Develop New Growers In Your Own Backyard [Opinion]

Develop New Growers In Your Own Backyard [Opinion]

Head Grower Of The Year winner Tom Wheeler (middle) from Bell Nursery with Editor Laura Drotleff and Joe Lara of BASF, the sponsor of the Grower of the Year program

Head Grower Of The Year winner Tom Wheeler (middle) from Bell Nursery with Editor Laura Drotleff and Joe Lara of BASF, the sponsor of the Grower of the Year program

One of the greatest parts of my job is having the opportunity to honor ingenuity in breeding, marketing and innovative growing in this industry at Greenhouse Grower’s Evening Of Excellence, a premier event held during Cultivate in July. The work leading up to the event is just as rewarding, from attending California Spring Trials to see all of the beautiful new varieties released to the marketplace to inspire consumers and solve problems for growers, to selecting the best of the best varieties for Medal Of Excellence In Breeding Awards. I humbly learn about and choose the Marketing and Industry Achievement Awards through industry nominations, and serve as a member of the selection panel for the Grower Of The Year Awards, on which we review nominations from people across the industry about creative, hardworking, dedicated operations and individuals who not only love their work but also live it.

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The Evening Of Excellence is the culmination of all of these activities and more, including writing stories, creating slideshows and videos, and contacting the winners and nominees to let them know the great news about their nominations and awards. Then, at the actual event, our honorees humbly and proudly accept recognition for their achievements — something that just doesn’t happen enough.

Seeing the passion that each of these people have for their work, it’s hard to imagine that it would be tough for us as an industry to recruit and retain skilled labor. As I often say, once you come into this industry, you find it hard to leave. But labor and grower recruitment continues to be one of the biggest problems growers face — if not the most daunting. At every industry event I attend and with every grower and supplier I talk to, this challenge is echoed, and the concern is really starting to reach panic mode as the skilled labor pool gets shallower.

Young plant growers, who work year-round to supply plugs and liners to the marketplace, are particularly feeling the crush, as we saw in Greenhouse Grower’s 2015 Young Plant Grower Survey. In the survey, we asked, “What is your biggest challenge as a young plant grower, and how are you solving it?”

There were many challenges listed, but labor was the most prevalent — and the one issue for which growers didn’t seem to have a solution to offer. Here are some of the responses:

Sun-Fire Nurseries in Florida is closely aligned with a local FFA horticulture program. The operation has provided the school with a greenhouse and other amenities. In return, students entertain showgoers at the TPIE show happy hour that Sun-Fire cosponsors with Suntory Flowers in January.

Sun-Fire Nurseries in Florida is closely aligned with a local FFA horticulture program. The operation has provided the school with a greenhouse and other amenities. In return, students entertain showgoers at the TPIE show happy hour that Sun-Fire cosponsors with Suntory Flowers in January.

“Labor is our biggest challenge. We are having to find inventive ways of being creative to recruit employees, as well as offering different types of work schedules and bonus schedules.”

“Number one problem is labor. Just cannot hire enough hard workers for plug fixing.”

“Finding skilled labor. We are constantly training and promoting from within. Growing plugs require fine attention to detail, and it takes well-trained employees to do it well.”

“Labor is starting to be a challenge with the uptick in the economy. We work all year to prepare our procedures for the peak of the year.”

While at Cultivate, I attended a session focused on recruiting the next generation of growers. Panelists included growers, educators, students and graduates fresh out of school. They confirmed my theory that rewarding work is more important to them than being well-paid, but they also mentioned something surprising to me: Young people don’t especially want to move away from home or their friends to get a job, and many want to live close to or in a city. Working at a rural greenhouse is often not conducive to this desire.

So after Cultivate, I was happy to hear from Lars Nilsen, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Smith Gardens who responded to my July column about the shortage of growers, to share what the operation is doing to combat this issue in the three states where it has farms. Through an initiative called “Cultivating The Future,” Smith Gardens works with local schools to educate students about opportunities in horticulture, and recruit potential employees in its own backyard. The operation’s ideas are applicable to most growers, and you can learn all about it at bit.ly/smithgardensgrowers.