Written by Dr. Mark Bridgen
Professor, Cornell University
mpb27@cornell.edu

How the National Floriculture Forum Began

National Floriculture ForumThe National Floriculture Forum (NFF) officially began in 1999, but it had been “evolving” for several years prior. Previous to 1999, academics in the floriculture discipline met sporadically to network with one another. At that time, the main reason for meeting was to discuss the waning support of universities for floriculture programs nationwide. More specifically, faculty positions designated “floriculture” were not being filled. Floriculture was a very strong discipline in the U.S. in the major land-grant universities in the 1970s; by the 1990s, funding for floriculture was quickly disappearing.

During 1997-1998, Dr. Mark Bridgen (at that time, faculty member at the University of Connecticut; currently professor at Cornell University) was asked to organize this informal group of faculty members into an official, recognized group. Senior academic members from around the country believed that to build credibility and to be acknowledged as a legitimate section of national horticulture, this group of floriculturists needed to organize. It was decided that the best way to accomplish this goal would be to enlist the support of the American Society of Horticultural Science (ASHS), which is the recognized professional horticultural association in the U.S. This group of floriculturists also needed to garner the support of other national floriculture organizations like the American Floral Endowment (AFE), the Ohio Florists’ Association and the Society of American Florists (SAF).

Dr. Bridgen established an Advisory Committee for the first NFF meeting which included national leaders in floriculture: Dr. Richard Craig from Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Robert Langhans from Cornell University, Dr. John Erwin from the University of Minnesota, Dr. Terril Nell from the University of Florida, Dr. Marvin Miller from Ball Horticultural Co., Dr. James Barrett from the University of Florida, Dr. Randy Woodson from Purdue University, Dr. Terri Starman from the University of Tennessee, and Dr. Ellen Paparozzi from the University of Nebraska.

It was decided to hold the first National Forum for Floriculture Leaders at the Hilton Hotel just outside of Chicago in Lisle/Naperville on the weekend of February 27-28, 1999. In order to accommodate faculty who had teaching responsibilities, the NFF would begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday and end at noon on Sunday. This time allowed participants to travel on Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. Chicago was chosen for its central location in the U.S. and ease of access. The isolation of this location for the conference allowed for a meeting with no distractions.

The theme of the first NFF meeting was “Improving Cooperation and Communication in the Floricultural Community.” Academic, government and business leaders from across the nation were invited to attend to discuss the status of floriculture in the U.S. and plan for its future. One of the key objectives of that meeting was to update the Directory of Research Skills for Floriculture, which had not been published since 1994. Thanks to the financial support from AFE, Ball Horticultural Co., Greenhouse Grower Magazine, Greenhouse Product News Magazine, GrowerTalks Magazine and Ball Publishing, Ohio Florists’ Association, SAF, and Uniroyal Chemical Co., there was no registration fee to attend this meeting.

More than 70 industry leaders in floriculture met in Chicago for that first NFF meeting in 1999. The excellent attendance was a strong declaration of support for floriculture in the U.S. New faculty members were especially grateful for this opportunity because they were able to network with colleagues and benefit from discussions on how to establish their programs and develop a niche for themselves.

Summary of the first NFF meeting in 1999

The meeting began with an opening address by the senior member of our floriculture group, Dr. Robert Langhans, Professor of Floriculture at Cornell University. Dr. Langhans humorously began the proceedings by thanking his parents for the honor of being the “senior” floriculturist in the group, but then got serious to act as “the devil’s advocate” and give provocative comments and futuristic predictions for floriculture:

  • Langhans asked: “Who will be the new leaders in floriculture?” He noted that times have changed since the era of Ken Post, Alex Laurie, Gus Mehlquist and D.C. Kiplinger. These kinds of leaders may not exist in the future. He stated that academics are now spending most of their time in search of funding to keep their programs going instead of knowing the members of the industry and the students. He did not think that this kind of mentality was going to change in universities.
  • Langhans recalled when the faculty used to run the universities, but today (in 1999) there is less faculty governance and more decisions made by administrators. The increased load of accountability and bureaucracy that is required takes a lot of time from the faculty.
  • He explained that much of the floriculture research (in 1999) is being directed by sponsors to solve specific problems. This is not all bad because the industry can get better value for its money. But scientists need to show more leadership and vision to avoid a directed research program.
  • Data show that there are fewer graduate students going into floriculture, and this will affect us in the future. Dr. Langhans explained that new students are not motivated to obtain graduate degrees because they think that “we are out of our minds” for working long hours, living under the strain of finding funding sources, not researching the “exciting stuff” and using tools at the leading edge of technology. He suggested that maybe we need to recruit outside of our discipline to attract new students.
  • In addition to fewer students, there are fewer horticulture departments in the U.S. due to mergers. When this happens, horticulturists don’t get replaced when they retire or leave.  On the other hand, with mergers, there is a greater mass of students.
  • The American floriculture industry is very successful and it will become more successful with specializations developing and improved efficiencies in production. Our businesses have to get large to respond to the marketing needs, but there are still many opportunities for small growers to find niches such as growing high quality products.
  • Langhans predicted that one of the futures for the greenhouse industry will be the greenhouse vegetable industry and there will be many opportunities to develop greenhouse technology for them. More cooperative efforts need to be made in this area.

After Dr. Langhan’s thought-provoking presentation, the main focus of the weekend began with a discussion of the National Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative. Dr. Terril Nell of the University of Florida, and Mr. Drew Gruenburg and Ms. Lin Schmale of SAF made the presentation.

They reported that after many years of a concerted effort, a new victory for floriculture has been accomplished. On October 21, 1998, $1.2 million was approved in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget for floral and nursery crop research that is funded through the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and guided by industry, USDA and universities.  The legislature agreed to this funding because they were shown that more than 10% of the total U.S. crop cash receipts are from horticulture. At that time, horticulture commodities were the third-largest value crop in the U.S. after corn and soybeans. But unfortunately, less than 1% of federal agriculture research dollars were being devoted to this research.

The National Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative was characterized as a coordinated program to obtain and guide federal research funding targeted to the needs of the floriculture and nursery industry. It succeeded because it was the result of a coordinated effort of SAF and the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA), with strong support of the Ohio Florists’ Association.

The goals of the Initiative were (1) to improve environmental and resource management practices and strategies, (2) to improve pest (insect, disease and weed) management practices and strategies and (3) to improve production system practices and strategies. The goals were identified by Dr. H. Marc Cathey from 1991-1993 when he completed a national survey to determine the needs of the industry. In addition, the priorities of private funding sources were reviewed to prevent duplication of private and federal research and to allow them to complement one another. Accountability of taxpayer dollars was a big factor as well as the areas of national, industry-wide significance.

The Initiative began in the late 1980s as the result of a meeting that was held concurrently by the ASHS Floriculture Education Working Group and the Floriculture Working Group. In early 1990, SAF agreed to support it and later that year established the National Floriculture Research Initiative Task Force. Since then, SAF spent countless hours meeting with members of the USDA, Congress and other commodity groups as well as testifying to House and Senate Committees. Ultimately, the Initiative succeeded as result of the patience of the SAF Committee, unity within the industry, and support from Congress balanced by support from within USDA.

The funds were allocated after the ARS asked the ANLA and SAF for recommendations on projects consistent with Congressional designations. Of the $1.2 million, $400,000 went to ARS for floral and nursery crop research from previous years, $200,000 went to the U.S. National Arboretum, $200,000 went to support an Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center at Ohio State University, and $200,000 went to both the University of California and Cornell University.

The success of the Initiative that year was considered to be only the beginning. The goal going forward was to retain the $1.2 million in the budget with an eventual increase to almost $25 million. Communication continued to be improved and was guided by industry, government and universities.

Following the SAF presentation, Dr. Miller McDonald, from the Ohio State University, reported on the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center at Ohio State and Dr. Ramon Jordon from the National Arboretum reported on their research programs.  The remainder of the afternoon was utilized to answer questions from the group and to discuss the future of the Initiative.

That first night after dinner, the evening discussion focused on the topics of “What does the floriculture industry expect from academia?” and “What qualifications do our industry leaders expect from our graduating horticulture students?” Mr. Jim Leider, Vice President for Grants at AFE, led this thought-provoking discussion. At that time, AFE was the largest single funding source for floriculture research in our industry. They had more than $10 million in their corpus at the time and hoped to distribute $1 million in research funds the following year.

Mr. Leider began his discussion by talking about traditional pricing structures and how traditional value perceptions were being destroyed by the competition. He asked: “What does this have to do with universities?” Leider said: “Pricing pressures are enormous and the producers need help to be as efficient as possible.” The industry could no longer afford to make mistakes because the product needed to be just right and the expectations for greenhouse products were increasing. Leider emphasized that academia needed to realize this and to work with the industry.

impatienphotoHe stated that another concern for university researchers was that the arsenal for insect prevention and control was diminishing in spite of the great job with biological controls.  Added to this problem was the perception by scientists that there was some tolerance level held by the consumers and that it was not necessary to have 100% control of insects. Mr. Leider said: “Unfortunately, the consumers do not want to see any bugs! Products that move through food chains and food outlets are worse; their tolerance is 0%! The reality of our environment is that there is a zero tolerance attitude by the consumers.”

AFE wanted to concentrate their efforts and funding in order to produce results that could be given back to the industry. Four areas of focus were identified: 1) insect control, 2) disease control, 3) postharvest physiology, and 4) new crop development. AFE wanted the universities to provide solutions to problems and reach an end-result. Basic research would be funded also, but it must eventually lead to an end point. AFE was becoming more focused on its research funding and the areas it expects universities to study.

Mr. Leider continued by suggesting that universities needed to encourage more student training programs through internships. At that time, there was more scholarships for interns than there were applicants. He suggested that advisors needed to encourage qualified students to take internships because there is no substitution for hands-on experience. He believed that internships should become required for graduation. He also believed that there was a need for more grower-level graduates from 2-year programs. He said that there was a perception that there was no trained help available, and many of the 4-year graduates were too expensive to hire.

Mr. Leider continued by saying that extension agents were harder and harder to find. The industry was willing to pay for this service, but they needed to have the resources (people) available. He recommended the development of an access system to find good cultural information for floriculture production. He felt that this would assist growers accessing information.

He stated that there was a perception that there is a significant “disconnect” between the university researcher and the floriculture industry. He said that if researchers did not visit the growers, then they would not understand the “real world” problems. He asked: “New discoveries may work in the laboratory, but can they be applied? The researcher may not be in tune with what is really happening in a commercial greenhouse.” This problem could be solved by getting academics more involved with the growers and discussing problems with them.

Finally, Mr. Leider admitted that he had made many suggestions and criticisms, but he did not want the guests to leave without knowing how much the industry appreciates those individuals from academia who have dedicated their lives to floriculture! He thanked all of the academics who took the time to attend the meeting.

After Mr. Leider’s presentation, Dr. Marvin Miller, Market Research Manager for Ball Horticultural Co. in Chicago spoke. He began by explaining that his perspectives were different from other horticultural companies because Ball is a family owned and operated business with more than 2,500 employees from all walks of life who are spread out all over the world. They hire individuals with B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees that include breeders, accountants, artists, customer service, sales personnel, and much more. Ball utilizes universities for their students, research and extension.

Dr. Miller stated that when Ball hired university graduates, they wanted people with academic and business qualifications and people with a certain business acumen. Skills such as good communication, personal initiative, and an appreciation for profitability and customers are also good qualities. Ball wanted people who are fast, fluid and flexible. They wanted people who are team players and who can work outside of their disciplines, as well as work well with others. If they fit these latter criteria, they will prosper no matter what their level of education.

He went on to comment that some universities suggest that they award degrees to students who can think. But many times, growers want students who know how to grow a crop. No matter how the students are trained, what makes or breaks their education is what they themselves put into it. What motivates students the most are their experiences before graduation. Experiences from family businesses, horticulture clubs, classes, or internships help to motivate students. A lot of students’ success depends on their academic advisors. Dr. Miller felt that this was especially true for advisors of horticulture clubs who encourage interaction with the professions. He felt this kind of education is a great motivator.

Dr. Miller questioned if the reason that industry members don’t call extension anymore is because it does not “extend” into many locations? Because universities have cut extension budgets and no longer pay for travel, growers miss the interaction with university extension agents in their greenhouses. Growers want someone who can translate the current research into practical terms and who know about the university graduates who are applying to work with them. He felt that for students, it is important to have an extension specialist who is sometimes in the classroom because they are more in tune with the industry. Extension agents make excellent educators because they travel a lot, consult with the growers, and are aware of the businesses. Unfortunately, much of this type of exposure no longer exists; it is unfortunate for the students and the industry.

Geraniums.

He also noted that some of the university research is basic science and some is directly applicable (applied research). He stated that some of both is needed, but getting industry to sponsor basic research is more difficult than getting industry to sponsor applied research because basic research is usually a lot farther from the “bottom line” for the industry. Dr. Miller admitted that research is the backbone of graduate education and said that it must be supported because we need the graduates. He also said: “We don’t just need Ph.D.’s; we need M.S. level graduates who can focus on a problem and who can find a solution to it. They also need to be able to recognize when a problem exists.”

Dr. Miller questioned: “Where is industry to go with academia?” He felt that it was up to many of the people in that room. He said that there is room for partnering and growers needed to help to integrate innovative, new technologies. He stated that there are many research opportunities for industry members to work with universities in certain strategic partnerships, and the goals can be long-term or short-term as long as they are tangible and worth something in the marketplace. As for teaching, universities should offer opportunities for students to gain the right experiences.

On February 28, the second day of the 1999 NFF, the entire morning was spent discussing floriculture research and strategies for attracting funding. The National Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative was a big motivator for this discussion. Mr. Drew Gruenburg and Ms. Lin Schmale of SAF were important contributors to this discussion.

The conference concluded with the majority of participants voicing positive feedback about the weekend and planning for future meetings.