Sometimes you find someone who has so much to say, and has such an interesting perspective, that the best thing to do is simply to allow that voice to be heard, unimpeded. And so, in very short order, we’ll do that.
I do need to interject here that I met Dan Moore at a roundtable discussion led by Susan Yoder of Seed Your Future, held during The Western in Kansas City in January. During the back-and-forth, Dan said something that sparked my interest, and a gentleman across the table saw my reaction and asked, “Is that your next editorial?” I thought, no, there’s our next profile.
What was the comment? We’d been talking, briefly, about new plants. And Dan politely disagreed with another comment, saying that what is most important is the experience of the garden, the way it makes one feel, rather than any individual plant. Echoing plantsman Roy Diblik, Dan said, “You don’t love a song because of one note that’s played. You don’t love a painting for one brush stroke.”
I had to hear more, and I believe you do, too. So I’m stepping aside a bit to let Dan, the operations manager for Kinghorn Gardens in Omaha, Nebraska, do the talking.
At a glance
Name: Dan Moore
Position: Operations Manager
Company: Kinghorn Gardens
Location: Omaha, Nebraska
Education: University of Nebraska- Lincoln; degree in horticulture with a focus on business
Years in the business: “I started in the business when I was 16.”
The great outdoors
Moore says he came to the industry somewhat naturally, through his appreciation of the great outdoors. And he says that’s what should be key in our marketing: What do you want the landscape to do for you?
His parents were gardeners, and he describes his father as an “outdoorsman.” He has a background in scouting – he’s an Eagle Scout – and his experience with, and love of, the great outdoors contributed to his career choice.
“We’ve talked about people who’ve mentored throughout the years and that’s really what Bryan Kinghorn has imparted to me – and this is the why behind the what: Why do people go outside? Why as a child did you go outside? Why do you go into your own back yard? It’s usually because that adds some sort of value to your life. In our roundtable, I talked about, it doesn’t matter if it’s a hydrangea or a viburnum, it’s the purpose, not the plant. You can create a canopy with about 30 different tree species. You can create really pretty border beds that are going to add protection to your back yard, with an endless possibility of plant material.
“Bryan uses the alphabet example that he adopted from Roy Diblik: We have 26 letters, and in this 57 minutes we’ve been talking, I’ve never really wanted for a new word. And every word I’ve made, I’ve made out of 26 letters.
“The underlying issue is, people come in to your garden center and unless they have to have this plant, what they really want is, what is that plant going to bring them? Do they want to have birds in the yard, because if so, I can make that happen. And the specific plants that I put in there don’t necessarily matter to the client. It’s defining people’s spaces and getting them outside to enjoy it. What is the landscape going to do for you? What’s the function of the space? And then everything else doesn’t matter.”
As kids, many of us spent days outside, making up our own games and climbing trees and collecting rocks – and staying out till dark.
“But you didn’t stay out until dark because, ‘gosh, look at this really cool oak tree,’ or ‘oh my gosh, isn’t this pocket of grama grass really pretty?’ You stayed out because of what the landscape did for you. That’s what our focus in our company is: creating beautiful experiences. We want you to have a good experience when you work with this company; we want you to get what you want and what you pay for.
“But really, it comes down to this: We want you to have a space that you can experience, that you can enjoy, whether it’s for a morning coffee and a newspaper or it’s reading a book in the shade of a tree on a summer afternoon. Or you’ve got a political rally, or the grandkids come over for croquet.
“You have a kitchen inside; we don’t want you to have a kitchen outside. We want you to have outside outside. Why do you put a TV outside? You have a TV inside. I don’t view my outdoor space as an extension of my indoor space; I view it as my outdoor space. And that’s where I’m going to go and play with my kids; that’s where I’m going to go to garden and to relieve stress. I tell people all the time that I judge a garden by this: Is there a spot to read a good book? I love to read; as the father of a 3-year-old and a 1-year old, I don’t get a chance to read anymore, but that’s what I love the most. A well-positioned bench, a really nice tree and a place of quiet. I think a garden, to me, is a sanctuary.”
What do you do during the “off” season? Do you jet off to a tropical isle for a little R&R? Do you take stock of business operations and plan for the crunch to come?
Moore spends much of his time in the colder months on what he calls his “winter gypsy tour” of schools. When business is cool, his travel schedule heats up with trips around Nebraska and neighboring states. His goal? Recruitment. And not just for his company, but for the industry.
“It started out of necessity,” Moore explains. “It think it’s important to understand where our qualified people are coming from. My main focus up to this point has been on two-year trade schools. We approached them with, ‘Hey, we want to come up and see what your program’s all about,’ and I always offer to help. I don’t believe in being a taker. I think this is a marathon and not a sprint. There’s a lot of different sprints you can to do to hire people, whether it’s Craig’s List or Monster, or you’re going to career fairs and you’re enticing people different ways.
“But my mission is really just to see what’s going on, what are the issues that all these schools are facing, is there common ground? Do they have an advisory board that I can assist them with? Those are the kinds of questions that I like to ask: It’s not, ‘Who’s your best student and how do I get him?”’
Like many of us, Moore has found that academic hort programs and personnel are taxed beyond their limits.
“A lot of these programs seem to have about two to three highly engaged professors that are responsible for everything from their own department’s recruiting to getting these students through all the life events that happen when you’re in school to getting them through their programs, grading papers, teaching lectures. Sometimes they’re involved in elements of extension, research, writing grants, trying to get money, begging and pleading for help. And that’s why I didn’t believe in being a taker when we showed up at these places, because they don’t have much else to give. A lot of those programs are so stretched. Most of those professors care an extreme amount for what they do, but we’re sort of a marginalized industry in the fact that people don’t understand our contribution.”
How receptive have the schools been?
“We have established a continuing relationship with about 50 percent of the people; I think some of it is there’s some skepticism as to what our actual motives are. I understand the skepticism, but it’s frustrating because I do really just want to help. Because I know down the road, at some point you’ll help me.”
For his efforts, Moore says, Kinghorn has gained a couple of good employees. But remember: That’s not entirely the point. It’s making a connection, it’s planting the seed for future industry professionals.
“That is our biggest victory,” Moore claims. “We’re creating a relationship, which creates advocates.”
How can horticulture be invisible?
During our discussion of recruiting for horticulture professionals, we talked briefly about the problem of the relative invisibility of the horticulture industry. The grow-local, eat-local movement has stated that children don’t know where their food comes from: Does anyone really know where plants come from?
“That’s the kind of thing that just blows my mind,” Moore says. “One thing that our industry is running up against is that the [academic] horticulture programs are being absorbed into the agronomy and agriculture programs. The thought processes are completely different. How can you not understand that there’s a horticulture industry? Have you never been outside?
“You think of New York City, and maybe it’s the way I’m hard-wired, I think of Central Park first. Look at it on Google Maps, and tell me what the most distinguishing feature is: It’s not a building, it’s the fact that there’s a giant park in the middle of this city. That’s not an accident. It’s understanding the importance of what that element is in your life. And the fact that even apartment complexes have green spaces, and your property does. The average property, at least around here, is somewhere around 10,000 square feet, and your house takes up a 1,000-square-foot footprint of that. What are you doing with the other 9,000?”
If kids are to be exposed earlier to the opportunities of horticulture, he says, “Your focus is on those formative years, never on clearly what your career is going to be. And how do you get them to turn and look and actually see, unless you have avenues like camps, and the greenhouses at school. And I’m sorry, but the program has got to be better than ‘wrap some lima beans in a wet paper towel.’ Surely we can do better than the project to see that some of them sprout white and some of them sprout green.”
It’s a quality of life thing
Horticulture is a career, to be sure, but it’s also a lifestyle, of sorts. Beyond the classes and the lab experiments, how do we attract future green industry pros?
“Unless you’ve got a really good set of circumstances, I don’t know that this is an industry that you’re going to become a millionaire in, over the course of your career. So I think it really does take a special kind of person. There are other things you can do to make money, and they’re probably a lot easier than this.
“But I think the biggest thing is [considering what people] want to have in a job. They don’t want to do the same thing every day; well, we don’t. They don’t want to sit at a desk and stare at a computer screen all day; most of us don’t. They want to be outside, at least part of the time; well, we’re outside all of the time. They want to work with their hands; well, we do that. They want to create, they want to be creative and artistic, well, absolutely we do that. They want to think about everything from global warming to save the bees to parks and recreation, your outdoor spaces. We’re involved in all of that stuff.
“There’s such a quality of life component in what we do; I think that’s attractive enough. At the end of the day, you’re not going to go home and think about, am I going to get heart disease because I sat in my chair for eight hours a day? We tell people when we hire them, cancel your gym membership, because you won’t need it.
“There are a lot of things that people put on their list of check boxes that they want their job to meet, and then they go about looking for the wrong thing. Some of these might be more important; you want to, you need to provide for yourself and for your family; you want to have a house and 1.3 kids and the dog and the whole works, and you want the American Dream. Well, you can do that. My wife and I work for the same company in this industry, and we just bought a new house this past year, we had a new son; we have a few dogs. I mean, we have the American Dream and we’re in the industry. It’s totally obtainable.
“As an industry, the thing that we need to do better is getting that message out there. There are a lot of jobs that you can take where you’re not going to become a millionaire. And I bet they’re not going to check off quite as many things as you can in this industry.”
The Mike Rowe connection
You know Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel program, “Dirty Jobs.” He’s the one who’s not afraid to take the cameras – and to dive in himself – through sewers and septic tanks, into medical waste facilities, slogging through swamps. He highlights the jobs that many of us never knew existed, and he celebrates the crews that take on the filthiest, hardest, least-glamourous jobs. If it’s dangerous, disgusting or just plain difficult, he’ll do it.
Rowe’s a champion of unsung, little recognized laborers who get the job done, no matter what it takes. Sound anything like the horticulture industry?
His mikeroweWORKS Foundation was established to encourage and provide funding for training for labor-intensive jobs, to help close the skills gap and rebuild the labor force. His philosophy is that a four-year college degree is not for everyone, and that there’s dignity in honest work.
Moore is a fan of Rowe, and he believes that the industry could use a spokesperson, like Rowe, who could reach those potential lifelong employees.
“His Mike Rowe Works Foundation, I think, is such an important initiative. His focus is on getting people in the trades. It seems to be more than a focus on the stereotypical dirty jobs, and I don’t know why we’re not part of that – the electrician, the plumber, the welder’s kind of mentality.”
Why not horticulture?
“How do we get people engaged in the fact that here’s one of the best things our industry provides students: Unless you keep a very narrow view of what you will do, you’re guaranteed a job, 100 percent, coming out of school, in your field. How many other college degrees can boast that? That is such an exciting thing, and Rowe’s statement is somewhere along the lines of, too many people are going out to get degrees they don’t need with money they don’t have for jobs that don’t exist.
“We’ve created such a skills gap; there’s a reason why everybody’s looking for employees. Talk to someone in the HVAC industry and they can’t find a quality person that doesn’t job-jump every two months. You get into horticulture and yes, there’s interest, but it’s a lot of interest in design and there’s not so much interest in going out and getting your hands dirty.”