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Flood floors pave the way to automation

Foliera’s decision to install flood floors laid the groundwork for their newly retrofitted facility.

April 6, 2021  By Greta Chiu

Flexibility was one of the key factors in choosing concrete flood floors over others for Foliera. Photo credit: A. Van Geest

When Foliera Inc. acquired their second facility last year, they seized this opportunity to install a new flood floor system – one that would help meet a rising demand for product and pave the way for more automated solutions.

It really came down to flexibility, says John Kouwenberg, owner and operator of Foliera in Beamsville, Ont. Though it was more expensive, he chose a concrete type of flood floor to retrofit the former five-acre cucumber greenhouse. This way, they could pick up product from anywhere on the floor, load it onto the cart and drive to shipping within a short window – a key advantage for the large volumes they handle.

“Equipment have free reign over the [concrete] flood floor, without being confined to rails or limited by soft spots,” explains Andrew Van Geest, technical sales specialist at Zwart Systems. The local irrigation supplier designed and installed Foliera’s new flood floors. With labour being one of the largest costs for greenhouses, he says, flood floors “may be a large expense upfront, but there are long-term benefits.”


Tables or floors?

Product timing and crop size are critical to deciding between flood tables and floors, Kouwenberg explains. “If you say ‘hey, I want to grow 50,000 chrysanthemums and I want them all ready in week 35,’ you can do that on a flood floor. But if you want chrysanthemums almost every week in smaller batches? You may want to consider tables.”  

Table systems are likely a better option for growers with lower volume crops on a weekly schedule. Floors have the flexibility to meet both weekly and seasonal needs, but they make more sense for high volume crops.

“If you have young plants mixed in with more mature plants, you may have some challenges with over- or under-watering on a flood floor,” Kouwenberg explains. One way to counter this would be to divide the floor into watering zones, and invest in additional pumps. 

Not that it’s impossible to grow high volumes on tables, Kouwenberg adds. Foliera’s other greenhouse uses flood tables for a multitude of varieties with different irrigation needs. But depending on the layout, tables can sometimes limit walkways and packing area space. With the labour involved in moving tables and product, flood floors will save them a lot of time.

“You can do weekly on a floor by investing in some automation with forklifts,” suggests Van Geest. This could be beneficial for a spring bedding plant grower leading up to a particularly busy period, such as Mother’s Day. In this case, the floor system could be a more efficient option, especially for bulk patio planters and baskets. 

One downside to the floors is repetitive bending or sitting, though it’s less of a problem for low maintenance crops like succulents, says Kouwenberg. Tables may be at a more comfortable height, but that’s also a matter of personal preference.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other, offers Van Geest. One could propagate on tables in one facility, then finish the plants on floors at another.

“It’s about looking at your product, the plant size [and] the infrastructure that you’re willing to invest in,” he says. “It’s not very cost-effective to do a one- or two acre-build with flood floors. But as soon as you have a vision for four, five, 10 or 25 acres? Then that infrastructure and cost is spread over a greater space.”

Opting for less maintenance

As flood tables often need to be cleaned by specialized machinery, flood floors have the upper hand in this area. 

“You can take a floor sweeper, almost like a Zamboni….go in there at the end of the crop and do a quick victory lap to sweep it and then put plants down. The turnaround time between harvesting, cleaning and getting your crop back down can be quite quick,” says Van Geest. “It’s an opportunity to turn that square footage maybe twice or even three times within a window to grab extra sales.”

He’s found that many of his customers are looking for long-lasting solutions, not systems that require maintenance after five to 15 years. “How are you going to continue to grow a product year-round and then have to vacate that space for two months for a redo or a large retrofit?” 

Some of his customers’ concrete floors are at the 40-year mark and still going strong. “You may have to change a valve or a pump, but those are normal wear and tear items…as with any system.”

Because concrete is used in construction projects worldwide, Van Geest is particularly excited for the research and innovation in this area. Though it takes 24 hours to firm up, concrete needs seven years to harden, which could lead to high and low spots in the curing process. This is where the concrete industry has made massive improvements. “Floors that were poured 20 years ago, don’t compare to the floors that we’re pouring today,” he says.

Building for the future

Like many other farms, Foliera’s recent acquisition had newer and older blocks, some as young as 12 years and others going as far back as the 80s. 

“The challenge is dealing with the different size constraints. The older houses are a little shorter… a little more difficult to swing equipment in. The newer blocks are typically taller, wider [with] a little bit more room to work in,” says Van Geest.

The greater challenge is in designing a system that will operate well in both the old and the new and still factor in potential growth. “Sooner or later, a customer will want to build again, and he will want to utilize the infrastructure of the irrigation system he just purchased to leverage it over more square feet of production space,” says Van Geest. “We have to be mindful of that when we’re designing the system. It’s not only for what we’re doing today, but how that customer will be growing in the future.”

When retrofitting a greenhouse, long-term vision is essential. It may not necessarily come to fruition, but it helps make more practical decisions. “We don’t want to overspend needlessly, but we also don’t want to do things twice,” says Van Geest. “John has a vision of where he’d like to go and what he’d like to do, so that gave us the tools to develop and design something that would be advantageous for him as he grows his business.”

In fact, Kouwenberg’s vision for Foliera is already in bloom, and concrete flood floors were just the beginning.

The greenhouse operator has since installed a new, customized planting line. They’ve purchased a tow motor that will pick up large quantities of plants from the conveyor and space them on the floor. Next, they’ll be installing automated systems to scout for pests and sort for plant quality, discarding below-grade product each time. This way, most if not all plants should be of acceptable quality at finish, and it will reduce the time needed for grading and training staff.

“We always have to think about labour and labour savings,” says Kouwenberg. “We also have to watch our shrink. The quicker we can take the shrink out, the more we know that the inventory on the floor is 100 per cent accurate in terms of shippable.” 

With COVID still in full force and added barriers in securing foreign labour, Foliera’s automated solutions couldn’t have come at a better time. 

“When you make a renovation or build something, then you certainly have an opportunity to create it the way you want,” says Kouwenberg. 

Flood tips

“In any kind of flood situation, whether it’s on a table or on a floor, you always need to look at your salt content,” says Kouwenberg. “They’re sucking up nutrients from the bottom and they’re not necessarily getting washed out from the top.” 

To counter this, he uses overhead watering for certain crops to leach out excess nutrients. The water is then collected and its reuse offers a savings advantage.

Another practice Kouwenberg recommends is moving away from flat bottom pots and choosing ones with a raised lip for better drainage. “You want to make sure that there’s some good ability to pull in the water through the bottom,” but at the same time, avoid having the plant sit in residual puddles.

For the new farm, they’ve installed overhead sprinklers that produce drips more coarse than compressed fog. “For the tropicals that we grow, we like the fact that we can hit the sprinklers for five minutes and give them a drink from the top. It trickles down and hits the soil, the leaves, treating it like plants growing out in the wild.” It wasn’t too expensive either, he adds.

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