Finding enough qualified growers has long been a problem in the industry, but it’s one that Smith Gardens is working to solve, at least locally. The operation, which ranks No. 22 on Greenhouse Grower‘s Top 100 Growers list, is the largest in the Pacific Northwest, and spans more than 50 acres of greenhouses and 50 acres of field growing over four locations in Washington, Oregon and California. As a 112-year-old family business that recognizes the need to invest in its future, Smith Gardens has made its Cultivating The Future initiative a corporate priority to attract young people to careers in the horticulture industry.
Don Spence, the production manager at Smith Gardens’ Aurora, Ore., location, started working with local schools years ago. The operation expanded its program to local community colleges, and this year Smith Gardens worked with the American Floral Endowment to set up an internship program, and hosted an intern from Oregon State University.
Smith Gardens Explains Opportunities In Horticulture
The program has many different spokes. Traditionally aimed toward nearby schools with FFA and horticulture programs, Smith Gardens hosts workshops with high school programs, where the operation gets acquainted with what the schools are doing, what they could use help with and then offers that professional help. Smith Gardens has donated plants to local programs, and then works with students to show them how to produce the plants, including plugs in spring and poinsettias in November.
Students from those schools are then invited to visit Smith Gardens. Executive Vice President Lars Nilsen says the operation will often get several busloads of kids to visit the operation, where they are taken on a tour and acquainted with all of the different areas of the business. Students have opportunities to talk with the operation’s department heads, which allows them to see a different view of the industry than they might typically, and helps them to understand the different careers available within the industry -– everything from growing and engineering to finance, sales and marketing.
Smith Gardens has developed a Powerpoint presentation that the operation presents to students, teachers and administrators. The presentation outlines Smith Gardens’ business, provides an industry overview including what horticulture is and the many different aspects involved in the industry, the industry’s net worth in sales and scope, key plant categories and players (breeders, young plant growers, brokers, growers, retailers) in the industry, gardening trends and opportunities in horticulture, from greenhouse jobs to corporate positions.
When hosting students, it also helps to have greenhouses that “won’t scare the kids,” Nilsen says. “Growers who invest in their facilities will leave a better impression with their higher level of technology, which kids like and can relate to.”
Providing Guidance And Mentorship Makes A Difference
While its Cultivating the Future initiative is still in its infancy, Nilsen says the program helps students connect more closely with the industry, more than they would if they just took a tour of a greenhouse operation.
Smith Gardens also offers a job-shadowing program to interested students, and provides information about the program during the tour. This has led to students securing summer jobs and internships at the growing facility. The operation pays students anywhere from minimum wage up to $10 per hour.
Through its mentorship program, which helps the operation identify and closely shadow kids wanting to go the route of pursuing a career in horticulture, there has been at least one success story, Nilsen says. The operation now employs an assistant grower who went through the full mentorship program.
Within the next five years, Smith Gardens will formalize the program at the corporate level and expand the program to more schools near all of its locations. Because the operation is located in rural areas in Washington, Oregon and California, there tend to be schools nearby with agriculture programs already built in, Nilsen says.
Reaching out to high school principals and teachers, it’s not a hard sell, because they are thrilled with the community involvement and they’re looking for curriculum ideas, he says.
Grow The Industry By Developing New Growers
While many growers are likely already hosting tours, it’s important to take those to the next level to give kids a deeper understanding of what careers in horticulture offer, and the variety of opportunities that are available, Nilsen says. Smith Gardens is willing to share its ideas with other growers, and it wouldn’t be hard, he says, for other growers to take what Smith Gardens is doing and make the program their own.
“When we recruit growers, we have to cast a wide net, often stealing them from other operations, and even then, they’re hesitant to move away from home and family,” Nilsen says. “But this program allows us to develop growers locally, in our own backyard, and bring new blood to the industry.”