Inside View: You can’t get there from here
May 12, 2023 By Gary Jones
There’s an increasing amount of chatter these days about how artificial intelligence (A.I.), automation, and mechanization is changing the way we make our greenhouses operate. And not without good reason: in a recent webinar poll, when asked the question, “What’s the biggest challenge facing our [food] workforce?”, of the three options provided, 41.5% replied “Lack of workers, period!”1 (Sample size not provided.) A close second to this (at 36.6%), was the response “Engaging young people in the industry.” Notwithstanding the fact that this webinar was primarily aimed at the food workforce, and that by their nature, webinar polls offer very limited response options, does the idea that nearly 80% of those involved in the greenhouse industry think that attracting workers, in particular young workers, is a major issue sound reasonable to your business? Why not do a quick ‘poll’ of all owners and employees at your company for a reality check? If nothing else, this would message everyone that you value their opinion (and them).
In a follow-up poll, attendees were provided the statement, “Technology is sweeping through agriculture,” and asked to respond to the opinion “In general, the promise of agritech is…” Two thirds (66.1%) of respondents said that agritech is “Not hyped enough – agriculture will be transformed far more than we realize.”1
For those who like things ‘old school’, these views are perhaps compelling reasons to consider the changes that are coming down the pipeline. There are interesting things happening as operations move to be less dependent on a difficult-to-find workforce. For example, the pilot project at Great Lakes Greenhouses in conjunction with Ken Tran’s Koidra company resulted in a 28.5% yield increase in eggplant and a 19.6% increase in cucumber yield compared to grower-controlled plots (2022 season).2 While the autonomous ‘autopilot’ didn’t manage all inputs (e.g. irrigation), and the extra costs associated are not provided, these are impressive starting points for further investigation.
But at the same time, there are also some great things happening as companies look to do better by their employees. Greenhouse ornamentals suppliers like Van Belle’s, Rainbow Greenhouses, and Qualitree here in B.C. are certainly stepping up their game in the way they invest in their people. Companies are, after all, started by people, not machines, and we are hard-wired to relate to other people. The debate continues about whether robots can be (or already are?) sentient beings. Rue the day when we see fresh cut chrysanths or potted Easter lilies, going out with the name of the greenhouse ‘founding robot’ stamped on the side of the box! ‘I Ro-Bot Greenhouses Inc.’. Hmm…
There will always be champions for more automation and technology. Equally, there will always be those who we recognize as leaders, usually because of the impact they had on others’ lives. They made an impact because of how they made others feel valued. As owners, managers, growers or employees, there is probably a balance that we need to find here somewhere. Moving ahead with an eye to utilizing the developing technology that is available, while also investing in our current and future human workforce is surely the smart thing to do. So, to the application.
As Ken Tran (Koidra) says, “The most effective A.I. solution will combine the best of human intelligence with the best of A.I. to make decisions.”2 Where is your company investing its hard-earned money when it comes to the workforce? Where are the gaps – technology uptake or personnel development? Or perhaps one aspect is being over-emphasized in relation to another. Tackling these issues well requires multi-tasking skills and leadership. If you want to have your bedding plants or cut flowers continue going out with your name on the box, you have to start somewhere. Maybe a review of where you’re at is a good place to start. After all, you don’t want to be told, “you can’t get there from here,” as a work colleague once told me when giving me driving directions. (Fortunately, she was wrong.)
- Cityage/Emili “Foods Future Workforce” webinar, March 8, 2023.
- ‘GrowON’ (Grow Ontario) webinar. Hosted by OMAFRA March 20, 2023.
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