Twenty miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, a huge glass building spanning 167 acres covers the land. Inside, men and women work amidst the buzz of “sticking machines” and “automatic transplanters”—robotic arms performing thousands of tasks an hour. High above, glass ceiling panels open to the sky and long rows of conveyor belts snake across the floor.
It sounds like an industrial plant or a state of the art car factory, but really it’s a massive greenhouse that sells both annual and perennial flowers to major retailers up and down the East Coast.
The company was founded by Tom and Vicki VanWingerden, who immigrated to North Carolina from the Netherlands. Now, the family runs the operation with an odd mix of accents as two of Vicki’s sons, Art and Abe, were born in Holland and the other two, Michael and Thomas, were born in North Carolina.
Tom Sr. has since passed away, but his contributions to Metrolina and the greenhouse industry are far-reaching. In fact, due to Tom’s amateur interest in engineering and his imagination, Metrolina has the equipment and know-how to pick, prepare and package 352 acres of flowers in two locations, one in each of the Carolinas.
Stickers, transplanters and convertible greenhouses
Though Metrolina’s backbone is its 725 full-time employees and 600 part-timers, its volume of production requires more than human hands can manage.
When Tom VanWingerden realized labor would be a challenge back in the 1980s, he literally went to the drawing board and designed what he called the Metroplanter, an automatic transplanter that can transfer up to 20,000 plants an hour from large plug trays to the pots they’ll be sold in. Today those machines can plant up to 60,000 plugs per hour.
By building the transplanter, Tom carried on a legacy of innovation started by his father, who invented the “MX” style greenhouse, which is equipped with a giant sunroof to bring fresh air to plants.
Now, Art and his brothers are still on the prowl for new technologies. Art says they recently bought 5 “sticking machines,” a relatively new machine that takes fine cuttings from plants and sticks them into fresh soil to grow into a new plant. VanWingerden says the machines can stick 2,000 plants in an hour compared to the 800 plants an hour a human being can do.
“With all five machines up and running we can do 10,000 cuttings an hour,” Art says. “As my dad always said, ‘automate or stagnate.’”
It’s taken Art “2 years and about 8 trips to Holland” to bring the sticking machines into the greenhouse. But he’s quick to point out that the machines are for supplementing, not replacing, employees. “We automate the jobs that nobody wants to do,” he says.
With machines taking care of the grunt work, Metrolina’s employees handle more skilled tasks, and as a result, get paid more as well. Instead of hiring and constantly training thousands of part-timers, VanWingerden explains that automation saves him money that he can put into pay raises and healthcare plans for his full-time employees.
“None of the savings go back into our pockets,” he says.
Healthy plants, healthy environment
Besides the robotics that make Metrolina more productive, the greenhouse uses other cost-saving technology that keeps its plants and the environment green.
Several years ago, the company bought a wood boiler that uses recycled pallets and logging trimmings for fuel. And thanks to grandpa VanWingerden’s invention, Metrolina exchanges its air and cools plants in the summer naturally by opening its roof instead of using only fans to exchange the air.
Similarly, it waters all of its crops with recycled water, which it gathers through a rain catchment system and pond that captures 4 million gallons of water for every inch of rainfall.
To make the water better for the plants, VanWingerden says the greenhouse first aerates it, forcing compressed air into the bottom of the pond to make a ring of micro bubbles. The bubbles create a current that brings water from the bottom up to the top, so that it can receive oxygen, which keeps it fresh.
After aeration, the water is sent through filters that remove particles down to five microns in size. The filtered water is then injected with ozone, which is a naturally occurring gas similar to dioxygen (O2), but with an extra part of oxygen. Ozone sterilizes the water and breaks down any remaining particles.
VanWingerden explains that the earth naturally produces ozone during lightning storms and that it is ozone which gives stormy air its distinct smell.
“Our water smells like a lightning storm,” VanWingerden says.
There will be change
Better technology isn’t the only change in the greenhouse industry. VanWingerden says marketing practices have shifted as well.
“I always tell people, Metrolina really means ‘there will be change,’” jokes VanWingerden.
Back in the seventies, Metrolina had less than 10 different forms of packaging for flowers. Now it has more than 100.
“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s we grew flowers and sold what we grew. Now you can only sell when you know you have a market,” he says.
As a result, VanWingerden says Metrolina experiments with colors and containers, conducting market research with a group of 2,000 people they call the Home Garden Panel to see what packaging does best.
It’s all valuable information because VanWingerden sees another shift in the market coming. “In 10 years, millennials are going to be our biggest customers,” he says.
He also foresees the internet becoming more important for selling flowers as more companies perfect techniques to store and ship flowers without shortening their lifespan. “We’ve already started experimenting,” he says.
In every case, VanWingerden relishes the changes, and to prepare for them, he visits other facilities, though not just ones in the greenhouse industry. Last year, he visited a car factory and an orange juice factory.
“You can’t think you’re the smartest person around or have the best way of doing things,” he says. “My dad used to say, there are surgeons doing heart surgery every day down in Charlotte and not one of them is asking us how it’s done.”