Reliving History

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Forty-two years ago this month, I started my career as assistant professor and marketing specialist of horticulture at Michigan State University (MSU). John Carew, the chairperson of the horticulture department, gave me my job description. He said, "Create or discover new knowledge and disseminate it."

It sounded easy enough, but I had yet to learn all the stages that were involved in achieving that goal. The major job at hand was that the industry was very small. The total floriculture industry in Michigan was about $8 million in value. About 80 percent of that value was in the hands of 20 percent of the growers.

At the time that I started, cut flowers were the largest part of the industry, followed by potted plants. Bedding plants made up a very small part of the business. The traditional flower growers used clay pots and would never have considered growing in flats made of wood. Our biggest problem was that the field growers just dug muck soil from their fields and put it in flats.

The results were poor at best. The muck soils had a high pH, high phosphorus levels and produced iron-deficient plants that were not saleable. The soils contained pythium, phytophthora and rhizoctonia. Under moist conditions, these root rot organisms will destroy the plants. So naturally, growing plants this way didn’t work, growers lost a great deal of money and sales were poor.

Problem number one was to teach growers how to produce their product in a way that would result in a saleable plant and do it at a profit.

Over the years, there have been many innovations – new varieties, inexpensive plastic greenhouses, plastic flats and hanging baskets, seller’s mixes, production procedures for each plant, learning to understand the effects of light and temperature and so on. Once this information was available, we were able to develop a system that created a plant factory that could result in having 95 to 98 percent of the product saleable.

I had to be able to identify the limiting factors and then get my colleagues and graduate students to use the scientific method to prove that the information we developed could be taught to growers in the field successfully.

Once we had the information, we worked with several growers to test the results in the field. We classified growers into five groups: early innovators, late innovators, early followers, late followers and the never followers. I found that it took as much time and effort to implement new technology as it did to discover it!

In 1969, we founded a trade association, Bedding Plants, Inc. (BPI), as a result of two years of conferences held at MSU. One of the association’s first efforts was to promote our product. We developed a campaign around the slogan "Plant – Don’t Pollute." We had bumper stickers, pins and billboards. This was an attempt to be positive about our industry and to promote all the positive attributes that the plants we grew had for consumers.

The goal of this nonprofit trade association was to create and disseminate knowledge about growing and marketing bedding plants. It started with fewer than 100 members and a budget of $25,000 a year. In 20 years, it had over 3,500 members and an annual budget of $1 million.

The growers worked together to invest in research and teach others how to grow plants profitably, market their products and adopt new technologies. They shared their innovations and technology with one another.

The secrets of the past were no longer secrets. They were developed into production technologies that were available to everyone. Read the textbooks and grower books about floriculture and greenhouse vegetable production before 1960 and you will see how little specific information had been available before.

My reason for sharing this story is that if you don’t know the history of our industry, you will be doomed to repeat it.

Retro Science

Be aware of retroscience. Some of the methods that are now being proposed by growers and companies were researched in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s and abandoned because they were too labor intensive, time consuming, not reproducible, not able to be used in large-scale production and, therefore, not profitable.

If you want to be a certified grower, you should go to a source that has developed its requirements based on science and not on public relations and marketing schemes. The American Society For Horticultural Science offers a very comprehensive program to become a Certified Horticulturist. With this background of horticultural knowledge, you can then decide if you wish to use the "Best Practices Method," the "Organic Method," the "Clean Energy Approach" or a combination of all of these. This is the basis for a core of knowledge that will help you understand how plants grow and how people can benefit from and enjoy them.

Many people have the feeling that they don’t need to have a formal education in horticulture. I’ve heard all the excuses for why people don’t obtain the basic education they need to succeed. They don’t have the time. They don’t have the money. They don’t need formal training. They have a green thumb and that’s all they need. They are busy doing it so they will learn by experience – and a thousand other reasons. The old joke is, "A month ago I didn’t know how to spell horticulturist and now I are one."

I had a medical doctor stop by when I was working on my flowers in the front yard. He said, "You really have a great yard and garden. I have about 15 minutes. Can you tell me how you do it?"

I looked him straight in the eye and said, "Sure, but in exchange I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon. I have 15 minutes. Will you tell me how you do it?" He just smiled and went on his way. The "Know Nothing" approach to horticulture will be the downfall of your business and your way of life.

Consumer Response

It is amazing how consumer attitudes will change in one year. People have to make critical decisions now. The cost of basic foods has increased dramatically. Bread costs $2.89 or more a loaf, milk over $3.00 for a half gallon. Go to your local grocery store and watch people look at products, take them off the shelves, see the prices and put them back. More than half of the world’s population goes to bed hungry every night. We could see a similar problem in the United States.

Home vegetable gardens will become important again. People who didn’t have time to do it themselves may now find that they have a lot of time to help reduce their food costs.In the U.S., we have taken corn from a food product and diverted it to a fuel product. Farmers now get $6.00 a bushel for corn and they have never been as profitable.

Going "back to nature" and "reducing a carbon footprint" are important and we must worry about what will happen 50 or 100 or 1,000 years from now. But we in horticulture need to worry about the problems facing our population this year. If you don’t know how to sustain your business, your family, your community today and in the next few years, you won’t have to worry about global issues 100 years from now.

The green bandwagon may be a fad or a trend or it may follow the real estate crash. Will you increase prices to cover all the increased expenses to the point that your product will be overpriced and not saleable?

It always comes down to the owners of the businesses and the approach that they take. If they build on a solid foundation of being financially sound and have the knowledge and background to grow great plants so that their customers will be successful and satisfied with the plants’ performance, then their businesses will not only survive but prosper in what looks to be the tough times ahead.

Remember, "inch by inch, anything is a cinch!" I hope that the spring season has gone well for you and your business.

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago.

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