Stories from Cultivate’18: Labor, technology dominate

Once again, the early birds got the worms at Cultivate’18. Every year, the No. 1 horticulture conference in the country starts its days with programs that provided great in-depth conversations about the industry. This year was no exception.

For example, while AmericanHort discussed retail trends and plant benefits during its Town Hall on Monday morning, Greenhouse Grower featured a panel discussing labor and technology during its Top 100 Growers Breakfast.

While these topics seem miles apart from each other, they’re both incredibly important to the horticulture industry. Let’s take a deeper dive into what drove these topics.

Major issues driving labor, technology in horticulture

Laura Drotleff, erstwhile editor of Greenhouse Grower magazine, led the labor and technology discussion during the Top 100 Growers Breakfast. Drotleff has intimate knowledge of how these issues affect horticulture. For the past several years, labor and technology have proven top of mind to the majority of the magazine’s Top 100 Growers, and Drotleff has written extensively about them.

It was great to see AmericanHort Senior Vice President Craig Regelbrugge on the panel. For years, he’s been working to promote the horticulture industry within the halls of Congress. He’s also done a great job relaying his work on the AmericanHort website.

labor

The talk of the town once again for Cultivate’18 was labor and technology.

Top of mind is labor, as immigration has made major waves in the horticulture industry this summer. One of the Top 100 Growers was raided by ICE back in June, which made for a more urgent discussion than normal.

When it happened, Regelbrugge said AmericanHort urged Congress to focus on the source of illegal immigration instead of uprooting employees and crushing businesses. But as he’s been saying for the past few years, it’s important for growers to use technology to help keep your business protected in the mean time.

“Job one is to make sure your house is in order with respect to compliance, and making sure you’re diligent in verifying your workers’ documentation,” Regelbrugge said in a Greenhouse Grower article when the raid happened. “Next, you need to consider what you would do if there were a major interruption in your workforce, and whether you are equipped to handle it.”

This lends itself directly into the technology discussion. The panelists focused on labor-saving technology, such as AI and improved robotics.  But as Reglebrugge said, the first step is to make sure your documentation is in order — and robotics can’t help with that. But there’s other technology that can.

Having a solid, integrated HR system can help your company stay in compliance, whether it’s I-9s, OSHA, ACA or any other alphabet soup the government can throw at a horticulture company. Since I’ve been following this issue more closely, I’m intrigued that compliance software hasn’t been brought up more often. (We’re partial to Sage HRMS, but the issue is greater than any one product.)

Stories from the retail side of horticulture

Storytelling was brought up during the Town Hall forum Sunday morning. Keynote speaker Scott Greenberg said telling your story is your best bet of communicating. It will help you connect with consumers. To that, I responded:

I thought of this tweet during the Town Hall discussion Monday morning. Economist Charlie Hall highlighted trends and predictions about the nursery economy. I thought of my next-door neighbor, who told me kids today are so lazy. We were talking about her 16-year-old son, who was so averse to working in the yard that he outsourced his work to his friends when he offered to pull weeds in my flower beds last year. Even then, they still didn’t take the time to pull the weeds out by the roots.

Funnily enough, the story was the same over in the Top 100 Growers Breakfast, where AgriNomix’ Rob Lando said people don’t want to do the hard work in a large-scale greenhouse, whether you pay them $9 per hour or $20 per hour.

So how do you rectify this situation? Are we as Americans too lazy to do the hard work, no matter how well you’re paid? Or can teaching them young (or kicking them out of the house until the street lights turn on) help put horticulture back on the right path?

Apparently, there does seem to be some headway. As mentioned in the Town Hall, the Seed Your Future BLOOM! campaign, which educates middle- and high-school students about horticulture careers, is seeing some impressive traffic. But will that translate from the cyber world to the real world?

And does the horticulture industry need to broaden the scope of its target audience? Should it just be about horticulture careers or should they educate our youth about the benefits of horticulture at home? What good is being in a horticulture job if you end up losing it because nobody’s left to buy your products and plant them?

There’s a long row to hoe for the horticulture industry if it wants to regain its standing with future generations. Parsing the data is one way of doing it. Data discussed during the Town Hall shows millennials care more about health benefits than environmental benefit of plants. So instead of the horticulture industry only talking about healthy plants, why not also talk about a healthy lifestyle of hard work and exercise that goes along with the territory?

These types of conversations are great, because representatives from across the horticulture industry can come together to weigh on on these heady subjects. I’m glad we have a place like Cultivate’18 where we can come together to discuss topics like these.

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