Structures & Equipment
Robotics: Much More Than Just Investing in Labour Savings
The software provides managers with real time analysis of what’s going on every minute.
By Dave Harrison
June 2015 – Greenhouse vegetable grower Louis Chibante of Golden Acre Farms is big on innovation and automation.
The Kingsville, Ontario, cucumber grower has been in the industry for more than 25 years, starting out working with his in-laws Ollie and Dorothy Mastronardi before they retired. Ollie and Dorothy, who began in the industry themselves in 1960, are among the region’s industry pioneers.
Chibante has embraced the latest technologies and growing systems throughout a career that began with soil-grown production a quarter-century ago. “We weren’t in it that long. The industry was beginning to get out of the soil at that time.”
He is now well experienced with high-wire cucumber production on his 21-acre, 7.3-metre tall range.
The new greenhouses were built in 2011, and automation was emphasized in all facets of the design, but in particular the packing area. He worked closely with specialists from Koat B.V. on many of the new labour-saving systems. Included are robotics to unload the harvest bins, automatically feed the sealer/grader unit, pack the produce into boxes and reusable plastic containers (RPCs) automatically, and to palletize the boxes and RPCs.
Coupled with existing sorting and grading systems, automation has helped reduce employment levels by about half in the packing area.
“We’re about as automated as we can be with the current range of automation,” Chibante explains. “We’ve always tried to be on the leading edge of technology, so it was easy to incorporate the new systems.”
If you haven’t been investing in new technology all along, he explains, it’s hard to catch up.
Automation means much more than improved efficiencies. “The software provides managers with real time analysis of what’s going on every minute of the day. It’s so effective in keeping track of things and in food safety traceability.”
Automation is also good for his employees who no longer have to do heavy lifting. “We’ve applied robotics to those jobs that put the most stress on the body, such as lifting and repetition.”
The packing department can now process about 14,000 cucumbers per hour, but it has the capability to ramp up to 25,000 an hour with future expansions.
“High-wire cucumber is an ideal crop for automation,” says Chibante, “because of the consistent quality throughout the crop. It’s pretty much the same from start to finish and the cucumbers are a consistent size.”
Once the cucumber has been harvested, the only person who touches it after that will be the consumer. “That’s great from a food safety perspective.”
There are driver-less trolley systems available to transport produce from the greenhouse and into the packing area, but Golden Acre Farms still uses drivers. “Because we pick such high volumes, to go fully automated would have required a completely different platform and for us that wouldn’t have been practical.”
To the best of his knowledge, Golden Acre Farms was the first commercial grower in North America to successfully grow high-wire cucumbers without lights. The system produces about 25 per cent more cucumbers than a traditional crop.
The new farm was built with glass at a time when most new construction was still in double poly. “We were probably in that five or 10 per cent (of growers) who built with glass that year.”
Now, the majority of new construction is in glass.
Why does he prefer glass?
It gives growers options throughout the year of how to best manage their crops, whereas poly works best with spring and summer production. “Glass is so much better for the light.”
Some seed companies trial new varieties at Golden Acre Farms because they see the future being in high-wire production. Some 125 variety trials are conducted each year.
The farm was also the first greenhouse vegetable operation to incorporate double curtains, taking advantage of the energy curtain for energy conservation, and the environmental curtain to shade the crop during the summer. “We use the curtains to maintain the optimal growing environment for the plant at any time of the crop cycle.”
Golden Acre Farms has the land, the technology and the experienced workforce to expand. There’s just one thing holding them back, and it’s a topic that’s causing Chibante – and many fellow growers in the region – considerable frustration.
Increasing electricity rates in the province are a hurdle unto themselves, though they could be manageable, but it’s the lack of sufficient electrical distribution infrastructure in the region that’s holding back investment.
“The industry’s biggest struggle today is with government red tape in getting more electricity supply into Essex County,” says Chibante. “We need the government to start building the infrastructure we need here.”
There are a lot of local people working hard on this problem, and he hopes the government will soon act. If the power were available, he’d quickly move into year-round production by adding lights.
Many of the new U.S. projects are year-round facilities with lights, and Canadian growers need to be competitive.
He’s worried the region is already losing investment to neighbouring states that can meet the electricity needs and at cheaper rates. Michigan and Ohio are eagerly encouraging new greenhouse vegetable projects.
“This is their window of opportunity. They’re very accommodating in welcoming investment from here. They’re good at clearing red tape and doing whatever they can to attract new business.”
The good news, he adds, is that local government officials are onside with area growers, and are urging the province to act on the infrastructure shortfall. “They recognize the economic impact we have on this area.”
But if the Ontario government appreciates the industry’s impact, “they’re certainly not acting fast enough to get the infrastructure in place. My hope is that our provincial government will read this, see the urgency in it, and act on bringing electricity to our area to keep our market leading and thriving in the North America before it’s too late.”
The Essex greenhouse sector is already home to North America’s largest concentration of greenhouse vegetable production.
“This region is the best in the world to build greenhouses,” says Chibante. “We have high light levels, we have cold winters to help keep bug and disease pressures in check, we have the expertise and the experience, we have the service companies and suppliers, and we have high quality and large quantities of water available.
“Once sufficient electricity capacity is brought into the area, the industry will grow at a significant rate.”
And Golden Acre Farms, no doubt, will be among the first to expand.