Sometimes You Buy All the Equipment And Realize Doing It By Hand Makes You More Money

Nov 20 2013

We all want to be efficient. You go to trade shows, you see videos online, and they all tell you “use this machine” or this gadget,and you’ll get more done in less time. In only took me 40 years to learn…It doesn’t matter how much money I spent to become more efficient. All that mattered was at the end of the day and all the costs were added up, did I really make more money.

I’ll give a perfect example. When we grow annuals we take flats of 288 plants and repot them into 4″ containers. We can do roughly 7,000 a day by hand with our crew if everything is planned out. Our business has always planned to get a potting machine that can do almost 30,0000 in that same amount of time. The cost of that machine is roughly 35K to $50K depending on hoppers and conveyor belts. When you look on the surface it would seem obvious that you would want to be produce over four times the planting you are achieving now. But I decided we would lose money if we became more “productive”.

The reason is in the details. I know I can beat the machine using a horse and wagon strategy (minus the horse). First of all, the machine should easily get 10 years out of it so we have to be $3500 more productive each spring. Also, a machine is only as productive as the people feeding the ingredients and moving away the final results. I figured out that in order to plant that many plants we would have to have twice as many people working, doubling the cost of the staff. It is going to kick out 4 times as many plants and it takes a lot of people on the line feeding soil, sticking plants, and carting them away. I’m not sure we could even keep up with double. It could start looking like a I LOVE LUCY episode. Finally, the setup is so large I can’t put the potting machine in the greenhouse. It would have to have it’s own place and the plants will have to be transported. All in all, I can pay A LOT of people with the extra $3500 and the cost of extra labor to man the machine. Our potting season is 8 weeks and that $3500 would get one more potter for that period.

When I calculate costs as a grower or producer of product, the most important cost to count is what I call touches. Every time someone has to touch, move, or count that product it costs money. Watering cost money. Moving from A to B costs money. I hate shopping in the self serve checkout at a grocery store because I know that I should be getting money back because I am saving them touches. I loaded the cart, I took it out of the cart to scan it, I picked it up off the belt and put it back in my cart, then I took it out of my cart and put it in my car. I touched the damn case of Diet Coke four times and not one person from the store lifted a finger. I have saved them money through saving them touches. Now back to my story. If I were to get this planter I would have to touch that plant twice. But here’s the kicker, I would have to move it outside. We plant in February in freezing temperatures. I can’ve move them outside. In short, I would have to have a facility that I can pot and then move them through a warm tunnel into their final greenhouse. Either through carts or conveyor belt. We don’t have that setup. Even if we did I’m pretty sure they can’t beat the setup I came up with.

We figured out what the most comfortable level to pot at for the average person that works in production. We then had a large flat topped wagon made that can easily roll up and down the greenhouse. We also converted from bales of soil to loose bags that are big but not too heavy for young ladies to lift and pour out on the table/wagon. The bales were too heavy and had to be worked up until they were loose. Bulk soil got too much weed seed in it. We figured out how many bags we used for every ten feet of greenhouse space and set them on the floor every ten feet or so. The product crew then hand fills, pots and sets the plant on the table or ground right next to where they are planting. The cart moves along so we are potting right next to where the plants are going. Very little steps, and very efficient. I am positive that we are more efficient at getting a potted plant into its growing location than a big expensive machine given the existing infrastructure we have to work with. A super basic system of a cheap wagon and good planning beats the big machine.

My Dad always seem to doubt my reasoning until he went down to Florida to see one of the biggest growers and their operation. What did he find? The same setup. Teams of people potting at their location vs potting with a big machine and then moving the plants into their home. They analyzed the process as well and realized that they were more productive and made more money but staying close to the final location. After three years of this method we all agreed we had the right method so we bought a potting machine.

Bought a potting machine? I thought you said it was less efficient? It IS when you use it to pot. Now that we are efficient at potting I know realize if we work out a good process, we can simply fill the pots with soil using the Big Machine and rack them. Move racks full of thousands of pots and put them in the areas where you are going to pot later. This can be done any time. It doesn’t have to be done same day. You can do it during the slow months. On rain days. Any downtime. You can fill pots when you can make money doing other things. We also can avoid the cold weather because when we move the pots they don’t have plants in them. Now we’ve increased the filling of pots and reduced the cost by doing it during times when we aren’t pressed. Now we can pot two or three times as many pots when it go time for planting.

While I write the story as if I knew this all along, I spent a lot of money and time doing it wrong. I did what people told me would make us more money…until it didn’t. We became more profitable through trial and error, paying attention, and most importantly, asking the employees what they thought I could do or buy that would make them plant more plants. And it quickly worked slowly over 15 years.

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Outsmarting the Dumb, Outworking the Smart

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  1. Paul

    The best advice I ever got was…”you have to pay for a lesson”. It really echoes there is no free lunch and I think this story epitomizes that.

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