CEAg World Explores How Data and Culture Influence Business Success

Recently, our sister brand of CEAg World (under the Meister Media Worldwide umbrella) spoke with Sarah Lombardi, the General Manager of Red Sun Farms Ontario, about how her team and the company use data collection and analysis to implement incremental changes to budgeting, culture, and more, for continuous improvement. Here’s a brief look at the conversation:

CEAg World Editor Karen Varga: Can you tell me more about Red Sun Farms Ontario and what they produce?

Sarah Lombardi: Red Sun Farms Ontario is a state-of-the-art, 1.2 million square foot greenhouse located in Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. We are currently in our fourth growing season. Our cultivation includes 21.5 acres of several different tomato varieties grown conventionally and six acres of mini cucumbers grown under LED lights. We are a three-phase project, with two phases left to go. After the project is completed, we will total approximately 70 acres of greenhouse production.

Varga: In the time that you’ve been at Red Sun Farms Ontario, what steps have you taken to cut costs across the business?

Sarah Lombardi: It’s been an ongoing process every year. We started our first crop in 2021, and year after year, we are learning, growing, and determining what is needed to make the next season even better. We work closely as a team between ownership and management and have come up with ways to track data that’s not done in our environmental and labor software programs.

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The greenhouse industry continues to face challenges, from diseases and pests to unnecessary government and municipal regulations, which all have a large financial impact on farms. Now more than ever during these difficult times, decisions made for the business must be data-driven. Here at Red Sun Farms Ontario, we have carefully cultivated a culture focusing on continuous improvement to create efficient and sustainable processes.

Specifically, we’ve taken a deep dive into crop registrations to understand where we can become more efficient in labor, as it’s our biggest direct cost. With minimum wage increasing every year, sometimes twice a year, farms must strategize on how to cut back while not falling behind on crop work. More and more, we see automation making its way inside the greenhouse: robotic harvesting, scouting, plant lowering, just to name a few. We are currently looking into trialing different robotic options but in the meantime, we set targets for crop registrations [for employees] and incentivized them. Creating this small competition with monetary benefits amongst our employees has helped us save substantially on labor costs.

Varga: Do you have specific examples of the types of data that you track?

Sarah Lombardi: Every year we’ve added more to the list of things to track. In the greenhouse, we track all crop registrations and showcase them to the employees. We just recently installed TVs in the greenhouse where we are showcasing the data live. All employees are able to see if they are at, above, or below target in their current task. It’s become a great tool for the Labor Manager and Grower to address why some employees may fall below target and work with them on improving in those tasks.

In the packhouse, there are a lot of manual pack styles, so we keep track of timing and individual employees to understand how many punnets are packed per minute per employee, how many skids are completed per hour, the total labor cost per day per pack style and that equivalent labor cost per pound. This data over the years has helped us to create benchmarks and make improvements. It also allows us to make larger decisions as a business, like whether a capital investment for specific automation is needed or not.

From a higher level, we track our daily natural gas usage, monthly hydro usage, packaging costs, sales revenue, etc. Capturing and analyzing these KPIs and KAIs daily, weekly, and monthly helps us to be more conscious when making decisions.

The original article with additional interview questions and answers can be found on the CEAg World website, along with more news coverage of controlled environment agriculture.

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