It’s no small thing. Greenhouse structures, obviously, are not a minor investment. So when it comes to shopping for a new structure, the question in the forefront of a grower’s mind is usually, “How am I going to get the best return for my investment. The answer to that question for many growers today is customization, according to manufacturers.
“We have found that our customers all want something different” said John Pound of Agra Tech, Inc. “If they need something tweaked a little bit we can just take all the standard components and make a couple of parts different. We are still manufacturing in volume, but we’re manufacturing some parts specifically.”
“We try to direct customers to a standard product first and see if they fit one of the standard products and see if one of those work best for them. What we find is that they normally fit into a standard product, but may need to have some specialized segments or parts manufactured for them to make it work perfectly for them. I used to think we were a factory, and we made greenhouses this way. Now we are much more of a service company and we generally manufacture more specifically for our customer. There is always something specific for our customer on each project and no one seems to fit into a standard mold anymore.”
The reason a customized system can boost a grower’s bottom line over the long haul, is obvious, manufacturers say: It can streamline an overall greenhouse operation.
“They reason they are seeing a return on their investment is because they are getting a much better fit,” said Pound. “The first thing we ask our customers is what crop are you doing? Then we build a bench to fit the crop and then build the greenhouse to fit the bench. Then we start working, in effect, with optimizing space: how many people are in the house and is it a high production house? Then we start determining how many people they need to have between those benches. It’s really a matter of fitting all the components that they are going to use into the house and into the system for them.”
For Rough Brothers Inc., matching a greenhouse design to a grower’s operation is a core mission.
“When we approach a project, we literally are not trying to sell anyone a standard house,” said Rich Reilly, President of Rough Brothers Inc. “We come in there saying, ‘What are your needs and how do you want the envelope to be shaped? What do you want to hang from it? How do you want to space the posts? How do you want to incorporate the systems? We are truly have an engineer-to-order or design-to-order philosophy when it comes to putting together a structure and systems.
“We incorporate modifications or design changes, or make a completely new designed approach, based on the desire and needs of the grower. Rather than fit them into a certain configuration or shape we are going to do it according to their needs. The grower saves money because they can configure how they deal with the logistics of the plant material, getting it in and out of the greenhouse, getting it placed on the benches or the floor. For example, there are a lot of times when you can make a house a wider span. What that means is that instead of two irrigation rooms, you have one. Or instead of two shade systems you have one. Or you want to have a separate compartment or separate environments because you have different crops next to each other so you want to have different environments next to each other. We are extremely flexible up front with the design and we try build in flexibility to the systems that we make so that someone can modify, change or adapt their growing operations or methods as they develop new systems or new approaches.”
Manufacturers like Stuppy Greenhouse Manufacturing Inc. are placing extra emphasis on service support before, during and after installation.
“We think service is critical,” said Linda Barnett of Stuppy. “We have eight territory sales managers who make on site visits both before during construction and afterward. They can call up the customers, see the site, follow-up and help them during the construction with things like going through the blue prints and I think that is critical to the customer’s connection to the company.
“Have you ever tried putting a barbecue grill together? Wouldn’t you have liked to have had someone there that knew what they were looking at. That’s the theory. There are a lot of parts and pieces and equipment to these complexes. For the novice it is a tremendous undertaking. A lot of the people investing in structures are new people coming into the industry. When they have a 40-foot tractor-trailer backing into their parking lot with 20-30,000 pounds of materials on it, it can be overwhelming. We take the novice and try to cover all of the points that are critical to the project and running it smoothly. For example, we help with how to receive these materials, how to inventory it, things to look for in dealing with the truck lines, how to properly store the material. It’s an educational process, and the customer — when they make that kind of investment — are entitled to the very best service.”
Recent trends in the structure industry include the increase popularity of open- and retractable-roof designs.
“The open roof has certainly been top of the list as far as innovation and inquiries, not necessarily the amount of sales, but definitely as far as inquiries go,” said DeCloet. “It is still fairly new in the market and it offers an interesting alternative for the growers. It’s somewhat more expensive but depending on the application, they can benefit from this depending on the type of crop or whether they have an area of retail they want to open up. An open roof system for a retail area gives you a much more natural climate, which is appealing to a customer. Certain crops like perennials in the tree seedling business they are looking very seriously at open roof structures to harden off their plants. Those are the main two areas.”
According to Richard Vollebregt of Cravo Equipment, Ltd., for many growers retractable systems are growing in demand due to their increase their profitability due to a grower’s increased ability to control the growing environment.
“One of the trends we see is that people growing outside appreciate the good things about growing outside, but they also understand the limitations of growing outside,” said Vollebregt. “When they think about covering those areas that are growing outside, what ends up happening is when they put up a conventional greenhouse over the outdoor area, they basically have changed their problem. They haven’t really eliminated the problems they have just changed the problems. Now they have protection against the rain and the cold and wind, but now they are struggling from the point of view that the plants have a tendency to stretch, have an acclamation problem because now the plants are soft. What we see is that people that have the outdoor area that want to improve the profitability and quality are going towards the retractable roofs. They are basically using the retractable roofs to eliminate the environmental limitations of growing outside, but they are able to avoid the complication. It’s kind of like getting the best of both worlds".
“There are two different angles to this,” said Richard Vollebregt of Cravo Equipment, Ltd. “One angle is most growers are growing in greenhouses but they also have outdoor production. The first question is how can they improve the profitability of their outdoor production because they are already growing but have no control over the environment. When they are growing outside obviously they are getting the quality of an outdoor growing plant since it is a hearty plant that’s tough. The problem is they have no control over the timing of when the crop is ready and they have no control over adverse conditions, which could decrease the quality of the outdoor plant, because they got too much rain or too much cold. Not only may the crop be delayed, but it also could be damaged from a late freeze or whatever.”
A retractable system is most effective when utilized with the most effective growing strategies, says Vollebregt.
“The concept has been around for 10 years,” said Vollebregt. “What was not clear until very recently were the strategies were how to take full advantage of it. We have developed new crop management strategies that allow growers to take full advantage of the outdoor environment, and the greenhouse environment. This has occurred in the last four months. I have developed a 12-page list of ways people can reduce chemical usage, reduce water usage, improve effectiveness of their fertilizers, reduce their labor cost, improve overall plant quality and help grow the crops so that they are ready when the demand is at its peak. “
Another emerging trend, according to Reilly, is that more growers have been going with taller structures than in the past.
“For new designs and structures we certainly see the gutter heights going higher and higher,” said Reilly. “Typical gutter heights are now 14, 16 or 18 feet high and they seem to be going up and not down. The reason for that is you create a better growing environment, and you have more flexibility in term of the type of equipment you put in overhead, whether its shade systems, boom systems or basking systems.
“We also see a lot of people that are looking at glass structures. There is greater degree of specialization of structures. It used to be glass or poly, now you have multiple types of structures that can hold multiple types of glass and you have an infinite number of structures that can hold poly, in terms of different configurations or widths, open roofs, closed roofs, ventilated roofs.”
While the current down national economy has adversely affected most greenhouse manufacturers, pricing has remained relatively stable over the past several years.
“There’s a lot of greenhouse manufacturers out there, and the pricing is very competitive.,” said DeCloet. “The pricing is actually determined more by the whole list of the competitors than it is by the economy itself, and even though the price of steel has gone up over the last year, the price of the structures has not increased proportionally.”
“In general business is more competitive. I think that is true for us, growers and retailers,” said Reilly. “Across the board the bar is being raised. I think the same economic pressures people see in other industries hit our industry as well.”
While overall sales of the structures themselves are down, many manufacturers report that they have seen increased profits in improvements and renovations.
“People are trying to be more efficient since the economy has declined,” said Pound. “We’re doing a lot or work for people who are improving their heating and cooling system, improving their controlling systems, improving their benching systems, or re-glazing their roofs so they get more light. Things that are helping them control their costs. For example, we are doing a lot of insect screening for customers right now, people are saying I don’t have as many chemicals available or I don’t want to use as many chemicals, they’re expensive.”
“A huge majority of the customers aren’t investing right now and business is pretty slow on our end. But we still have customers that are investing and those are customers that have an itch or a specialty use. We still have a viable business; it’s just that it is a little different. It’s not as good as it used to be, there’s no two ways about it, but we’re moving forward. We were up almost 10 percent last year and we are up 20 percent this year. So we’re feeling like we’re off the bottom and climbing back up, trending forward.”
“Absolutely, the low economy has affected our industry but it also has affected the country as a whole,” said Barnett. “I think people are concerned about what is in the future and our fall in very conservative paths. I think all of us are as consumers, period. I think the mortality rate on new business was high before 9-11, before the economy was not good. And I think the mortality rate is even higher now. So its important that if you are going to invest your money that you invest your money with a company that’s been around a long time and you feel for sure is going to be around a long time. I’ve been here 34 years, I have seen companies sold and I have had customers call me and say, ‘I need parts and this company’s gone.’ Typically the structure part and components aren’t interchangeable.”
By Josh Cole. As printed in Greenhouse Business March 2003 Issue
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Ingolia also has praise for Agra Tech's customer service and expertise. "From the beginning, James Roberts at ATI was our point person," she said. "He was amazing and was more than willing to help us through every aspect of the planning and construction. It was very helpful to be able to rely on James and tap into his extensive knowledge. We asked a lot of questions along the way and he was always there with the answers."
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