Young people think of horticulture as farming, and they think of farming as hard labor and low salaries. In their mind, farming is something older “country” people do because they were born into it.
I cannot count how many times, especially as an undergraduate, the people who questioned my choice of major. As soon as I said the word “horticulture,” the response was: “Huh? You want to be a farmer?”
Although their views of horticulture are predominately row-cropping and food production, it is not what I do. Don’t get me wrong, those things are necessities for human life, but I am a scientist–who happens to love plants! There is so much more to horticulture than producing corn: what about the sweet peaches we eat every summer, the beautiful blankets of grass that are so well maintained on golf courses (“turf”) or those red flowers that make living rooms brighter at Christmas time? All these products must come from somewhere. And they do.
Behind the scenes are researchers, just like the guys who update our iPhones, who are continuously working to improve plants. There is incredible breeding taking place around the world to give the public the highest caliber poinsettia possible.
I believe there are two types of young people in regard to horticulture. The first are the ones born into a family that may own a nursery, farm, greenhouse operation, orchard or maybe just gardens for fun. Another possibility is that young people are exposed to horticulture from an outside source, such as FFA or community service. Their views are not as stereotypical as other young people, but their knowledge about job opportunities is limited.
The second group of young people has no exposure to horticulture. They know very little about the available career opportunities. Thus, most of this group are not educated enough to want to dig deeper.
Although it may be easier to catch the attention of young people already knowledgeable in horticulture, it is the second group that really needs their horizons broadened. Like any other profession, horticulture, specifically my interest–the research side–needs to be portrayed as an actual job as well as a really cool one.
Attracting Both Groups
So how do we bring in both groups of young people and get them interested and excited about horticultural research? I don’t think the answer is in books or videos in the classroom. Fun, hands-on activities such as field trips and in-class visits from professionals is a key to engaging students. Another idea is that teachers could offer extra credit for students who attend local trade shows where they can see just how many job opportunities are out there. The trade shows could work with students to allow free admission to promote youth involvement in horticulture.
Enthusiastic growers could bring in their most unique flowers that have a special smell, movement or even eat bugs. These are “cool” things about plants that get kids excited.
The students that really show interest in these types of presentations could explore further and spend a day with graduate students at a local university. Graduate students could show them the ropes by letting them use microscopes, sow seed or show them the processes it takes to do horticultural research. Like any other profession, if it is not high paying or a field that has some family history, enthusiastic persuasion must be done to entice young people.
Besides, how could anyone not love going to work every morning surrounded by flowers?