Two Industry Veterans Discuss How To Meet The Challenges Of Grower Education


Peter Konjoian

Public and private sector researchers and educators are developing new ways to deliver education and training to today’s horticultural growers. However, university funding at both the federal and state levels continues to decline, with minimal prospects of returning to previous levels. Furthermore, university-based Extension programs have become a shell of what they were when our industry’s current generation of established growers ascended to leadership roles. In addition, horticulture conference educational programming via seminars has been diminishing as attention to trade show traffic has been the primary focus.

Educators are adapting to the shift in conference emphasis, away from traditional grower education, and toward dedicated trade show time. Attendee interests are also changing as young growers want to receive their education and training in mobile formats.

With these changes in mind, how can we deliver the level of thorough, detailed training required to deal with today’s complex issues associated with production practices and pest management strategies in greenhouses and nurseries? Moreover, how are university and private sector interests adapting as horticultural funding shifts from the public to private sector? In a conversation below, Dr. Peter Konjoian (President of Konjoian’s Horticulture Education Services in Andover, MA) and Dr. Raymond A. Cloyd (Professor and Extension specialist in ornamental entomology and integrated pest management in Kansas State University’s Department of Entomology) provide their respective opinions on the issues and challenges associated with grower education and on how Extension programs are adapting by forming alliances with the private sector.

raymond_cloyd headshot
Raymond Cloyd

Peter: For better or worse, the two of us have been around the block a few times in regards to speaking at grower conferences and writing trade magazine articles. Raymond, what have you observed in recent years in terms of your opportunities to deliver research based recommendations and education to greenhouse and nursery producers?

Raymond: I believe our industry needs to discuss these challenges and come together so that we can achieve a common goal of succeeding in the future. For instance, we in Extension can still write articles on plant protection (pest management) for the current trade journals associated with greenhouse and nursery production. However, we need to develop alternative means of communicating information, such as videos, webinars, podcasts, and workshops. For example, in regards to videos, I have been working with several colleagues across the U.S. in developing e-GRO Instructional Videos that are available online. Six have been developed related to plant protection including: 1) how to implement a biological control program, 2) ways to maximize pesticide performance, 3) how to correctly diagnose insect and mite pest problems, 4) understanding pesticide labels, 5) how to effectively scout for pest problems, and 6) how to effectively deal with western flower thrips. These are short, five-minute videos that provide detailed information that will be helpful to greenhouse and nursery producers. In addition, webinars that provide more comprehensive information on specific topics regarding plant protection are popular. For both videos and webinars, greenhouse and nursery producers can just sit in their office or home and watch both forms of media.

Another aspect of information transfer is conducting interactive workshops. Last year, the Kansas Greenhouse Growers Association held a workshop on diagnosing plant problems, which included insects and mites, diseases, and nutrition. The hands-on portion of the workshop was very well-received by the attendees. Peter, I think the “bottom line” regarding this topic is that the information we present to greenhouse and nursery producers has be somewhat interactive and relevant in the short term.

Raymond: Peter, you made the decision to leave academia early in your career. Since then you have been serving as a private sector researcher and educator. Have you observed certain situations in the industry differently from your private sector perspective?

Peter: That is an interesting question. My view from outside academia is different in some respects while similar in others. I consider myself fortunate to have maintained connections with academia via adjunct appointments over the years. That said, most of my activity has been as a commercial grower and private sector researcher.

Raymond, from my perspective, legislators are telling us as an industry that we have to find ways to support ourselves because tax dollars are needed elsewhere for the greater good. In fact, I have written and spoken many times to fellow growers explaining that we need to pay our fair share for education and training services that previously were provided free of charge. In one sense we have all been spoiled by how good our cooperative extension service has been for so long.

Let’s shift to the next topic. Specifically, how has the delivery of grower education been impacted by the trend we are witnessing regarding fewer educational seminars at conferences such as Cultivate?

Raymond: Peter, this is a level of frustration for me and many colleagues with whom I interact with, including you based on our recent conversations. Due to budget cuts affiliated with universities across the country, the future of Extension is in jeopardy, with fewer and fewer Extension personnel available to assist greenhouse growers. However, what has already occurred is that Extension personnel (faculty and county agents) are partnering with industry to conduct conferences, seminars, and workshops. In essence, the industry is performing the tasks that have normally been done by extension mainly because industry has the connections with greenhouse growers. Therefore, industry personnel can organize meetings and then invite Extension personnel to give presentations. Peter, I think that this trend will likely continue in the future.

Peter: I completely agree with you, Raymond. What you described as a trend in Extension education is what I refer to as the partial privatization of extension. As you stated, Extension and the private sector have been collaborating more so than previously. One successful program I have participated in is the formation of GGSPro by Griffin Greenhouse and Nursery Supplies. For many years Rick Yates, Griffin’s technical support department’s manager, has been operating, in my opinion, as a private sector Extension resource. Some of GGSPro’s educational products are available to growers on a ‘pay as you use’ basis while other products are offered free of charge to Griffin customers.

Other national and regional distributors have also found ways to deliver training and educational programming through in-house experts. Often times these events are collaborative efforts between the distributor and state Extension personnel which provides an efficient means of information dissemination. In addition, this format has become quite popular for distributor open houses and other educational events that offer pesticide recertification credits as a service to their customers. These types of programs require close collaboration between industry entities and extension personnel including specialists.

Back to the trend you and I and many of our colleagues are seeing, many of us feel that at the conference level trade show interests are trumping traditional grower education interests. To be fair, this topic is sensitive and all perspectives need to be represented. My career has been spent on the grower education side of this discussion on AmerianHort’s grower committee. For many years Steve Carver and I worked side-by-side with our committee to shape the Short Course (now Cultivate) grower program. I have not sat on the trade show committee but do have close friends on that committee who are committed to educating growers, their customers.

That said, these progressive companies, in my opinion, are muffled by a majority of trade show vendors who measure success of a trade show by the single metric of dedicated trade show hours without competing educational programming. I get that it costs a lot of money to participate in a show but I cannot agree with forcing attendees onto the trade show floor when, time after time, given the option of attending seminars during trade show hours we see them choose the seminars. To me, this has always been my fellow growers’ way of saying they want more education.

I will end on a philosophical note to describe my assessment of the “push-pull” between trade show and education. Yes, it’s expensive for vendors to participate in a trade show. And yes, they deserve to see their customers via dedicated hours. But I feel strongly that the responsibility to educate growers, their customers, is a shared responsibility. Seminar registration fees alone cannot cover the costs of educational programming. Some level of subsidy from the trade show is needed. I think of this as I do certain necessary overhead costs in my greenhouse. After all, doesn’t a better educated grower make a better customer for vendors?

For me, this conversation boils down to the following. Regarding grower education should we think in terms of company wealth or the commonwealth? Where’s the sweet spot along this continuum? I look forward to continuing the discussion with a fellow industry member with trade show perspective.

Raymond: Peter, I completely agree. The conversation we had in this article should bring attention to the issues that are important to our industry, and allow for more open discussions.

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