Horticulture needs good people, and good people need good jobs. That’s a given. But there are myriad challenges to finding and maintaining a thriving workforce in the green industry, not the least of which are stalled immigration reform efforts and robust competition for younger workers’ passions.

Attracting new talent has always been a struggle, to be sure, but the proliferation of digital distractions has added another layer to the challenge. Given the choice between jobs that promise air conditioning and beaucoup bucks or jobs that promise dirt under the fingernails and bad knees, which would you choose?

On the other hand, these young minds – those to whom all things digital are second nature – have a keen sense of how to marry technology and passion, which is what it will take to succeed. What’s more, this Millennial Generation (when will they tire of that label?) has time and again demonstrated a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a deep commitment to the environment. Having come of age during the Great Recession, there’s not much that they take for granted, other than their earnest desire to improve life. And that passion extends far beyond their own well-being to embrace community – local or global.

Given the shared interests, passions and missions of an enthusiastic, talented, open-minded generation and a critical industry that seeks to improve quality of life, isn’t this a perfect fit?

Horticulture remains, however, the most important industry that few people know about. We can change that – we will change that – and there are a number of organizations and institutions that are working tirelessly to improve its status and ensure its continued success. Throughout the coming year, we’ll be exploring generations in cooperation – Mentors and Legacies – and programs that work to make horticulture a leader in the environmental and agricultural sciences.

Seed Your Future” is one such program, and it’s one we’ll explore in depth in coming issues. Supported by horticulture luminaries lending their knowledge, advice and expertise to the program, Seed Your Future was officially launched early this year by Longwood Gardens and the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS). It’s described as “a multi-year effort to combat declining awareness of horticulture among U.S. audiences and promote horticulture as a vital and viable career path for the nation’s youth. More than 150 partner organizations, including leaders in horticultural industries, horticultural associations, public gardens, public agencies, K – 12 and higher education have already signed on to the initiative which aims to preserve the future of this increasingly at-risk field.”

Here’s more from the original announcement:

“Horticulture, which encompasses everything from the production of fruits and vegetables that we eat to the design of ornate gardens and floral arrangements that we admire, is at risk of becoming insignificant – even non-existent – in the minds of future generations. In a recent survey, only 48 percent of adults aged 18 to 34 said they are familiar with horticulture, as compared with 65 percent of older adults. And, while the majority of respondents view horticulture as essential to food, water and the environment, only 26 percent strongly agree that horticulture is a diverse area of study that will lead to a fulfilling and respected career.

“Still in its infancy, the Seed Your Future initiative involves a multi-phased, multi-year approach to tackling these challenges and is actively seeking additional industry involvement to advance its efforts to educate the general public – in particular educating students across middle school, high school and college, and their parents – about the diverse and critical roles horticulture professionals play in our daily lives. Targeted to launch publicly in 2017, the broader campaign will be rolled out across a five-year period.”

A strategic business plan was developed to help guide the initiative; its leadership council is co-chaired by Anna Ball, CEO and Owner of Ball Horticultural Company, and Paul B. Redman, Executive Director of Longwood Gardens. Charlie Hall, industry guru and Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University, is chair of the group’s advisory council.

Read more: Welcoming a New Generation of Horticulturists (And Celebrating the Veterans)

Going to school

The past decade or so has brought about upheaval in horticulture education, resulting in changes from a decrease in courses to the eradication of entire curricula at the college level. As money got tight and instructors were required to spend more time chasing funds, we lost some educators. Others moved on to healthier programs.

Photo: iStock

But while there may be relatively fewer college departments offering degrees in horticulture, that by no means indicates a decrease in the quality of hort education. From augmented science classes in high schools through community college programs to major university offerings, horticulture education appears to be growing. And the earlier grades are taking it seriously.

At the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences — it doesn’t get more urban than that — there are six “pathways” of study, horticulture among them. According to the school, “The Horticulture Pathway is designed to help students develop knowledge and skills in the following areas of study: using soil and other plant growing media, identifying and propagating horticultural plants: basics of growing horticultural plants in the greenhouse and nursery setting, designing landscape plans, hardscape construction techniques, designing, installing landscape plans, a basic understanding on building and managing a working hydroponics systems.”

In addition to basic high school curricula and specific horticulture courses, students are required to complete courses in Agricultural Economics and Finance, Ag Careers and Leadership, Ag Science, Ag Communications, and Agricultural Career Pathways I and II.

The proof of the program’s effectiveness is in the data — as well as its outstanding displays at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show each spring, which rival those of professional designers. The school’s students regularly score higher in academics than those in other district schools. The four-year graduation rate stands at 91.3, versus 85.6 for the state; the five-year graduation rate is 95.0 versus 87.7 for the state. Overall student performance on statewide tests outranked schools throughout the state.

Top 5 Hort Schools

If you’re looking for a quick reference to the top five hort schools in the nation, your search will be a tricky one. Rankings we found compared schools like a confused shopper compares dish soap to chocolate chips. A few rankings are based on student “votes,” while others are determined by the percentage of students accepted versus the number of applicants.

With so many outstanding academic horticulturists and allied academics communicating with and participating in the industry, it should be easy to find what you’re looking for. As we urge for a number of questions, when in doubt, ask your extension agent.

StartClass.com (Score based on percentage of students accepted):

  • Cornell University
  • University of Florida, Gainesville
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • Ohio State University

U.S. New and World Report (“Best Global Universities for Agricultural Sciences”; ranking based on “reputation and research in the field.”):

  • University of California – Davis
  • Cornell University
  • Harvard University
  • University of Florida
  • University of Massachusetts – Amherst

The Flower Expert lists the top universities in the U.S. for horticulture, in alphabetical order, beginning with Auburn and Clemson, and ending with University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Washington State University. Thirty-one schools are listed.

StateUniversity.com gives us the Top 5 “most popular” schools for horticultural science majors and degree programs:

  • Auburn University
  • Rio Salado College
  • Iowa State University
  • Kansas State University
  • North Carolina State University, Raleigh