Automation and horticulture careers

By Daniel Fuller

Automation can give your business the competitive advantage you need to dominate your competition. When you’re automating intelligently, you increase efficiency, lower costs, and get fewer headaches because everything runs smoothly.

The first question you’ll want to ask is “can we trust machines with our business?”, to which I would reply “can we trust staff with our business?”

When we have the right staff, they help us thrive, but the problem is finding staff, and in a post-covid world that’s harder than ever to do. We should be utilising our staff in the most important positions, instead of having them perform mundane repetitive tasks that can easily be automated.

How much would you love to slow the churn of workers who constantly call in sick, underperform, or simply stop showing up one day, and focus on the core group of good workers to ensure they stick around for the long term.

Automation is happening, whether you like it or not. And it’s not just happening in horticulture; there will be many jobs lost across all industries. People kicked up a massive stink when self-serve checkouts appeared in grocery stores, but now most of us realise how much easier it is to scan our items and bag them ourselves. We’ll never go back to a time when we had no choice but to wait in line for somebody to serve us personally.

I interviewed Phil Esterman for a podcast episode about Husqvarna’s Automower, and he raised a number of interesting points. Firstly, the technology is not yet ready for contractors to carry their own automated mowers and drop them off at clients’ properties. Presently, it’s more about getting a commission from introducing clients to the Automower, who each have their own machine(s).

This works perfectly for horticulturists who prefer to work on the finer details, such as feeding, pruning, and pest management, but would prefer not to employ staff to do the mowing.

Automated mowers can also increase safety for operators and the public. As a maintenance gardener myself, I know how steep some of the hills are that we’re expected to ride-on mow, and I’ve seen videos of what can happen when the operator loses control. Whereas a ride-on mower can lose balance quite easily, an automated mower has a low centre of gravity which helps it stay the right way up. The algorithm also will not allow the mower to leave the designated area which it’s capable of mowing.

Robots don’t take risks as humans do.

We’re still a long way off being able to automate most tasks in the landscape space because of how varied the work is. Don’t expect to see robots pruning the hedges at your local park any time soon, however, a robot called BOMA can repetitively prune hedges into a ball or cube shape. While this machine isn’t much use in a landscape setting, it’s incredibly useful in a nursery environment where you might have hundreds of box hedges that need regular pruning to stay the same size.

Production and retail nurseries alike can benefit from automation, especially if you’re pumping out a lot of plants. You’re now able to automate propagation, potting and repotting, labelling, irrigation, and climate control. There are now apps that can alert you when the fruit is ripe, or when pests and diseases are present, and other apps that can help you analyse data.

People working in admin, sales, accounting and other roles within the horticulture industry will also see the rise of automation. My accountant prefers for me to use Xero because it makes her job a lot easier. She’s not worried about automation taking part of her work, because she’s able to work at a higher level for her clients.

Every generation worries that technology has gone too far. It’s easy to sit still and hope that we never have to change, pretending that the future isn’t already on our doorstep. How nice it would be if the things that worked yesterday, worked just as well today.

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