Consider Hiring Non-Traditional Growers To Secure Our Industry’s Future [Opinion]

Grower Homework: Your operation can benefit from hiring returning veterans, professionals changing careers and non-traditional students, in addition to horticulture graduates. Where have you had luck recruiting? Feel free to share your ideas via eMail, [email protected], or tweet @Laura_GG_TGC.

Laura Drotleff
Laura Drotleff

Labor continues to be the number one constant pressure that keeps growers up at night. Aside from weather, it’s the one industry issue that growers can’t control, yet they spend the most money and resources on it, either to recruit and train, to develop housing and living wages for migrant workers or to automate to reduce their need for workers.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the scary situation we face in developing head growers, growers and managers to replace the aging owners and managers currently leading the industry. The median age for greenhouse managers is 58, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. When you consider that many growers may have children who don’t want to work as hard as their parents do, and the legions of Millennials heading to urban areas to live and work, you start to wonder who will be the industry leaders of the future.

Meanwhile, fewer students are coming our way. Enrollment in agriculture programs is down across the board, and horticulture students, particularly, have reduced in number. This could be due to less interest in the field due to a lack of knowledge about horticulture, but it’s likely that skyrocketing tuition rates are also a big contributor. Who wants to spend $100,000 on a four-year degree that will land you a job starting at an average of $35,000, with a median mid-career salary of $50,000?

Plus, admission requirements are stricter than ever. At Land Grant institutions like Michigan State University (my alma mater), the minimum grade point average for acceptance is a 3.4 up to 3.9. There are no exceptions for ag students in this state where the number two economy is agriculture. Surely, these numbers are intimidating to students considering horticulture degrees or two-year, technical certificates.

Interest in growing sustainable food crops is quickly gaining interest among floriculture crop growers, perhaps because of the tremendous local food movement, providing year-round demand for safely produced, fresh food, a growing population that will reach more than nine billion by 2050 and 438 million in the U.S., not to mention currently higher margins on food than flowers.

All of these reasons are why entities like Circle Fresh Farms’ Circle Fresh Institute and AgVets have developed their own proprietary educational models to train individuals interested in hydroponic greenhouse produce. Low enrollment in ag colleges plus high tuition costs, plus professionals changing careers who don’t want to head back to the classroom, plus military veterans reintegrating into the economy, plus growing interest and demand for locally grown, year-round food production equals a potentially high demand for fast-track, skill-based education programs that ensure employment placing.

They’ll benefit other growers, too. Floriculture operations looking to recruit growers and head growers will want to pay attention to these highly skilled individuals coming into the workforce. Mike Walker and Andy Higgins of AgVets say they fully expect their AgVets trainees will be recruited by other operations. (Read the story about AgVets.)

There’s an opportunity there for AgVets, who could tweak the educational model to custom-train veterans for floriculture and other greenhouse industry segments. Circle Fresh Institute, the training program established by Circle Fresh Farms, could also cater to this need for growers.

While it’s important to continue to support traditional horticulture education programs and recruit growers with four-year degrees, it may be worth your while to pay attention to returning veterans and non-traditional students, who could prove to be invaluable team members in your operation.

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