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Generation gap

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As the green industry looks for its next generation of leaders, one movement aims to promote horticulture careers to the youth.

Kelli Rodda | May 5, 2014

Late last year, an alliance of industry organizations came together for a critical cause – to bolster awareness of horticulture careers and capture more young people’s attention toward the industry. The American Society for Horticultural Science has teamed with Longwood Gardens, AmericanHort, the American Public Gardens Association, the American Horticultural Society and the National Junior Horticultural Association Foundation to pursue a comprehensive study and an action plan to increase public awareness of horticulture in general, as well as career opportunities.

“Almost everyone in the industry talks about the labor shortage,” says Mary Meyer, president of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS). “There’s been a decline in the number of students in academic programs in horticulture. There’s been a decline in the number of people available for positions in horticulture. And when I became president of ASHS last July, I said it was a topic I wanted to tackle.”

Doug Needham, the director of education at Longwood Gardens told Meyer that increasing awareness of horticulture careers also was a goal of the Pennsylvania-based public garden.

After the pair’s discussion, this industry alliance was formed. Earlier this year, the group sent a request for proposal (RFP) to marketing and research firms. In the coming weeks, a vendor will be selected to carry out the study. In the meantime, the group is looking for sponsor partners to help fund the study.

“First we must assess the depth of public awareness of horticulture and horticulture education,” Meyer says.

The national study would determine perceptions of horticulture and perceptions of horticulture education including high school and youth programs (such as the National Junior Horticultural Association, 4-H and Future Farmers of America) and university horticulture programs. The study is slated to begin in summer or fall of this year.

Analysis of the study would develop recommendations and implementation steps such as:

* A marketing plan for universities and colleges to reach potential students (phase 1)

* A marketing plan to promote horticulture to the general public – both youth and adults (phase 2a)

* An education plan to recommend the processes by which horticulture is integrated into K-12 curriculum (phase 2b).

Phase 2 of the study is expected to begin in the summer or fall of 2015.

“Our goal is to create a better awareness of horticulture with young people today,” says Meyer. “People have a very limited view of horticulture. They’re not aware of the scientific aspects of it, the technology involved in growing plants, the nutrition of what we eat, the benefits of plants or the environmental aspects of horticulture.”

Once horticulture is properly presented in the educational system, the industry will reach people at a very young age.

“If people learn the value of horticulture when they’re young, it stays with them forever,” she says.

The educational and marketing plan will likely be revealed in 2015-2016.

“We see this as a national initiative that all facets of the industry will be able to use,” Meyer adds. “We will have information and materials that growers can use. We will have a robust website that talks about careers. We’ll have information that public gardens and schools can use to educate the public.”

AmericanHort is encouraging its members to get involved.

“This is significant because there has not been a comprehensive exploration of why and why not people are interested in horticulture. This includes seeking formal education and career opportunities, and the interest in gardening, for example,” says Michael Geary, president and CEO of AmerianHort. “This greatly impacts the consumption of our products and services, decision making on career possibilities, and our influence on legislative and regulatory priorities.

“We know that plants are important to humans for our mental and physical well-being. They also have a financial impact on our communities and the greater economy. Furthermore, horticultural science is critical in improving the nutritional content of food, enhancing the safety of our produce supply, and increasing the supply of healthy, local and sustainably produced foods. But the trends are declining for research funding, extension services, school enrollment, and the consumption of our products and services. We need to reverse this.”
 

Sow the seed early

Peace Tree Farm in Kintnersville, Pa., understands the importance of introducing horticulture to children as young as five and six. Owners Lloyd and Candy Traven have been marching Kindergarten classes through their greenhouses for years.

“Let them plant a seed, watch it grow, eat it, and they’re hooked,” says Lloyd. He suggests growers get involved with their local school board.

“I’m active on the school board, and that’s where horticulture can easily intersect with the community,” he says.

The National Junior Horticultural Association (NJHA) has been engaging youth in all things horticulture since 1934. Unlike other youth and student groups that have a broad focus, the NJHA concentrates solely on horticulture, says Bill Wilder, chairman of the NJHA Foundation.

“We have to work a lot harder to get young people interested in horticulture because they have so many other things that get their attention,” Wilder says. “We’re working on being more creative in our approach, such as developing an interactive website.”

The group also encourages youth participation in horticulture by teaching them to use both scientific and artistic skills to grow, sell or merchandise a plant.

“Horticulture is an industry with a lot of growth potential, and getting young people to choose horticulture as a career has always been one of our top goals,” Wilder adds.

While the study and subsequent marketing plan are expected to boost participation in horticulture careers, there are a few things that the industry can do now to help.

“Pay has always been a challenge in our industry,” Meyer says. “Horticulture has great rewards and is a very satisfying industry to work in, but better pay and incentives would be a real positive step.”

Beyond pay, the industry can also help by making gardening easier for the consumer.

“The industry must continue to crate value-added products, try new cultivars, introduce new marketing ideas and launch innovative selling techniques,” she adds.

Universities and colleges must also change immediately, Traven says.

“Many of the university programs are offering the same things they have for years. They’re not keeping up with the changes,” he says.

Paul Redman, director of Longwood Gardens says other professions have redefined their academic degrees to reflect 21st-century experiences, but horticulture has been slow to change.

“Our industry must be relevant in current terminology and experiences,” Redman says. “We know that horticulture is about so many things including stewardship, sustainability and ecological restoration, for example. Course work must reflect the needs of the industry.”

Longwood Gardens operates internship programs, as well as a graduate program at the University of Delaware.

Besides supporting college students, Longwood Gardens has a deep commitment to connecting children to horticulture.

“Public gardens are the gateway to the community and horticulture,” Redman says. “We’re often the first exposure children have to horticulture. Through this study, we hope to understand the current curriculum standards for plant science and horticulture in grades K-12. Do they exist? My hunch is it’s not there, or at least it’s limited. We have an opportunity to create new standards and guidelines to expose children to the field of horticulture. It begins with those Kindergarten, first, second and third graders.”

Redman is encouraging all horticulture entities to participate and support the study.

“For-profit, non-profit, academia – everyone needs to and should participate financially,” he says.

It’s crucial that growers and academia partner with public gardens to promote horticulture.

“We represent all fields of interest in horticulture and environmental science,” Redman says. “Public gardens are the catalyst. If you think about the access we have to the public, the influence we have could be limitless.”

For more: www.ashs.org; www.americanhort.org; www.longwoodgardens.org; www.njha.org.

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