Takao Nursery in Fresno, California, is known for thinking outside the box. The third-generation family-owned business has survived more than 50 years by shifting when it sees an opportunity. The propagation specialists focus on efficiency and quality in all aspects of their organization.
The nursery currently propagates drought-tolerant plants and California natives, which it sells to small local and large national growers. They value their employees tremendously but finding enough quality employees has been challenging.
The minimum wage will soon raise to $15/hour in California, pulling other non-minimum wage earners up with it. Company president and second-generation owner Danny Takao expects an additional 25% for taxes and workman’s comp on top of that. The increased cost of labor is the biggest reason Takao and other growers have been investing in automation -- to depend more on the machines to do the work.
“Everyone is under a lot of pressure to try to reduce cost of moving the plants and handling them,” Takao said.
The key is to move the plants around, not the people. That’s how the “Plants to the People” initiative began. Takao Nursery has been working with Proptek, a propagation technology company that has designed trays that can be picked up with a forklift. The trays can easily be moved around the nursery using fork attachments. Takao uses forks from AgriNomix, an Ohio company that designs forks and other attachments for horticultural automation.
“The whole concept is trying to bring the plant material to the people who stay in one stationary central area, so you don’t have them walking around and wasting time,” Takao said.
Takao Nursery can use one person to bring a load of plants for sorting or shipping at one time. After the dropoff at the central area, the forklift operator can return to the field or greenhouses to retrieve another load of plants.
Takao is optimistic that the Plants to the People idea will help make his nursery more profitable through cost reduction. He’s seen a similar plan in action before.
“When I went to Germany this winter, everybody over there uses the forks,” he said. “Once you’re set up with the forks, the same movement of plants in California would have taken 5 guys to do. To have 1-2 guys on forklifts doing the job, they’ve saved the cost on hiring 3 other employees.”
The design of Proptek's injection-molded trays enable compatibility with automation solutions. They have a lip so the forklifts can pick them up along the edges (see video to see the system in action). Takao said the trays are solidly-made, and expects them to last about 15 years.
Takao Nursery grows its plants in Ellepots, which are made in-house using only bagged peat and perlite shipped straight from the distributor. The Proptek trays are designed to work with the Ellepots. When they are set on the ground, the actual Ellepot in the tray is not touching the ground. This means that the plants’ roots are continually air pruned as they grow.
Takao is also working with horticultural supplier the Blackmore Company to acquire metal racks that provide support for lighter-material thermoformed trays. Propagation trays come in many different configurations and some of the smaller trays are too flexible to be moved via forklift. So Takao is working with Blackmore to design a rack that can be forklifted but is still light and affordable for growers.
Another reason Takao is pushing for the rack and tray system is the onslaught of the disease Phytophthora ramorum in California. Takao Nursery participates in The National Ornamentals Research Site at Dominican University of California’s (NORS-DUC) P. ramorum testing and no positive samples have been found at its site. But the disease often affects propagation nurseries because any trays or plants that sit on the ground are at risk of infection because P. ramorum moves through water. By putting plants on racks and elevating them off the ground, the chances of getting contaminated is minimized. The trays can be placed on metal racks and then forklifted to wherever they’re needed in the nursery or greenhouses. Plus, metal racks are easily sanitized.
Takao has been working on the Plants to the People concept with Proptek and the Blackmore Company for about two years, but has begun launching the plan to other nurseries in the last 6-8 months. He urges growers to keep an open mind.
“We’re trying to give growers options for what they can do to save on labor costs that’s not going to cost an arm and a leg to implement,” he said. “We’re offering one system to handle the Ellepots from the time you stick the cuttings to the time they get shipped.”