On Saturday, July 15, two buses loaded with Cultivate’17 attendees headed north for the 2017 Nursery Learning Tour.
The first stop of the tour was Eagle Creek Wholesale in Mantua, Ohio, where owners Todd and Jill Stein showed the group around their 6-acre production greenhouse. Eagle Creek sells its plants to a diverse mix of garden centers, landscapers and farm markets, but its biggest customers are medium-sized grocery store chains in the Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus markets.
The company employs 16-18 core staff members year-round, and increases to 30-34 at its spring peak. However, it has increased production by investing in automation, like a transplanter that only runs for six weeks out of the year but earns its keep by allowing a 6-person team to fill 400 flats an hour. Todd says without it, he’d need triple the labor to do the same amount of work.
Since 2006, Eagle Creek has used a biomass boiler to heat the greenhouse. This reduced the company’s heating bill from $250,000 to $130,000. After originally using both manure and sawdust as fuel, Eagle Creek uses exclusively sawdust bought from a local pallet producer as fuel for the boiler, and Todd ran through the process and challenges – which mainly involve keeping the boiler room clean.
“The only bad thing about sawdust is the mess,” he says.
The heat can go either to the plant’s roots or the greenhouse’s air, depending on what the crop needs, Jill says.
The tour group also visited the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s Wooster location. OARDC is the research arm of Ohio State University's College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. Attendees toured the trial greenhouses, where students were conducting drought tests that simulate real-world conditions of a typical consumer’s care: letting plants wilt, then watering, then wilt and water again and repeat, while checking to see if a bacterial strain improved the plants’ response.
The group also learned about efforts to develop plants that can produce rubber, potentially reducing the U.S.'s dependence on the largely imported material. Next, the bus tour group headed out into the field to see a demonstration of the Intelligent Sprayer. Dr. Heping Zhu spoke to the assembled crowd about the USDA-ARS research project. The smart sprayer uses a laser sensor to see breaks between plants and automatically turn on and off accordingly. This results in much less wasted pesticide. Dr. Zhu says it can reduce pesticide use by 40-70 percent. The group saw the prototype in action not only on a new tractor, but also retrofitted onto a 40-year old orchard sprayer.
After giving the attendees a chance to see the sprayer firsthand, USDA’s Matthew Wallhead demonstrated how nursery growers can use drones to scout for pests (top photo). The drones follow a preset flight plan to scan the nursery, taking extremely high-resolution photos. Those photos are then analyzed by software that searches for abnormalities that may be signs of an infestation. Wallhead said that some drones have been outfitted with the capability to dispense treatments, though OARDC has not yet had the opportunity to test that. Wallhead also answered many questions about the process to achieve authorization to fly a drone, its viability as a scouting strategy, and the technology’s other possibilities.