Labor from around the world
Labor is always one of the biggest challenges for growers. Hoffman Nursery has found success through unconventional means – hiring refugees through organizations that help these displaced people find work in the U.S. Jill Hoffman, co-owner and vice president of Hoffman Nursery, says the company has used Lutheran Family Services and Church World Services since 2006.
“For the most part, it’s been a very positive experience,” she says. “They help the refugees to get settled in apartments or houses, they help them get hooked up with doctors, and assimilate into the local community and also will help them find jobs. That’s been helpful for us, because we can say ‘We need to hire workers this year.’ Right now we are talking to them about the need to hire five to 10 people at least seasonally. Maybe they will stay on as full-time workers if we need them.”
The nursery has hired between 30 and 35 people through the two programs. One-third of them have stayed on, though some come and go seasonally. The refugees turned employees hail from places like Vietnam, Burma and the Congo.
“These are usually political refugees who come here and want to work, they want to do well,” Hoffman says. “They care about their work and very rarely have we had any kinds of problems with them.”
One of the biggest challenges in hiring refugees is the language barrier. Usually the organization will help provide short-term interpreter services. The nursery has been able to hire local interpreters as needed. But the Vietnamese refugees speak an obscure dialect, and neither the organization nor the nursery were able to find an interpreter.
Working through organizations like LFS and CWS is beneficial because of the support they provide. Besides ensuring the refugees have the appropriate papers to work in the U.S., they provide help with all aspects of being in a new country.
“That support means they are better able to apply themselves to the workplace,” says Shannon Currey, marketing director for Hoffman Nursery. “And the diversity is kind of fun.”
The diversity is especially welcome on pot luck day at the nursery.
“We’ve had some great food,” Hoffman says, “from the guacamole to the egg roll.”
“I met a grower who’s using ultraviolet light water treatment instead of chlorine, and we’re researching whether that is applicable for us. It was a great group of people and innovative thinkers, and I walked away from the meeting really excited about the future of the industry.”
— Dan Batson, GreenForest Nursery, Perkinston, Miss.
“One of the attendees told me about a one page ‘report/dashboard’ that he includes in everyone’s paycheck. It gives them information on top customers, financial updates, staff birthdays, etc. We have always been an open-book company, but sometimes it is hard to find a good method to consistently share information. I thought this was simple and effective, and we now do the same. It includes sales, financial, maintenance, safety and employee information. Several people from the staff contribute, and it has been an effective way to share and communicate.”
— Kelly Lewis, Ruppert Nurseries, Laytonsville, Md.
“Consumers will pay $400 for a new Apple watch because they see the technology involved with it. But they know nothing about the technology and science that goes into growing a plant. We’ve got to change that.”
— Ken McVicker, Van Essen Nursery, Lebanon, Ore.
“MANY BREEDERS are breeding for growers and trucking companies, not for consumers. There are so many short plants coming to market – a 12-inch weigela or a 5-inch bee balm. Growers like it because they can get more plants on a rack. But before you know it, all the gardens will be filled with short plants. Breeders and growers should not lose sight of the needs of gardeners just to satisfy the chain stores and their sometimes unrealistic requirements.”
— Angela Treadwell Palmer, Plants Nouveau
“It is clear that the labor situation had deteriorated and we as an industry continue to look down the barrel of a gun. The political situation is so toxic that a political compromise to work toward an [immigration] solution may be more difficult as time moves on. I think we are reaching, or have already reached, a point where as an industry the limiting factor toward growth and the health of our businesses is the lack of supply of labor to complete the required work. Robots are cool, but you still need someone to be the operator.
One key change we have made as a company is to try and increase work hours and days per week worked to stretch our workforce. This can have both positive and negative effects on the productivity, morale and long-term outlook of our staff. I heard an interesting comment by a fellow nursery owner. When asked how long he thought it would take to move from an environment of plant shortage to the bad old days of overproduction, he responded, ‘I don’t think as an industry we have enough labor to overproduce and won’t for the foreseeable future.’ I think he may be right.”
— Brian Decker, Decker Nursery, Groveport, Ohio
“The use of automation in our new range allowed us to go from 13 touches down to four touches on the trays.”
— Lloyd Traven Peace Tree Farm, Kintnersville, Pa.
“It confirmed a lot of stuff you think you know. When you hear everybody else having the same problems and facing the same situations you are, it helps you know that you’re on the right track. I was sitting at one of the roundtables talking tree production, and there was a guy from J. Frank Schmidt and Dan Batson (from GreenForest Nursery) there, and these guys were talking about 5-7 years for [certain] 2-inch trees being available. I was amazed it was going to take that long. But those guys talk to everybody else — that’s what they do — and said it was the general consensus among all the people they talked to.”
— Randy Bracy, Bracy’s Nursery Amite, La.
“New plants are still important to the market. But growers are testing them and dropping other plants in place of new ones. Growers are being more cautious about what they add to their production schedule. Growers are evaluating all the items in their product mix and looking long and hard about dropping those that are not profitable, even if it is a staple item and even with outcries from their staff.”
— Maria Zampini, UpShoot, Madison, Ohio