Planning a Hydroponic Farm: The Importance of Workflow
Over my almost 40 years in the industry, I’ve worked with countless new growers and planned many new farms.
Through all these projects and conversations, there is one crucial area that goes consistently underappreciated by folks who are new to the industry: Optimizing workflow.
It’s not that new growers are careless, it’s usually just an example of missing the forest for the trees. It’s all too easy to simply think of installing various operational components as a checklist that can be tackled in any order. But in reality the layout of a farm needs to be designed intentionally and harmoniously.
Layout and workflow have huge implications for everything you do.
If a farm is not designed with effective workflow in mind, they risk a loss of efficiency, workplace danger, poor food safety, and more. It’s not a complicated concept, in fact it’s a very consistent lightbulb moment for growers when they finally grasp the importance of thoughtful layout design. In this article, I’m going to unpack the concept a bit more, stress why it is so important, and share a few tips for new growers to keep in mind.
What is hydroponic workflow?
When we talk about workflow, we are talking about the way a farming operation is physically laid out, and the way the various portions of the operation must interact with each other. What we’re talking about: Is your germination and propagation area relatively close to your main growing area, or are you introducing wear and tear by transporting seedlings unnecessarily far before planting them? Is your packing area adjacent to your loading and shipping area? Where should the cooler be located? Are you moving back and forth through your greenhouse to carry pallets of packaged products where they need to be?
Every single plant that you grow and sell will follow the exact same life cycle, without variance, from the cradle to the grave. A really basic version is this: Seeding, germination, growing, harvesting, packaging, and shipping. That doesn’t just refer to stages of plant development; in Controlled Environment Ag, this usually refers to different tasks that need to be done in different places throughout your farm. There are other predictable things that will always be part of your workflow, like examining crops, implementing pest control, and cleaning equipment. Optimizing your workflow is all about making sure the layout of those spaces make sense, so that the transition from one phase to another is as efficient as possible.
Why is it important to optimize workflow?
So let’s talk about why this matters.
After all, there can sometimes be other constraints to keep in mind. Maybe some of your facilities are already built. Maybe you have a unique site that does not allow for best practices.
But still, as much as possible, there are some very good reasons why this subject is worth taking seriously.
- Prevent Loss of Efficiency
A poor workflow can cause workers to have to cover an unnecessary amount of space to do regular tasks. If related tasks are stationed on opposite ends of the operation, a worker may find themselves going back and forth, wasting time and creating inefficiency. This becomes a compounding problem the larger a farm is. Additionally, extra movement through a central area can be disruptive to work happening in that area.
- Prevent Workplace Danger
The more people you have going back and forth through each others’ areas, the greater risk of accident and injury. This can be the case when manually moving NFT channels around, and much more so if you end up needing to regularly move a forklift or other transport devices through heavily trafficked pathways.
- Promote Food Safety
Controlled Environment Agriculture is a very simple concept. Plants thrive when we give them an optimized environment. Unnecessary traffic flowing through a growing area undermines that principle, and unnecessary traffic also increases the risk of cross contamination.
What do new growers need to keep in mind?
Here’s a few things I would recommend that new or aspiring growers take to heart. First off, by thinking about this at all, you are already on the right path. Simply being mindful of this can take you far.
However, second, I strongly recommend making sure that you have an experienced consultant with you from the very beginning. No matter if you’re doing a new build or optimizing an existing one. This level of planning is really like laying a foundation for a house. It’s essential to make sure it’s done correctly.
A third point is related to automation and sophistication. Human powered and automated processes can have slightly different optimization demands, but not necessarily contradictory.
If you’re thinking about having a tech-filled, automation-heavy farm, I would actually recommend starting more simply – without all the fancy tech. It’s a lower initial investment that will help you master the fundamentals, and you can always upgrade later. Many growers do this, and a consultant can help you make sure your farm is optimized to follow this path.
Fourth, you might be interested to know, this is really not a controversial topic. There are not competing schools of thought about what optimization principles are most important. Everyone I’ve talked to who has been in the industry for a while feels pretty much the same way. So, while this is an area to take seriously, it’s not an area you need to be stressed out about. As long as you’re in touch with an experienced consultant, it’s hard to go wrong.