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Research Project: Sustainable Production and Pest Management Practices for Nursery, Greenhouse, and Protected Culture Crops

Location: Application Technology Research

Title: Overcoming the nursery industry labor shortage: a survey of strategies to adapt to a reduced workforce and automation and mechanization technology adoption levels

Author
item FULCHER, AMY - University Of Tennessee
item RIHN, ALICIA - University Of Tennessee
item WARNER, LAURA - University Of Tennessee
item LEBUDE, ANTHONY - North Carolina State University
item SCHEXNAYDER, SUSAN - University Of Tennessee
item Altland, James
item BAUMGARNER, NATALIE - University Of Tennessee
item MARBLE, CHRIS - University Of Florida
item NACKLEY, LLOYD - Oregon State University
item PALMA, MARCO - Texas A&M University
item VELANDIA, MARGARITA - University Of Tennessee
item Zhu, Heping
item GAN, HAO - University Of Tennessee
item Owen Jr, James - Jim

Submitted to: HortScience
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 8/31/2023
Publication Date: 11/20/2023
Citation: Fulcher, A., Rihn, A., Warner, L., Lebude, A., Schexnayder, S., Altland, J.E., Baumgarner, N., Marble, C., Nackley, L., Palma, M., Velandia, M., Zhu, H., Gan, H., Owen Jr, J.S. 2023. Overcoming the nursery industry labor shortage: a survey of strategies to adapt to a reduced workforce and automation and mechanization technology adoption levels. HortScience. https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI17230-23.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI17230-23

Interpretive Summary: Agricultural businesses have traditionally depended on manual labor, and the specialty crops sector is particularly reliant on workers to perform production tasks. The nursery industry’s heavy reliance on manual labor coupled with the time-sensitive nature of many production tasks makes this segment of specialty crops particularly vulnerable to wage increases and labor scarcity. Due to the nature of nursery production and its inherent reliance on a scarce and unreliable manual labor workforce, a transdisciplinary group of research and extension professionals undertook a national nursery survey with the objectives of 1) identifying the strategies currently in use to address the labor shortage, 2) evaluating current adoption of ANTs and the level to which each production task is automated, 3) assessing the perceived outcome and perceived helpfulness of automating various nursery tasks, and elucidating relationship between helpfulness and perceived barriers to adoption, potential outcomes, and nursery demographic characteristics. The data were collected using a mixed-mode survey, i.e., paper and electronic survey versions, to maximize participation. Survey responses revealed that nurseries were undertaking strategies that aimed to improve production efficiency, better recruit and retain employees, and secure other sources of labor to overcome this shortage. Decision-makers identified benefits from adopting automated, semi-automated, and mechanized nursery technologies (ANTs) that included increasing efficiency performance, solving labor issues, increasing return on investment (ROI), and improving product quality. For each of the unique production tasks assessed in the survey, automation was perceived as helping mitigate the labor shortage. This article explores linkages between nursery characteristics and ANT adoption as well as highlights research and extension programming initiatives that are needed to help growers make informed decisions regarding adopting automation.

Technical Abstract: U.S. nurseries are experiencing a workforce shortage that is expected to intensify. In 2021, a mixed-mode survey of decision-makers representing the U.S. nursery industry was conducted. The survey assessed practices utilized in 2020 to elicit a better understanding of nursery approaches to the challenges presented by persistent labor scarcity. We compare our results to survey data collected approximately 15 years prior at container nurseries. Survey responses revealed that nurseries were undertaking strategies that aimed to improve production efficiency, better recruit and retain employees, and secure other sources of labor to overcome this shortage. Specifically, more than 65% of surveyed U.S. nurseries increased worker wages and more than 55% of respondents adopted automation to address the labor shortage. Strategies in use by =23% of respondents may limit future growth or jeopardize long-term nursery survival. These include diversifying tasks of current employees, reducing production of labor-intensive plants, or delaying expansion plans. Survey results suggested that production tasks excluding irrigation were on average 34% automated or mechanized at container and field nurseries, an increase over 16% since the prior survey. Decision-makers identified benefits from adopting automated, semi-automated, and mechanized nursery technologies (ANTs) that included increasing efficiency performance, solving labor issues, increasing return on investment (ROI), and improving product quality. For each of the unique production tasks assessed in the survey, automation was perceived as helping mitigate the labor shortage. Plant handling, the many tasks that embody plant transport, as well as pest scouting and spraying, inventory management, pruning and labeling were identified as some of the tasks that would most benefit from automation, although there were differences between small- and large-sized nurseries and predominately container versus predominately field nurseries. Newly developed or yet-to-be developed ANTs that decision-makers perceive as being helpful were reported. This article explores linkages between nursery characteristics and ANT adoption as well as highlights research and extension programming initiatives that are needed to help growers make informed decisions regarding adopting automation.