Growing New Growers [Opinion]

Robin Siktberg

One of my favorite evenings of the year is Greenhouse Grower’s Evening of Excellence, in which we present our Medal of Excellence and Grower of the Year Awards.
The evening is special because it gives us a chance to step back and take a look at some really outstanding achievements in plant breeding and to recognize people who have made horticulture their life’s work.

At no time is the energy in the room more palpable than when the award for Head Grower of the Year is announced. Growers nominated for this award usually have devoted staff who are excited and hopeful their boss will win. This year, Four Star Greenhouses had several dozen employees in attendance, all wearing t-shirts that said “I ❤ Me Some Crum Cake,” in support of their head grower, Dennis Crum. They erupted in applause when he was announced as the winner, and their joy was infectious.

Any good boss in any industry will inspire respect and devotion from staff. But in talking to owners and growers, it seems it is becoming increasingly difficult to find head growers who have the experience to run a greenhouse at the highest level. Plant knowledge isn’t enough. Today, you need someone who understands the technology, has a commitment to the bottom line, and is willing to take 24/7 responsibility — often for a salary that may not match the level of the job.

In most industries, when a certain skill level is in high demand, salaries rise and more people enter those professions. With greenhouses, operations are already squeezing every penny of cost out of every plant and consumers, as a whole, aren’t willing to pay more for our products, this isn’t really happening in floriculture.

So how do we find future growers? One way is to team with universities to offer internships that really expose students to horticulture as a career. Many large growers are already doing this, but the more greenhouses that offer these types of opportunities, the better off we are. Suppliers can participate, as well, by offering stipends for students looking for opportunities.

Look outside the country. Many international students are eager to come to the U.S.

Identify promising candidates from within your staff and make sure they get the training they need to be successful. Look for those who are passionate about horticulture — they will be more likely to be invested in the industry.

Each of the finalists for the 2013 Head Grower of the Year award thanked mentors who took the time to teach them what they needed to know.

Who will be nominated for Greenhouse Grower’s Grower of the Year Awards 30 years from now? It’s up to us to find them now.

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