The green connection

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Learn how industry groups are bringing plants back into the classroom and encouraging students to consider horticulture-related careers.

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March 7, 2019

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Whether it’s plant blindness, concrete jungles or a lack of plant science curriculum in schools, a large portion of the public doesn’t even recognize the word horticulture. But a diverse group from the horticulture industry has been in the trenches for the last five years promoting plants, their value and making worthwhile connections with school-age children and young adults. Seed Your Future has brought together academia, public gardens, plant producers, associations and others to make plants a part of their lives and to consider horticulture careers.

Seed Your Future (SYF), which started as a kernel idea at an American Society of Horticultural Science conference, first wanted to find out why the number of students enrolling in college and university horticulture programs had dwindled. Once the idea became a full-fledged and funded movement, the group developed research plans. Since then, SYF has conducted three phases of research: one with the industry, which dealt with the problem of not having enough qualified applicants to fill jobs; one with the public to find out about attitudes toward horticulture and related careers; and one with middle school-aged children, their parents, teachers and guidance counselors to find out about curriculum in schools and if they understood the careers available to them in the horticulture field.

“With the research, we found there were misconceptions and stereotypes of careers in horticulture,” explains Susan Yoder, SYF’s executive director. “We learned that we needed to talk about the great diversity of careers — from arborist to zoological horticulturist and everything in between.”

In 2018, SYF launched BLOOM!, a campaign that uses language school-age children understand and connects plants with things they care about like fashion, technology and professional sports.

“We told the story of how drones can be used in the industry or how turf management involves horticulture science,” Yoder says. “Anything we do that’s youth focused needs to be contemporary and resonate with them. We don’t want to lecture them.”

Research found that 52 percent of phone survey participants ages 18–34 were not familiar with the word "horticulture." And focus groups with school-aged children revealed they thought the word horticulture was “weird.” They came up with their own term, “plantology,” saying it sounded cool.

With the help of Scholastic, SYF created a “plant power learning module” for grades 6-8. From “connecting with nature” to researching “green-collar careers,” BLOOM! Is filling in the gaps where schools stopped teaching plant science.

Research found that most students past middle school, and earlier in some cases, no longer receive any education about plants, according to Jeff Gibson, who’s on the SYF advisory council. He’s also the landscape business manager and university trials manager at Ball Horticultural.

SYF is currently reviewing the data from the first year of BLOOM!, and preliminary reports show that the campaign reached just under 1 million children last year and it garnered more than 1 million views on social media, including Instagram (@wearebloom), Facebook (We Are BLOOM) and YouTube (We Are Bloom!), according to Yoder.

“Our goal, with Scholastic’s help, is that at least every sixth, seventh and eighth grade teacher knows about BLOOM!,” she says.

SYF’s research also helped create the just-launched career resource tool (seedyourfuture.org/careers) and once again, focus groups had something to say about the terminology. One group in Chicago wasn’t impressed with the word arborist. Their suggestion: urban lumberjack.

“It goes back to rethinking old language and making it resonate with today’s youth,” Yoder says.

There are 102 careers on this list so far, coupled with videos featuring people in those careers and links to professional organizations. SYF’s plan is to keep building on that list and be the go-to resource for career questions and planning. Currently, there’s information about two- and four-year programs for those career choices, and SYF plans to add information about certifications and apprenticeship programs.

Kate Santos, regional director at Dümmen Orange, says she “stumbled upon this industry almost by accident and have often described it as one of the ‘best kept secrets’ out there.” Santos, who is on the SYF Leadership Cabinet, knows that it can no longer remain a secret.

“For our industry to remain healthy and continue to grow we need to get the word out. Seed Your Future provides the foundation and platform to communicate the secret of our amazing industry and inspire and educate the next generation about the countless opportunities there are working with plants,” Santos says. “The future workforce of our industry depends upon organizations like Seed Your Future, because it is so pivotal that career paths with plants are known and enticing to the next generation. The students today will define both the success and the future of our industry, and I don’t know about you, but I want to do whatever I can to make sure the best of the best choose plants.”

This June, SYF is hosting a summit at Longwood Gardens, which will provide ideas for colleges and universities to recruit students into horticultural programs.

John Dole is associate dean and director of academic programs at North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and is a founding member of SYF. He currently serves on the SYF Leadership Council.

“I am ecstatic over how Seed Your Future is going. The original goals were to promote horticulture and promote careers in horticulture, and I believe Seed Your Future is doing that,” Dole says. “It has a strategic plan, funding, and an excellent group of wonderful volunteers and is making a big impact. Credit needs to be given to Susan Yoder, the dynamic executive director of SYF, the Leadership Cabinet chairs, Anna Ball and Paul Redmon, and the Advisory Council chairs, Charlie Hall and Sarah Cathcart — they are dedicated and amazing.”

While curriculum and careers make up an important part of SYF, it’s just as important to simply introduce children to plants and nature — to cure plant blindness.

“We must get more Americans connected with nature again,” Yoder says. “We need to have this broader level of engagement, not just about our industry and workforce, but also about the health and future of our planet from growing our food to researching diseases.”