Cultivating Future Growers

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We are always gnashing our teeth and wringing our hands worrying about “the young people.” I’m not sure if we’re talking about my 5-year-old grandson, my 20-something students or my married daughters. Does this concern about young people revolve around having too little interest in our products or too little time to garden? The latter may be a given, but I know one group of young people that is definitely the ambassadors of our industry. These are our horticulture students.

Because this issue of Greenhouse Grower about production, let me assure you that students in horticulture classes across the nation, from two-year technical schools to your four-year alma maters, are learning floriculture crop production techniques. There are a few dozen of us teachers left (it seems like fewer every year), who are still talking hands-on, hands-dirty, schedule-your-crops by week number, classes.

If you work with instructors or professors from any school in horticulture, support them – with plants for class, with lectures to the students or with a thank you. Your support will be returned many times over.

Teaching Tips

Here is a quick lesson about how I teach. My colleagues do the same, albeit with their own voices, and probably better.

1 Some students are from families in the plant business, but most haven’t spent much time in greenhouses. On the first day of class, they file into the university greenhouses, peer around curiously and probably think it’s neat. Then they hear me telling them I expect picture-perfect mums, extraordinary cyclamen, fantastic gloxinias, flowing bacopas and Easter lilies timed for Easter.

They look at each other and whisper, “What’s a cyclamen?” I then explain they will be calculating fertilizer ratios, calibrating injectors, applying growth regulators, pinching and disbudding crops – all based on week number scheduling. Needless to say, they leave confused and not a little bit concerned.

2 When plugs, unrooted cuttings and seeds arrive, there is controlled chaos as the students determine what the market (my market) wants, and learn about 4-inch, 6-inch, standard azalea pots, Ellepots, and different sized flats, cell packs and baskets.

At the same time, they digest the differences in soil mixes: germination soils, peat-lite and pine bark-based media – all in one-hour-long class sessions. They are confused, but a tiny light of respect is kindled: who knew what went into starting a crop, let alone growing one to finish?

3 They go through all the stages of any grower. “How much fertilizer do I apply? How often?” “Why are my plants growing so slowly? Valentine’s Day is coming and my tulips are barely out of the pot!” “I have to be somewhere else but I also have to check my plants.” “My boss (Dr. Armitage) is going to ask me why my mums weren’t watered yesterday!”

However, they become more confident every day, having learned that if they pay attention to details, they will be just fine.

4 The scheduling thing makes them shake. They must have their bulb crops ready for sale on Feb. 10 for Valentine’s Day; their Easter lilies must have one open flower and be at the proper height one week before Easter; their mums must be ready based on the number of short days they received; and if their crops are not ready, they lose money and their boss (me) is very unhappy. However, a little fear is not a bad thing and it is amazing how well they do given the lousy facilities, the time they have and the crops they grow.

5 As the crops grow and longer and warmer days arrive, students learn the most important lesson: They must get to the greenhouse every day, seven days a week, to care for their plants. If not, the plants quickly turn on them, becoming chlorotic because their fertility needs weren’t addressed, wilting badly as the temperatures rise and generally feeling the ill effects if their caretakers don’t respect the entire process. My students know the buyer (me) won’t accept poor plants and that their boss (me) will be even more upset and reprimand them (terrible grade).

6 I teach my classes marketing, crop accounting and people skills. They hear from former students now in production or marketing positions, and they try to assimilate all this in context of the dozens of other courses they are taking at the same time. They may never end up in a commercial greenhouse, but not because they haven’t been exposed to it. On the other hand, I can’t go anywhere without a former student coming up to me and together sharing a good laugh about the time we spent together.

Motivation is alive and well in these young people. This is where the future greenhouse person is separated from the general horticulturist. These folks are the future of production.

I have written about where the next great leaders and professors will come from. But as far as practitioners and people who love plants, we need not be too carried away with this question of “Who’s next?” Sure, many 20-somethings may be YouTubing and Facebooking, seemingly uninterested in what we do today. But let them grow up, get a home, a job and a place to decorate, and they will consume.

And understand that my students learning crop production will also be the ones producing for these people, but only if you allow them the opportunity to do so. It may be cheaper in the short run to grab high school grads and put them to work as a seasonal hose jockey, but if you grab one of the kids coming out of a good horticulture program, you are definitely investing in the future.

Having said all this, I am sure you realize that horticulture programs are under siege everywhere in this country. They may produce the next great grower, plant marketer or company CEO, but they are also producing the professors and researchers who are training them. Today’s professors are not being replaced, and horticulture programs are being merged and swallowed in the name of efficiency. Get smart, and support the institutions that are supporting you. I believe you will miss them when they are gone.

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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    5 comments on “Cultivating Future Growers

    1. Anonymous

      Thank you for printing an article to encourage our youth in production.

      I attended a great four-year university, studied Crop Production and was never once encouraged to make a living in that field of Horticulture. Every professor focused on teaching the students how to make money, which I guess was only in Landscape Design.

      Throughout my first five years after working in production at several different companies, I was put through the same test by every boss. They would work me as hard as possible, treat me as poorly as possible and then practically cry and beg me to stay when I gave them my two weeks notice. Today, six years later, for the first time in my career I am taken seriously by my boss, respected fully and my boss is European.

      I always believed that the producers are the spokes on the wheel in the industry; please lets encourage those who show drive and desire to work in this sector and continue to grow this industry, no matter their education or age.

    2. Anonymous

      Thanks for this column; I agree in general and hope a lot of folks read it and take it to heart. To me a major obstacle preventing this from occurring is that established growers are too set in their ways to adapt to a changing world. Younger people come along with different ideas (especially pertaining to sustainability and environmental protection) and are shut down or not hired to begin with. Other institutions would rather hire based on “who’s volunteered the longest” rather than investing in college graduates with actual abilities and professional qualifications and letting them implement their ideas.

    3. Anonymous

      Thank you for printing an article to encourage our youth in production.

      I attended a great four-year university, studied Crop Production and was never once encouraged to make a living in that field of Horticulture. Every professor focused on teaching the students how to make money, which I guess was only in Landscape Design.

      Throughout my first five years after working in production at several different companies, I was put through the same test by every boss. They would work me as hard as possible, treat me as poorly as possible and then practically cry and beg me to stay when I gave them my two weeks notice. Today, six years later, for the first time in my career I am taken seriously by my boss, respected fully and my boss is European.

      I always believed that the producers are the spokes on the wheel in the industry; please lets encourage those who show drive and desire to work in this sector and continue to grow this industry, no matter their education or age.

    4. Anonymous

      Thanks for this column; I agree in general and hope a lot of folks read it and take it to heart. To me a major obstacle preventing this from occurring is that established growers are too set in their ways to adapt to a changing world. Younger people come along with different ideas (especially pertaining to sustainability and environmental protection) and are shut down or not hired to begin with. Other institutions would rather hire based on “who’s volunteered the longest” rather than investing in college graduates with actual abilities and professional qualifications and letting them implement their ideas.

    5. Regina Grubb

      Dr. Armitage, I agree wholeheartedly with your points, however I will advocate for students coming out of good high school horticulture programs are more than just "hose jockeys". We go through the same teaching activities in one hour a day and deal with the same "weeks to finish", "what is a ____ (fill in the blank – we grow over 200 varieties for our plant sale)", "controlled chaos/quality plug planting", "how much & when" and marketing issues you describe. Some of my students "catch the bug", I hope they find your classes not so surprising as you describe… It's "week 14" here for us: geranium plugs, trixi-liners, and spring bareroot perennials are frantically being planted. I encourage you to find ways to connect with us high school instructors, as I believe we have a big part to play in this industry (and sending you higher quality "starts" for your programs).