Prioritize Your Goals When Upgrading Your Greenhouse
The decision to upgrade your greenhouse is a big one. Where do you start? Who do you hire? How soon will the improvements lead to cost savings? Each greenhouse operation has its own needs based on its size, the crops grown and where it is located, but the process of identifying those needs is the same.
1. Start with the end goals. Do you want to expand capacity or grow a new crop that requires a different facility than what you have? Is your goal to increase employee safety and productivity by reducing manual labor and adding automation? Do you need improvements in energy efficiency and/or want to introduce more sustainable systems such as rainwater conservation or closed-loop irrigation? If crop quality is a concern, identify what improvements you need, such as lighting, bench heating, watering systems, greenhouse glazing or environmental controls.
While energy efficiency might be a big concern in a New England greenhouse, or water conservation in a California facility, the main goal is durability for Ricky Becnel, owner of Saxon Becnel & Sons, which has been growing citrus trees for six generations. Comprised of 100 acres total and 40 acres under greenhouse poly, Becnel’s is based in Belle Chasse, LA, and Orange, TX, so structure strength is the main consideration. The Louisiana operation was seriously damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and while they initially rebuilt using other companies, they chose Stuppy Greenhouse in 2011 for the sturdiness of its structures.
“Both our locations are in hurricane zones, and in Texas we get tremendous ice storms, as well,” Becnel says. “Our houses have been tested and proven time and again, not only with hurricane-force 120-mph winds, but with 3” – 4” thick ice. We saw metal buildings come down with the same ice, and our greenhouses didn’t have a bent pipe. The old saying of ‘pay me now or pay me later’ is so true. We didn’t buy the cheapest greenhouses, but if we lost our crop any of those times, we would have lost far more.”
2. Find a partner. There is going to be a lot you don’t know about greenhouse construction. So, it’s essential you find a company you trust to be knowledgeable, experienced and at your side through the entire process. Their team can help the entire process, from construction, navigating building codes and permitting, irrigation, heating and lighting systems, and provide ideas and solutions to pain points in your operation. They should be able to provide answers to all of your questions and be a resource for supporting your greenhouse system with parts and expertise after it is built.
Becnel says a true partner relationship goes both ways. “We like to have wide gutters in our greenhouses, because we don’t like downspouts,” he says. “So we asked Stuppy to modify those for us. Any time we make a suggestion, Joel Bartel, our rep, takes it back to the engineers, and they always listen to what I need and make suggestions. I like that they listen to customers who are actually using their products.”
“Working with Stuppy gives us peace of mind. It’s like purchasing an insurance policy.”
—Ricky Becnel, owner, Becnel & Sons
3. Take a deep dive into your processes and your costs. You may not be able to fix everything by building a new facility, but if every problem area is upfront and on paper, your contractor may find ways to incorporate solutions that you haven’t thought of. Where are areas of congestion? Would a rolling bench system work better? What about radiant versus ambient heat? Does your current greenhouse allow staging of light and ventilation? This is the time to get everything out there so solutions can be installed that work seamlessly within the new structure.
Once you have a plan and an estimate, you can calculate the return on investment. Determine how much money the upgrade will save you per year (you will know this by taking the deep dive into the processes and costs in Step 2) and calculate how many years it will take to equal the total cost of the project. Improvements such as crop quality or improved worker satisfaction are equally important, but harder to quantify.
4. Plan ahead. Don’t wait for a crisis to have an upgrade plan in place. If you see the need now—in reduced efficiency, outdated controls systems, leaks in the gutters, it isn’t “if I need to upgrade,” it’s “when should I upgrade.” Planning now—even if you don’t plan to build for another two or three years—allows you to carefully make all the major decisions. Choose the right time for construction and start budgeting accordingly.
It can seem to be a daunting process, but if done right, upgrades will pay off in the end. Becnel says the payoff for him is that he can sleep at night. Because of interstate regulations for pest control, his citrus trees must be sealed off behind insect screening and plastic to be certified for out-of-state sales..
“If you lose poly, that’s a breach, and those trees can’t be shipped anywhere but in-state, so that’s a big loss for us,” Becnel says. “Structural integrity is vital to us, so quality is everything. Working with Stuppy gives us peace of mind. It’s like purchasing an insurance policy—we’re living proof.”
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