Planning should be your first step in developing a framework for the orderly construction of a greenhouse or nursery operation. The facilities master plan looks at topography and drainage, the location of buildings and outdoor growing areas, parking for customers and staff, access for vehicles and equipment, and the utilities including water supply and electricity,
Over the years, I have seen many greenhouse operations get started, usually with a couple of hoophouses. With good management and quality plants, these businesses expand rapidly. Most start out filling a local need but some grow to supply a larger market with wholesale quantities or specialty plants. Frequently, this expansion involves very little planning. Additional structures are added where they are easiest to build without regard to how materials will flow or how the operation, if it continues to expand, will look in five or ten years. Without planning, it then becomes difficult to have efficiency of operation.
Review your business plan
The facilities master plan must be based on a sound business plan. What are the short and long-range goals of your business and how will expansion help you achieve these?
Any renovation or expansion should be set by the ability of the business to carry the cost. Your business plan and master facilities plan should complement each other by enhancing efficiencies and reducing costs.
Based on the goals and objectives of your business, you should establish a list of facilities requirements and a timetable for achievement. The list should what you see as to:
- The amount of greenhouse expansion.
- The amount of mechanization or automation you desire.
- Shipping methods.
- Type of support facilities.
- What environmental concerns you will address.
Evaluate the alternatives for each of the above. How will these impact the cost of construction and operation? For example, the more you automate, the lower your labor costs, but the higher your construction costs.
Start the master plan with a topographic surveyed map of existing facilities. This survey should show:
- Land elevations in one or two foot intervals.
- Road access, utilities and required setback distances.
- Soil types, ponds, streams, wetlands and the flow of runoff.
- Property lines, neighboring structures and anything else that can affect your expansion.
Existing structures should be evaluated based on functional requirements and cost. Existing buildings that are not very functional or obsolete may hinder development of an efficient operation.
Plan your development
In developing the master plan, it is best to plan on paper, looking at several alternative layouts. The master plan starts with a survey of existing facilities, evaluates the benefits and constraints of the site and establishes how renovations should be made and where new facilities should be built.
Because materials handling is the largest cost in most greenhouse operations, consideration should be given to placement of new structures and their relation to the headhouse. The type of plant moving system selected is important in relation to the plants grown, distance moved and elevation differences. Conveyors, carts and pallet trays have advantages and disadvantages that you must evaluate.
The size of individual growing units (greenhouses or number of bays of a gutter-connected house) should be based on the quantity of plants you grow and the environment they require. Individual hoop-houses may work well for an operation growing specialty plants that require different temperatures, but larger, gutter-connected greenhouses are generally more efficient for wholesale operations.
Is a headhouse in your plan?
If the operation will have more than a couple of greenhouses, a headhouse should be a key part of the plan. Besides providing an area for potting, transplanting and shipping, the headhouse is an excellent place for the support facilities needed to run an efficient business. It can also serve to tie the greenhouses together by providing access without having to go outside, an advantage during inclement weather.
Other functional parts to consider include:
- Storage. Both inside and outside for materials, supplies, equipment and vehicles.
- Heating plant. A central heating plant may be desirable in larger facilities to reduce operating and maintenance costs. The fuel storage should be nearby.
- Access. Driveways to all buildings should be provided for emergency use. Location and slope are important.
- Maintenance shop. An area or building for storage of tools and equipment repair should be provided.
- Drainage. A drainage system that will handle the large amounts of water that will come off your greenhouses and driveways is needed. You may have to construct a sedimentation pond.
A master plan can also help in obtaining zoning and wetlands permits. You should submit it with the initial phase. This then becomes part of the approval process. If commission membership and sentiment change, the expansion phases are already on file. This has been important for several growers in Connecticut who were challenged as expansion progressed.
John W. Bartok, Jr., Extension Professor Emeritus and Agricultural Engineer, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Connecticut, Storrs CT – Updated 2013.