Video: Robots now running the show at local greenhouses

11/13/2011 7:00 AM |

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Kurt Van de Wetering of Ivy Acres, located on Sound Avenue in Calverton, in front of the greenhouse's transplanting machine. Every hour, this piece of robotic technology replants 24,000 seedlings.

If characters from the futuristic cartoon “The Jetsons” were based on farmers, then the show would have most likely reflected the daily operations of the Van de Wetering family-owned farm in Calverton.

Much like the Jetsons had Rosie, the robot maid who helped things at the house run a bit more smoothly, The Van de Weterings have Stella, a robot of their own.

More than 30 years ago, the Ivy Acres greenhouse on Sound Avenue helped develop machines called “transplanters,” which use robotic fingers to automatically replant ready-to-sprout seedlings from smaller trays into larger ones. The tip of each mechanical finger uses a tweezer to transport a seedling into its new and roomier home.

Kurt Van de Wetering, son of Jack Van de Wetering, who has owned the greenhouse since the 1960s, said one transplanter can replant 24,000 seedlings per hour. Some seedlings, such as begonia and geraniums, still require a human’s touch because their roots are too delicate for transplanters.

“We make 80 percent of our money in 80 days during the spring,” he said. “The quicker we can replenish our greenhouses, the better we are off business wise.”

Before the family invested in its first machine, which cost $126,000, 60 workers would replant the seedlings by hand.

They now have six machines to do that work.

In honor of those workers, mostly women, the family decided to name their machines after some of them.

“Since there’s still plenty of responsibilities to do, we did not remove people but we did remove them from that menial, repetitive task,” he said.

One of those workers, who was head of production at Ivy Acres and married to an engineer that worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, came up with the idea of looking for a more efficient way to complete the job, Mr. Van de Wetering said.

“From there, we went from pencil to paper and found a way,” he said.

Joe Gergela, executive director at the Long Island Farm Bureau, said his group lobbies on behalf of farmers looking to purchase transplanters, which now cost between $65,000 to $200,000 per machine.

“In order to increase productivity, we need better research and technology,” Mr. Gergela said, adding that his group works with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to help inform farmers about new and efficient production methods. “Since the transplanters are such a big capital investment, there needs to be a pretty high return.”

Mr. Van de Wetering said the machines shave about two days off the process. While this might not sound like a lot to some people, he said it is a tremendous amount of time in his industry.

“The growth cycle for some plants is two weeks long,” he said. “With those two extra days, we can actually get another turn inside our greenhouse. The window of opportunity for completion is very compressed, that’s why we invested heavily in our transplanters.”

jennifer@timesreview.com

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