2017 Top 100 Growers: Immigration, technology top concerns

I was surprised when I read Laura Drotleff’s editorial in the 2017 Top 100 Growers edition of Greenhouse Grower magazine this month. In it, she mentioned the editorial board of the horticulture trade publication wondered if they should change the way they do things.

For more than 30 years, Greenhouse Grower has ranked its Top 100 Growers by environmentally controlled square footage. Drotleff said criticisms of their rankings range from ignoring nurseries and outdoor production to not basing their survey on sales or profit.

Lost in those criticisms is the fact the Top 100 Growers is a voluntary survey that extends beyond the rankings itself. “The list” is a fun piece of trivia. The other data they receive from the growers provides the weight to the survey.

When you look outside the list in the magazine or online, you’ll find the analysis, the charts, the graphs and the comments from the Top 100 Growers. Because the list is based on square footage, the rankings not only include the creme de la creme of finished growers, but also young plant growers, contract growers, perennial growers and other specialty growers. (We know this for a fact because our customers who are on the list comprise all of these segments.)

That means the other data collected from the survey gives a window into the industry as a whole instead of only hearing from the most profitable finished growers with the highest sales numbers.

That said, the data that came from this year’s Top 100 Growers survey showed some interesting perspective on what’s going on in the industry. As we’ve surmised in recent blog posts, immigration and labor seem to be the largest concern this year. Also, investing in new technology is still high on the priority list.

Greenhouse Grower editorial: Top 100 Behind the Scenes: How (and Why) We Do It

Let’s take a more in-depth look at some of the data from the Greenhouse Grower 2017 Top 100 Growers survey:

Top 100 Growers Still Looking To Invest In Software

Last year, Greenhouse Grower asked its Top 100 Growers: “If you are investing in technology this year, which technologies are you buying?” A surprising 70 percent of respondents said computer software systems and another 48 percent said computer hardware.

Top 100 Growers 2017 chart

Source: Greenhouse Grower magazine

This year, the numbers are smaller, but the question was different too — and so were the answers. This year, the poll question was “Which of the following areas do you plan to invest in most in 2017?” Only 45 percent selected “computer software.”

Last year, there were seven choices of technology the growers could select. This year, there were 13 choices and they were more broad since they weren’t asking specifically about technology. In fact, “computer software” and “technology” were separate answers.

I asked Drotleff, and she agreed with me that part of the difference between the software statistics was the differences in the questions and answers. It also stands to reason that some of those growers actually invested in a software system in 2016, so they wouldn’t have to purchase another one this year.

Also, the 17 percent of respondents who selected “technology” this year may realize they need something, but not quite sure what yet. A software system is still technology, and a grower may not realize that’s exactly what they’re looking for, so they go with the generic answer.

That said, software was still the No. 2 thing that the Top 100 Growers are looking to invest in. (Production automation was No. 1 at 62 percent.) And like we said last year, this is a good thing — not just because our name is Practical Software Solutions. We are excited the horticulture industry is finally taking their software seriously as a technology that deserves investment.

Labor and immigration top the concerns for the Top 100 Growers

The last year has been a roller coaster ride for the horticulture industry as it pertains to labor. However, the numbers and the comments from the Top 100 Growers survey paint an interesting picture of how labor and immigration reform are affecting the industry.

Top 100 Growers 2017 automation

Upgraded automation is one of the top things the 2017 Top 100 Growers are looking to invest in

For instance, 89 percent of the respondents are concerned about labor costs, but only 84 percent of them said their organization uses the H-2A guest worker program. Drotleff said she was surprised by the number of large growers who do not use  H-2A.

“You’d think that the larger growers would be using this program, as they have the finances to do it,” she said in an e-mail. “But even for the Top 100 Growers, it’s too cost-prohibitive and risky, and the growers say the guest worker programs need to be reformed to be more functional and useful.”

However, as Drotleff pointed out in the article, labor shortages may force growers’ hands in using guest worker programs anyway. And it’s not just about immigration reform. Just like in many other industries that require skilled labor, the horticulture industry is hurting.

From reduced numbers of horticulture graduates, to not finding graduates actually pursuing a career in growing to other less tangible statistics (young growers who refuse to put in their dues through hard work in non-ideal locations), Drotleff said “the struggle is real” to find qualified young growers.

Is it any wonder that 78 percent of the Top 100 Growers responded they are looking to invest in technology and equipment upgrades. The goal is to become more automated and less reliant on labor.

“As labor becomes more expensive and limited, we will need to invest in automation to keep up with what is expected of us by our customers,” said Art VanWingerden of Metrolina Greenhouses.

‘Be prepared’ still seems the best advice for Top 100 Growers

Throughout the legislative changes during the past year, AmericanHort associates have warned members to “be prepared” for anything. However, it does still seem that many in the industry react instead of prepare, as noted by the large number of the Top 100 Growers who are investing in “automated sticking lines, software that includes ERP systems, conveyors, upgraded soil mixing equipment and pot and tray fillers” to bolster automation.

With overtime rules, minimum wage, immigration reform and other HR-related issues still up in the air, we are encouraging growers to make sure they are prepared for sudden changes instead of reacting to these issues. One innocent mistake could bring the full force of the federal government down on an greenhouse grower.

As much as we’re pleased the Top 100 Growers are looking at software systems like Grower Vertical, we want to remind them to make sure they’re also looking at a solid HR software solution, like Sage HRMS. By automating the HR department too, greenhouse growers can go about their daily business without worrying about the constant legislative changes.

While we may not be able to comment on automated sticking lines and upgraded soil mixing equipment, we can tell the Top 100 Growers to make sure you invest in software just as you would any other major addition to your operation: Do your research and find the right match for your company.

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