Why There’s a Bright Future in Horticulture Education

horticulture education

Most horticulture programs require an internship so students can get hands-on experience in the industry. Photo: Colorado State University

There’s a common misconception that there are not enough young people entering the field of horticulture. However, when you look closely at enrollment trends at many land grant institutions, the numbers show that the COVID-19 pandemic not only boosted overall consumer interest in plants and gardening but has also led more students to pursue careers in horticulture.

In this article, we reached out to horticulture department heads to learn more about what they’re doing to engage prospective students and guide them on the right career path. Here’s what they have to say.

New Paths to Enrollment

For many young people, the journey to horticulture starts with how they choose to participate in the learning process. Dr. Ryan Contreras, Professor and Associate Head of the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University, says Oregon State was the first in the nation to launch an e-campus degree in horticulture.

“It’s opened the door for place-bound students and non-traditional learners seeking second careers such as veterans,” Contreras says, who notes it’s also an option for younger students who became accustomed to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and may still struggle with in-person gatherings. “We’ve seen massive growth since the program launched in 2011, and almost 70% of our horticulture students use the e-learning program.”

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Dr. Mengmeng Gu, Professor and Head of the Department of Horticulture & Landscape Architecture at Colorado State University (CSU), says online students at CSU have come to deeply appreciate the experience, noting one student from Minnesota who flew in for commencement with her family and said if she could do it, anyone could.

The enrollment process can also start early by targeting high school students, many of whom have not had exposure to the world of horticulture.

“We’re trying to engage high school students as much as possible and let them know about the many careers that exist in the world of plants,” says Dr. Doug Karcher, Professor and Chair of Horticulture and Crop Science at The Ohio State University.

The stricter admission standards at many universities have presented challenges, which is why Karcher often suggests students start at a regional campus. As long as they have a decent freshman year, they should be able to transition to the main campus.

“We’ve also adapted our recruitment process to better promote some of our newer programs, such as controlled environment agriculture (CEA) and the new Ohio Controlled Environment Agriculture Center,” Karcher says. “Ohio is one of the nation’s leaders in CEA vegetable production, so we expect to see a lot of growth in that area over the next several years.”

Sometimes it also helps to bring in students from a non-farming background.

“These students may look at things a little differently, and will often get creative in solving problems,” says Dr. Desmond Layne, Head and Professor of the Department of Horticulture at Auburn University.

Oregon State Hort Students

Recent graduates are skilled in important aspects of the industry, such as biological controls and technology. Photo: Oregon State University

Different Types of Degrees

The traditional college experience may be a thing of the past. For example, Contreras mentions the possibility of non-four-year degrees through an applied program.

“The time frame to obtain a degree would be shorter and focused on coursework that would help them toward a career in horticulture,” he says.

Dr. Justin Quetone Moss, Department Head and Professor at Oklahoma State University’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, says there are also opportunities to combine horticulture with education on a broader scale.

“We have degrees in Agriculture Leadership and Horticulture Business, which means you don’t have to minor in business or management because they’re built right into the program,” says Moss.

Layne also points out that with more people becoming health-conscious and in tune with sustainability, why not build these into your curriculums?

“We see our students being more interested in how biological programs fit into horticulture, and we’ve tried to incorporate that into our education,” Layne says.

Untapped Opportunities

Colorado State has the largest public trial gardens for floriculture west of the Mississippi River, according to Gu. In addition to attracting visitors, the gardens are also popular with students — and with national and international plant companies that are willing to financially support students in their path to a career in horticulture.

The University of Minnesota offers students research grants.

“They can write a grant to study anything from production to genetics, and then work with a faculty mentor on their research,” says Dr. Neil Anderson, Professor and Interim Head of the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota. “Oftentimes, it will kindle interest in future research.”

Of course, there are additional opportunities for both students and universities moving forward.

“We haven’t really taken advantage of what’s happening in areas like automation, artificial intelligence, and labor efficiency,” Moss says. “These are topics we need to address soon.”

Making Industry Connections

Universities also play a huge role in helping students find industry experience — and it can work both ways.

“Some of our students will take photos or videos of whatever they’re learning in horticulture classes and will post them on social media in our Green Collar Scholars Program,” Anderson says. “Future employers might take notice of that and appreciate the enhanced learning experience.”

At Colorado State, Gu says several alumni own businesses in the industry and are frequently invited to campus to talk to students.

As you can imagine, internships are a common path to employment, and most horticulture programs require them. But just as important as helping students learn how the professional side of the industry operates, an internship can also help them find their niche, or the students may learn that horticulture might not be the best fit.

“Some students end their internships with a newfound passion for plants, and we expect them to stick around,” says Contreras. “Others may ultimately decide this industry isn’t for them, but it’s better to learn that early than for an employer to hire someone and then lose them to another field.”

Karcher also notes that some students who have a research-minded career focus may also realize that they don’t have to pursue work within a university.

“Many growers and suppliers in the industry are developing their own research programs, and that has become an emerging career path,” Karcher says.

Post-College Opportunities

While it’s not necessarily good news for the industry, there tends to be more job openings available for graduating students than there are students themselves.

“This gives us the ability to help students find a career that most aligns with their interests, and it also helps us inform prospective horticulture students about what’s available to them,” Moss says.

For horticulture students who may find that the business aspect is more appealing than digging in the dirt, Anderson says there are opportunities to own a company.

“There are a lot of longstanding family-run businesses in this industry for sale because there isn’t someone from the next generation to take ownership,” he says.

Of course, there are other roles available that don’t require working with plants at all, from marketing to human resources to engineering (Seed Your Future’s Careers page on its website is an excellent resource). But whichever career path horticulture students choose to take, the good news is that the possibilities are endless. And with more young people joining the industry, that’s great news for everyone.

The Leadership Education Process Continues

By Matt Foertmeyer

Several years ago, AmericanHort and the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), recognizing the need for a strong and developed pipeline of leaders in our industry, came together to create the HRI Leadership Academy. The program focuses on connecting leaders in horticulture who can not only improve their own businesses, but also work together to improve our industry as a whole.

When answering questions about the academy, I am often asked “Was it worth it?” My answer is a resounding yes. The demands and commitment of the program are not light. The curriculum is designed to challenge and stretch the participants in a way that causes them to look at themselves, their companies, and the industry, in a way that we often don’t because of the grind we all face on a daily basis.

It’s so easy to get caught up building your business or training and developing those around you, which are both great things. However, what the Leadership Academy really did for me was provide a structured environment where I could focus on developing myself as a leader. After all, what better way to assure that your company and those around you are improving than to make sure that you yourself are leading effectively each and every day?

Matt Foertmeyer of Foertmeyer and Sons in Ohio was a member of the inaugural HRI Leadership Academy, which is designed to develop and foster the skills the green industry needs to perform better, grow faster, and prepare for the future.

Panel Discussion On Tap at Cultivate’24

Each department head featured in this story will be part of a panel discussion at Cultivate’24 on July 15. “Bridging Futures in Horticulture: A Conversation with Horticulture Department Heads” will delve into optimizing university strategies to prepare students for dynamic careers in horticulture. Panelists will address pivotal questions on fostering student success and explore collaborative opportunities between academia and industry. Following the discussion, there will be an extended Q&A with all department chairs, creating an intimate and casual setting for industry members to directly interact with leaders in horticultural education. Learn more at CultivateEvent.org.

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