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decision makers

Family-run business in Ontario bets heavily on technology to build a long-term relationship with their major client, Home Depot

The series: We look at decision makers among Canada’s mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

A robot transports potted plants at Jeffery's Greenhouses in Jordan Station, Ont. The robots are part of an automation-upgrading process for this family-run business, founded in 1933 by Barbara Jeffery-Gibson’s grandparents.Moe Doiron

If you stop and smell the flowers at Jeffery’s Greenhouses plant No. 2 in this sweet bucolic heartland in the Niagara Peninsula, just be careful you don’t get in the way of the robots.

“We’ve got four of them. It was a substantial investment for us, but we’ve been extremely happy with them,” says Rodd Gibson, Jeffery’s general manager, who co-owns this 20.2-hectare farm and greenhouse with his wife, Barbara Jeffery-Gibson and other members of the Jeffery family.

“As far as we know, we’re the only people in Canada who have adopted them [the robots]. I call them by numbers, one to four, but the employees give them nicknames,” Mr. Gibson says.

The robots, acquired three years ago, systematically move around pots of plants and seedlings, getting them ready for shipment to Jeffery’s Greenhouses’ biggest customer, The Home Depot. If you buy your plants at any of the 55 Home Depots in southern Ontario, as well as many in Western New York state, it’s likely that they were handled by one of Jeffery’s robots here.

The robots are part of a massive continuing process of automation and upgrading for this family-run business, founded in 1933 by Ms. Jeffery-Gibson’s grandparents.

“We’re now in the third generation, and we’ve grown the size of the business to double the size of the previous generation,” Ms. Jeffery-Gibson says.

Jeffery’s Greenhouses has been supplying Home Depots since the mid-1990s, when the big box hardware company first came to Canada.

As producers of more than 1,200 varieties of annuals, spring baskets and mixed containers, the business is part of a growing trend to deploy more artificial intelligence in agriculture.

While they concentrate on using robots and advanced water retention methods that reuse water that would otherwise dribble away, other farmers in Canada and around the world are using AI and sensors for tasks including harvesting and picking, weed control, mowing and preparation for delivery.

It sounds like a natural evolution from farmers in overalls to robots on algorithms, but it’s a big move even for successful operations like this greenhouse to become more automated. To build a long-term relationship with a major client like Home Depot, the Jefferys had to make major decisions, investing in this second site, building a durable facility that can handle massive orders and betting heavily on technology.

An automated transplant machine plants seedlings.Moe Doiron

“As Home Depot grew, so did we. We had to build a second location to accommodate the business. We do all of our own seeding and propagation work at that [second] farm,” Mr. Gibson says.

The robots, called HV-100s, come from a Massachusetts company called Harvest Automation. Costing about US$25,000 each, they are squat little merchandise movers that look like distant cousins of R2D2, except they don’t have voices and are programmed to perform highly specific tasks, such as moving around planters.

The company says they were created not to take away workers’ jobs, but rather to perform more menial, boring tasks such as moving stuff around, “creating more capacity for human workers to focus on other tasks.”

Ms. Jeffery-Gibson, the sales manager, says that, “We have about 50 full-time staff and we double that number during the gardening season. We also have about 100 people working in Home Depot stores as merchandisers during gardening season.”

Technology is increasingly important for large-scale suppliers of plants, shrubs and trees to major retailers, says Mark Beaty, senior merchant for live goods at Home Depot Canada.

“We’re seeing greenhouses that use LED lighting, automated watering systems that spray the plants and shrink-wrap them before they go on the trucks. Some of those plants have to go long distances and these things make it easier,” he says.

Ms. Jeffery-Gibson and Mr. Gibson say that the robots are only part of their continuing investment in high-tech growing.

“We’re looking into a piece of technology from Europe that will help us propagate our cuttings. When the cuttings arrive to the greenhouse they are literally just a stem and two leaves,” Mr. Gibson says.

“What we’re looking at investing in will have sensors, cameras and a robotic arm. It will take the cuttings and put them in the pots. We do that by hand now, but it will be more efficient. We’re looking at adopting this technology for next season,” he says.

Already, one of their biggest investments aside from the robots has been to pave the entire greenhouse with concrete. While not particularly rustic, it’s spanking clean, and interestingly, it’s more environmentally friendly than growing plants in dirt,” Mr. Gibson says.

It enables the greenhouse to capture excess water and recycle and reuse it, rather than letting it run off, he explains.

“The old technology had planters on the floor and we would have to irrigate them through drip tubes. They would do a good job on the plants but they’re not very flexible,” he says.

“Before we had the concrete, we’d be tied to a certain footprint where we had irrigation set up. Now we can respace the pots wherever we’d like,” he adds. Which is one of the jobs the robots do.

Concrete floors are also necessary for the robots to roll along and move the planters. Replacing the soil is strictly for industrial-sized gardening, Ms. Jeffery-Gibson says.

“No, no – don’t pave your garden. This is strictly a greenhouse production method.”

Takeways from Jeffery’s Greenhouses

Barbara Jeffery-Gibson and Rodd Gibson have grown their 86-year-old family business substantially over the past quarter century. But investing in a business with products that must be grown can be, well, as delicate as a flower. Here are some tips from the couple:

Loyalty counts: “We used to supply a number of companies, but we made a decision about 15 years ago to focus on Home Depot because we saw a lot of potential there. Now we have a vested interest in them and they have a vested interest in us,” Ms. Jeffery-Gibson says.

Remember who’s buying: The Gibsons travel regularly to flower shows and farm equipment exhibitions all over the world, looking both for gardening trends and new technologies. Robots are fine for the farm, but they also deploy 100 merchandisers at Home Depot sites during gardening season to talk to consumers.

Keep current: Garden trends change like everything else, and you don’t want to be caught with dated merchandise. Begonias are big this year, says Ms. Jeffery-Gibson, but they’re different. “As we say, these are not your grandmother’s begonias – they’re bigger and hardier.”

Rely on others: With about 25 acres of their total acreage in spring production, Jeffery’s looks to additional partners to supply the needs of dozens of Home Depots in southern Ontario and just across the border. “We partner with a number of small and medium-sized growers to facilitate both fall and spring production,” Mr. Gibson says. And while the four robots are helpful, they also rely on both full-time and seasonal staff.