. So besides a good design, the tech support is pretty important."

All of this discussion about new technologies and perfect service assumes, of course, that the basics of design and construction have been mastered. That means the design is functional with all environmental controls, venting systems, shading, etc., working to maximize the space and customer needs before other options and add-ons are even considered.

Environmental controls are essential to many greenhouse operations, saving time and labor, and they need to be integrated properly into the greenhouse design/functioning. "Environmental controls are a big thing for us, allowing us to run the environment to its maximum ability," said Gist. "You could put in a real fancy house, but if you have to have people there all hours of the day and night manually opening and closing things and trying to use that environment to the best of its ability, it is kind of a waste."

Advice for the future

Progress has definitely been made over the years. As emphasized in last month's special section devoted to automation (see the April 2005 issue of GPN), efficiency is good for profit and can make your life a little less chaotic. ç So what exactly do those in the green industry want structure manufacturers to spend their time developing; is it service, implementation of full-system controls or materials?

"I guess a little more could be done for cooling systems or types of coverings, which isn't structural perhaps," said Pilon. "Coverings that could diffract a certain amount of UV, which will increase the temperature within the structure. We have to look at cost to achieve the highest quality structure and receive all the benefits it has."Major companies across many industries spend money and time training their employees and customer service representatives in order to deal with the needs of their clients in the most professional and congenial manner. The same goes for this industry. We often hear what customers think about the service they receive, and for the most part we hear that they are satisfied.

Gist, from the customer viewpoint, explained why this aspect of the industry is so important. "With our vendors one of the most important things actually isn't technology at all. It is just simply customer service. After we have a structure built or even while it is being built. It is a huge investment for us, and without customer service it's not worth saving a little bit of money on it. The customer service that goes in after the fact if we have problems is worth a lot," said Gist.

Mackenzie Gaffney

Mackenzie Gaffney is associate editor of GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1013 or E-mail at mgaffney@sgcmail.com.

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