Employers looking to add to their staff while reinforcing their existing workforce might take a page from the Loma Vista Nursery handbook.
Five years ago, the Ottawa, KS-based grower (and finalist for Greenhouse Grower’s Operation of the Year award in 2019) developed an out-of-the-box curriculum that continues to train new professionals for the horticulture industry, where jobs tend to be off-kilter with demand for qualified, creative talent. What’s most remarkable to Lyndsi Oestmann, Vice President of Loma Vista, is the internship program became as much about fortifying Loma Vista Nursery’s leadership and staff as adding to its talent pool.
“The definition of intern has changed so much,” Oestmann says. “When I started out, hiring interns was simply a way to bring in extra pairs of hands to meet quotas and goals during growing season. You hoped you were also providing a beneficial career experience. Today, career-building internships are much more symbiotic. They are an effective way to foster teamwork, trust, and skills among staff and leadership, while growing talent for work within the company and serving the industry by preparing workforce-trained professionals.”
What’s different about Loma Vista Nursery’s internship program, which requires annual budgeting and forecasting at every level of the company, is that its leadership and staff developed a curriculum that is based on divisional rotation, which enables interns to gain practical understanding and experience within each business sector of the company. Following that, interns concentrate on the area of specialty they are interested in pursuing. Along the way, managers and staff provide mentorship and professorship, enhancing their own advanced career-level growth through the process.
“An incredible amount of inter-departmental communication, teaching, learning, and bonding happens throughout the company, which improves every level of our business, from customer service and internal business practices, to employee morale and our company’s appeal to future interns,” Oestmann says. “We also learn from our interns. The program continually evolves as they provide feedback about what they’ve learned and how they can apply their internship experience to their career priorities.”
Each mid-May through August, Loma Vista Nursery hires up to four interns from across the country who receive wages and college course credit for working up to 50 hours a week. In addition to horticulture, the internship provides experience in agriculture business and communications, as well as environmental sciences and sustainability management. Housing is provided through nearby Ottawa University. Interns attend the annual Cultivate show in Ohio to network with industry professionals. They also lead company initiatives and participate in community service projects and field trips.
“Our interns spend the summer in hands-on work with staff members from each team and they learn every aspect of our operation, including propagation, plant health, perennial production, nursery production, marketing and communications, and quality control,” Oestmann says. “We care about mentoring our interns, so they receive practical knowledge to complement their theoretical coursework and ultimately become informed and active members of our horticulture industry.”
Many of Loma Vista Nursery’s interns are junior- and senior-level college students, including Mallory Unverfehrt and Renata Goossen, who were hired for spring-through-summer rotations this past summer. Most are interviewed and hired as a result of career fairs and company outreach to industry horticulture clubs.
Unverfehrt, from Okawville, IL, is in her third year at Murray State University in Murray, KY, majoring in agricultural business with emphasis in marketing and mass communications. Working with Zane DeZeeuw, Loma Vista Nursery’s Marketing Director, Unverfehrt wrote, directed, and produced internal training videos, managed Instagram, wrote blogs, and worked on the company’s email newsletter.
“When I get into the workforce, I now understand the business side and how to fully represent a company to the consumer,” says Unverfehrt, adding that agriculture communications is her likely career direction. “A lot of what we do on my family farm is large-acre productions of corn, soybeans, and wheat. When I got to Loma Vista it was nursery production, which is something I’d never seen before. It was cool to see the differences in scales of operations.”
Goossen, of Potwin, KS, is also in her third year, and at Kansas State University, majoring in horticulture production. Throughout the summer, Goossen’s work rotated through shipping, production, inventory, quality control, propagation, and plant health. She decided to pursue plant health as a career because of the experience she gained.
“As an intern, I was exposed to every side of the business,” Goossen says. “That was helpful, and the fact that it was a rotational program was one of the things that attracted me to the program in the first place.”
Goossen credits Thomas Minter, Plant Health Manager, for helping pinpoint her career direction.
“I had just gotten out of a plant pathology class at Kanas State and was really interested in applying my knowledge in the field,” she says. “They don’t always have live samples for us to look at in class. This internship provided horticultural applications that I could take from the class and really see live.”
Since developing the internship curriculum, Loma Vista Nursery has hired two interns as full-time employees: Caitlyn Bond this past summer and Brooke Stamm several years ago.
“The nursery is an impressive operation and there is always something new to learn,” Stamm says. “My advice to incoming interns is not to stay in one lane. Don’t limit yourself to one specific section of the industry. Get a broad range of experiences because you may be surprised at areas that you hadn’t thought of pursuing.”
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in greenhouse and nursery management from Kansas State University, Stamm interned shortly after college and was hired in 2015 as Propagator and Perennial Grower. She is now Propagation Manager and one of Bond’s supervisors.
An intern this past summer, Bond, of Eldon, MO, graduated from the School of Osage and had vocational training at Lake Career and Technical Center in Camdenton, MO. Her work with the company is in shipping, perennials, and propagation.
“I wanted to work my way through each department to fine tune what I was interested in doing,” Bond says. “I figured out that I really enjoy propagation and I also really enjoy shipping, which was a surprise to me. I love seeing plants that start from practically nothing become beautiful. Then, that plant ships out for purchase to wind up in someone’s yard or in a commercial business landscape and it’s cool. You’ve had a hand in beautifying parts of the world that you might not have otherwise.”
For Oestmann and her team, the program’s success is a fluid playbook that provides room for flexibility and growth. A bonus, she says, is bumping into former interns within the industry marketplace.
For more about the company’s internship program and career opportunities, visit www.lomavistanursery.com/summer-internship-program.