The Soul Of Horticulture

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Is horticulture dying? Is floriculture declining? Why can’t we have double-digit increases in sales? Recent articles have asked these questions about floriculture and indicated that because the industry has lost 2,000 growers and sales have not experienced double-digit increases, it is doomed!

I have been reading articles about genetic engineering, talking about how they have mapped the human genome and that they may be able to clone humans. My two cents is that they may be able to clone a physical body or even a human mind, but they will never be able to clone a human soul.

A colleague and friend of mine, Allen Hammer, who graduated from Cornell University and has been at Purdue University for over 30 years, captured the essence of soul in a recent article, "A Lesson from 1888." He indicated that we have to learn from the past and referred to a biography of Liberty Hyde Bailey. Bailey is widely known as the "Father of Horticulture."

If you read his works, you realize that he was truly a Renaissance man. Bailey was interested in research and education, including teaching children horticulture. He was involved in rural development and wrote extensively about horticulture and rural life.

Hammer quoted Bailey from the biography, "One does not begin a garden until he wants a garden. To want a garden is to be interested in plants, weather, soils, insects, diseases and wildlife."

I believe that Dr. Hammer hit the nail on the head when he said, "We must convince consumers they need our product to improve their lives." The soul of our business is to have our customers know that plants and flowers help provide a deeper meaning to our lives and can help not only with our basic needs of food, shelter and energy, but also with our spiritual needs. It is the soul of our lives that will never be cloned. Dr. Hammer’s last statement in his article is, "Liberty Hyde Bailey’s story can inspire and stimulate us to promote horticulture as a lifestyle." 

Optimistic Souls

Further proof that the "soul" of horticulture will never be cloned is found in the life of Howard Hunter. Howard was featured in the Saturday, Sept. 2, 2006 issue of my local newspaper, The Lansing State Journal. He is 101 years old and is pictured spraying his Delta Township orchard. The article indicates this is the last time he will spray them. He is quoted as saying, "The trees are getting too old," then he chuckled and said, "I guess I am, too."

For the last few years, Howard had a sign on his orchard that said, "Free apples, pick your own." He said in the article, "I can’t keep going forever. There aren’t a lot of trees and the ones that are there need to be replaced. I can’t see doing that."

Wow! How do you clone Howard? How do you put his soul into every grower, wholesaler or buyer? I’d like you to send me a list of growers, wholesalers or buyers who still work at 100 years old and love their jobs, their customers and their friends.

Is horticulture dying? I don’t think so! Its soul is alive and well, even in a 101-year-old man. I received an e-mail last month from Charles (Chuck) Heidgen, who owns Shady Hill Gardens in Batavia, Ill. He commented on my article about "Deal Or No Deal." He provided me with even more proof that our industry is not dying.

"Like any industry, we grow and then plateau. Each plateau is usually much higher than the previous one," he said. "No market of any product or service can grow at double-digit rates continuously." His point is great! Horticulture is not dying. It’s only catching its breath!

Chuck and I talked on the phone for over half an hour and I again saw the soul of horticulture. I won’t forget one final statement that Chuck made: "We are farmers. We have to be perpetually optimistic." Wow! How do you clone that soul?

I also remember Peter Drucker, writing in the February 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In "What Executives Should Remember," he indicated that if you see a profitable, well-run business, it was made possible by a person who has put his or her total effort – soul – into it.

I’ve seen people who have made millions of dollars in our business. I’ve also seen people who have worked all their lives and made just enough money to survive.

I’ve seen people who have raised their children and have been able to keep their horticulture businesses in the family for more than 100 years. I’ve also seen people who have not been able to keep their family or their business intact.

Both Heidgen and I agree that the ten most important two-letter words are: "If it is to be, it is up to me." Today, most growers have planned or are planning for spring 2007. Most buyers are making commitments for what will happen in spring 2007. All factions from growers to logistical people to buyers and retailers will have to work together to make our industry grow.

And don’t forget the people we are really working for, the ultimate consumers who will use and enjoy our products. Remember these folks aren’t there just to buy your product so that you can make money. They are there expecting you to provide them with a product that will improve their lives. 

Horticulture’s On The Move

The bottom line is horticulture is not dying! Sometimes it may be flying! If you have the right product in the right place at the right time, you can make a great deal of money and have great satisfaction. Those folks, whether they be growers, wholesalers or retailers, who keep on trying are the ones who will keep our industry growing.

I leave you again with one of the best lessons that I learned at Michigan State University. Dr. Al Kenworthy, a professor in fruit crops, gave the same final exam for over 15 years. Most students had a copy at the beginning of the course. When I found out what was happening, I went to Al and said, "Do you know that every one of the students has a copy of your final exam?" Al smiled at me and said, "I’m not worried about that, Will, because the questions are the same but the answers change every year."

At the time, I thought Al’s comment was ridiculous, but now I know that it is true. Here is your final exam for next year:

• How much should you grow?

• When should it be available?

• What should you charge for it?

There are about 20 more questions that I could ask, but, if you get the right answers to these three, you’ll be off to a good start! Good luck!

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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