Volume 1, Issue 1

Automation increases worker efficiency in greenhouses, nurseries

BILOXI, MS – A report published in the October 2008 issue of HortTechnology measures the socioeconomic impact of automation and mechanization on sales, employment, workers' earnings, safety and worker retention in nurseries and greenhouses.

The nursery and greenhouse industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of U.S. agriculture, and is inherently labor-intensive. According to study author Benedict Posadas, "the goals of this study were to develop a socioeconomic profile of horticulture workers and to evaluate the impact of automation on workers' employment, earnings, safety, skill levels, and retention rates."

Posadas and fellow researchers at Mississippi State and Auburn Universities noted that continuous improvements in the skills of the workforce and year-round availability of workers are necessary to sustain the robust growth of the nursery and greenhouse industries. "Many jobs in the industry require heavy lifting, exposure to chemicals and dust, and these jobs tend to be relatively low-paying. Many commercial operations employ immigrant laborers to meet their rising labor requirements. There is a need to increase the skill level of migrant workers, which will improve wages, recruitment, and job retention", researchers said.

The survey was conducted in 87 randomly selected nurseries and greenhouses in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana over a 16-month period. Results showed that nurseries and greenhouses that had higher sales levels also had higher levels of automation or mechanization.

Researchers also concluded that improvements in automation/mechanization did not necessarily lead to a reduction in the need for labor. Instead, when nurseries and greenhouses increased the use of automation, human labor became more efficient, and workers' earnings increased.

Automation and mechanization were not found to have an impact on the length of time it took to train workers, worker retention, or worker safety. In fact, the presence of automation and mechanization enables nursery and greenhouse owners to hire less-skilled workers. According to study authors, "improvements in automation or mechanization have significant implications on the skill levels of newly hired workers, but have a neutral effect on worker training, safety, and retention rates."

Posadas summarized, "Nursery and greenhouse growers can retain current workers by maintaining good working conditions, providing benefits, and improving worker productivity through the adoption of mechanized or automated production systems. We found that technology in nurseries and greenhouses did not displace any worker, but instead improved total workers' earnings. Improved automation or mechanization allowed nursery and greenhouse operators to pay workers higher wages."

The complete study and abstract are available on the American Society of Horticulture Science (ASHS) HortTechnology electronic journal website.