Nurseries pursue recruitment effort

Issue Date: April 18, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Kathryn Ustick, a plant specialist at Green Acres Nursery & Supply in Elk Grove, looks over plants at the nursery. As with most other sectors, nurseries and horticulturalists are short of people--including in the management ranks. One nursery operator in Santa Barbara says he is losing key people to retirement and is finding it hard to replace them.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Succulent plants, described by one nursery executive as young people's favorite starter plants, are seen for sale at Green Acres Nursery & Supply in Elk Grove.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Nurseries these days are busy raising succulents, vegetable plants, low-water landscaping—and, they hope, the next generation of horticulturalists.

Seed Your Future, a national effort to interest middle schoolers and high schoolers in the plant business, is working to "just get the word 'horticulture' into the vocabulary," said Randy Baldwin, president and chief operating officer of San Marcos Growers, a wholesale nursery in Santa Barbara. Baldwin said a survey showed "an amazing number of people didn't even know what the word meant."

That's important to Baldwin and other nursery operators, because many employees are beginning to retire.

"I've had good retention, but a lot of (people) are aging out," Baldwin said. "I have a lot of 61- to 65-year-old people in key positions at the nursery."

So he's looking to the horticulture programs at Santa Barbara City College and Mount San Antonio College, as well as the Cal Poly campuses in San Luis Obispo and Pomona, hoping to attract their interest.

"We try and do all we can to get them to know us," Baldwin said, noting that a class would be visiting his property later in the week.

Ashley Rossi, who works in business development for Roseville-based Green Acres Nursery & Supply, said her company benefits from being a grower and a retailer.

"We have a lot of success in getting young people interested in horticulture," Rossi said. "They start to learn about it, and they get really excited about it."

Rossi said having a retail operation—Green Acres operates five garden centers in the Sacramento region—helps attract young people.

"On the retail side, we have several kids that have actually made a career of horticulture out of a high school summer job," she said.

Clayton Smith, an account manager and horticulturalist at Monterey Lawn and Garden in Fresno, encourages young people thinking of a career in horticulture to study business, speech and accounting, as well as plant science.

"I tell the kids this is not so much a job, but a lifestyle," Smith said during a recent board meeting of the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers.

Business is booming for many nurseries this month, due in part to the curveballs Mother Nature threw during the course of a spring-turned-winter-turned-spring.

"We had our first frost at the end of February," said Scott Klittich, owner of Otto & Sons Nursery in Fillmore. "A lot of trees are dormant. They're just starting to leaf out now. By now, they should be leafed out completely, flowered and everything. Crazy season."

Klittich sells deciduous fruit trees from the Central Valley; these are doing better than the trees that spent the whole winter in Fillmore, which are just waking up, he said.

"Things are delayed, but of course people's expectations are not," Klittich said. "The sun comes out, boom, they want to plant."

People still want to buy plants that don't drink a whole lot of water—just don't use the "D" word.

"We're seeing people experience drought fatigue," Rossi said. "They're tired of talking about it. They're tired of hearing about it. But we're continuing to push the efficiency message in our marketing and talk to our customers about efficiency."

That doesn't mean people are done dealing with an inconsistent climate.

"We live in California. There are going to be wet years and dry years," Rossi said. "If we can plant for our climate and the realities of our climate, then that's where people want to be met."

Irrigation technology, such as drip irrigation and water-saving nozzles, also plays a part, she added.

Klittich said he's seeing a release of pent-up energy in the market.

People "held back on their planting," he said. After the rainy winter of a year ago, he said, "people are wanting to get out and garden and make their yards beautiful, put fruit in their yard to harvest from. It's a great thing."

Klittich's nursery deals mainly in roses and fruit trees, the latter being especially popular. Trouble is, avocado fans looking to grow their own will have to wait a while.

"Nobody's got avocados now," he said.

Commercial and residential avocado growers use different rootstocks, he explained; commercial farmers are looking for specific varieties, whereas backyard growers use seedling plants that usually are readily available.

"This year, there's nothing," Klittich said.

Succulent plants are a "major rage," Baldwin said, having gone from 2 percent of his inventory to 30 percent. He considers California's periodic droughts to be a double-edged sword.

"Drought can be a salesperson for us, but it still dampens sales when you don't have the water to water plants," Baldwin said.

He said he's not a fan of the term "drought tolerant."

"A drought for California means no rainfall in the winter months, but really what people are thinking in their minds are plants that actually can go through a summer without regular irrigation," Baldwin said. "There's a number of people trying to come up with new terms like 'summer dry' or 'climate appropriate.' But for the layperson, 'drought tolerant' seems to be what they key in on.

"I think people are thinking differently now," he said. "They know California doesn't have all the water in the world."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.