ASHS President William J. Lamont, Jr., reflects on the challenges facing horticulture in a changing world.
In the Navy, if we were going to encounter rough seas we would set condition Zebra in which we would dog (fasten down) all the watertight hatches to maintain the watertight integrity of the ship. I believe that many of us feel like our ship USS Horticulture is entering uncharted waters and rough seas and hopefully will not end up like the ship in the movie “The Poseidon Adventure” after being hit by a large rogue wave, capsized and had the folks wondering if there is a “Morning After”.
The ship USS Horticulture is part of the larger Task Force Agriculture. The USS Horticulture has many divisions, such as academia, industry, and production/marketing. The academia division is further organized into departments, such as research, extension/outreach, resident education, and international. Industry is organized into many subcategories that support the mission of the USS Horticulture, such as the departments of seed production, chemicals, supplies, machinery, plants, processing, packaging, distribution and storage, etc. Production/Marketing division is broken down into the different departments such as vegetables, small fruits, tree fruits, nursery and landscape plants, floriculture and wholesale, retail (regional and local), farmers markets, and community support agriculture (CSAs). Indeed USS Horticulture is a large and complex ship with many divisions and departments. While it is prudent that we set condition Zebra, we, like our Navy counterparts, must continue to plot our course and monitor the radar so as not to run the ship aground, encounter an unexpected rogue wave, or, worse yet, run into another vessel.
It will take skilled captains (leaders) to keep the ship on an even keel and to ensure that we continue to make progress in an environment that certainly looks hostile at the present time. It is hard to believe that, with all the keen interest in subjects that are horticulture—from gardening, production and preparation of fresh and nutritious fruits and vegetables for better health, local foods movement, herbal schools, school lunch programs, re-greening the urban spaces, green roofs for energy efficiency—and many additional topics that we find horticulture departments taking torpedoes and listing badly. I will discuss my thoughts and perspective on some of the issues that I see swirling around me as a horticulturist.
Funding for the future. This is the driver. It determines the compass heading that we steer the ship both from an individual and corporate/institutional perspective. We have many different sources of dollars, such as the federal, state, local, industry, foundations, tuition, etc. that are the current sources of funding for most of us. I only see the federal and state funding slowing drying up, especially when it comes to extension and also to a certain extent research. As I listen to the former Comptroller of the United States and also if I analyze the financial books at the federal level as any accountant would, I see nothing but storm clouds on the horizon and I believe the not so distant horizon. We may be feeling good since, yes, we can see money coming from USDA in the form of the Specialty Crops Research Initiative and Specialty Crops Block Grants or from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Competitive Grants Program under the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) or Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grants, but the looming federal budget crisis could wipe these out. One other observation I have on these new grants is that putting together a team that will be competitive for these grants requires multiple institutions and many players, which by itself is not an easy task and the management of such large complex grants can be difficult. What I am saying is that the sheer size and complexity of these grants is a concern. It may be that the size could be a negative instead of a positive. Also, if a large Land-Grant Institution has the capacity in house to do a grant by itself, why do we need to have all these partners? In any case, I believe that, regardless of where we see the funding situation today, the federal money will dry up as the simple accounting kicks in at the federal level. The government has to first remain solvent for money to be available for agriculture research and extension, and that is the question for the future.
At the state level, many states by law have to balance their budgets and they are slowly or quickly reducing support to the universities as other demands clamor for those funds. At institutions, tuition dollars are still coming, but do not help extension and research, and many institutions are increasing their tuitions. One question I wrestle with is, when will we reach the tipping point that the expense of an education is beyond the reach of many or beyond the perceived value? The amount of debt that students are accumulating to get an education is a serious worry. Here at Penn State University, we currently have underway a fundraising campaign that will target assistance to students. Penn State is a “Land-Grant Institution” with the charter to educate the populace. My question is, are we going to be able to carry out this mandate in the future or will we give up our status as a Land-Grant Institution, which would, in my opinion, be the death of any Horticulture Departments that are left and, for that matter, any Colleges of Agriculture? If all the funding at the federal level goes competitive instead of maintaining the formula funds, that too would be the nail on the coffin of horticulture, since money for salaries would disappear.
Who are we talking to? Why is it that we find ourselves looking at such a not-so-rosy picture? I believe that we have in the past and still continue to preach to the choir instead of the masses. We need to reach out more to the consumers who directly benefit each day from our teaching, research, and extension/outreach with the message of who we are and what we are about. We have been too long been perceived as rural-oriented institutions and departments, and that was a correct assumption and not a negative in the infancy stages of horticulture. But now we need to branch out into the consumer marketplace of ideas and the also into the environmental arena. We have always been environmentally oriented, but it was not expressed in a manner that the public understood. We need to partner with professionals in the health care field—those involved with human nutrition, chefs, cooks, schools—and help create a new wave of medical practice based on prevention of diseases instead of treatment after the fact. We need to take the lead in bringing the science behind good nutrition and create a whole new population that is aware of what “eating healthy” really means, and embraces it so it becomes second nature, like fastening your seat belt when you get in the car. In horticulture we “feed and beautify the world” around us.
Rural versus urban orientation. There are tremendous opportunities for horticulture in the urban settings as major metropolitan areas seek ways to better use underused (void) or vacant land resources. This kind of activity is going on in every major city in the United States and horticulture is right in the center of the equation, bringing ideas to the table in the form of re-greening, urban gardening or farming, green roofs, partnering with schools on local food production projects, and teaching the science of horticulture in an exciting and enlightening manner to the young and inquisitive minds of urban youth. I have watched kids as the light bulb is turned on. You mean a potato comes from the ground and has eyes? In the urban areas, we as horticulturists have so many diverse and exciting partnerships that the meeting table needs to be large and encompassing, and the opportunities to really reinvent the city landscape are immense. While we move toward the urban environments, we need to continue to support our rural producers and engage them in new and innovative ways to ensure that the continuous supply of nutritious and healthy fruits and vegetables and floral crops that grace the table and home is not broken. We need to connect with the urban populations bringing both the “art and science” of horticulture to communities and schools.
Production versus environmental concerns. We in horticulture have been about environmental issues since the beginning of time. Think about the Romans! Any grower worth his or her salt is an environmentalist at heart. The soil is their workshop and they want to maintain the health and quality of the soil so as to be sustainable into the future. We need to continue to educate people on the environmental aspects of our horticultural endeavors such as soil management, conservation of water resources (this is a big one), proper landscaping for homes so as to minimize our impact on the environment, judicious use of fertilizer resources, and the responsible and judicious use of pesticides with an eye on the environmental aspects of pest control. We have come a long way from Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, but we need to continue to partner with others in reaching out and being good environmental stewards of the land we all inhabit.
Education of producers versus youth. I see great opportunities for us in partnering with schools in educating and involving youth in gardening, the food system, and the science behind the production of plants. There is an increasing interest in the food system and where food comes from and in creating a healthy food environment in the schools. We in horticulture need to partner with the Departments of Education in our states in engaging school boards, administrators, science teachers, food handlers/ preparers, school dietitians, etc., to move these programs forward. We need to be proactive and look for opportunities to reach out to these groups and not sit back waiting for them to come to us.
There are also many new and exciting ways to reach producers with educational materials and training that were not available 10 years ago. There are a lot of part-time producers that may be working in other professions or have decided to transition to a new career path. We need to be able to offer more on-line courses that can (or maybe they do not need to) lead to a certificate in horticulture or certificate in some phase of horticultural production. The need for education in the field of horticulture, I believe, is great, but perhaps it is not in our traditional arena. We also need to think outside the box in terms of our traditional horticulture education and maybe consider developing a three-year horticulture program, where the students go to school in the summer and take production courses at a time when it is really appropriate for these courses to be taught. I believe that our students would actually be better educated and have more “hands-on” experience in this three-year program, and it should also save them money in the long run. It will take some new and creative thinking and partnerships to pull this off, but I believe if we do not move forward on some of these initiatives we may well “die on the vine”—no pun intended.
One-to-one interaction versus use of media to reach out. I grew up with the one-to-one interaction. The professors that I learned from and then the growers I worked with over the years let me always come away with new ideas for research and thoughts on how to modify systems to do things better. The on-farm test was one of the major tools in my extension tool belt. I enjoyed the interaction with the grower when I was doing the on-farm research/demonstration projects, the twilight meetings that involved the growers and industry personnel that help support the demonstrations, and the winter meetings. A lot of this has gone by the wayside as funding has been cut and we have looked toward using electronic lines of communication to reach out to growers and others. The use of interactive learning sessions such as “webinar’s” are becoming more popular, and I think we will see more of these in the future. With the busy schedule of many producers, whether full time or part time, I believe that the presentation of the information and training in both a format and timeframe that fits into their hectic schedules will be imperative as we move forward. I know that I will miss the one-on-one interaction, but maybe if we can still have some of this in an appropriate form, I believe we will be able to survive. I firmly believe, even though I grew up in the age of a slide rule and chalkboard, that we need to package our information in a form and deliver it in a manner that our intended audience requires.
The changing world and using agricultural as an international tool toward peace. The efforts of the United States to restructure its foreign aid packages to more directly assist countries with problems of food production, storage, and distribution, again brings expertise in the production and handling of fresh fruits and vegetables that are high on the list. Good nutrition does not stop at the border of our country, but is paramount to the health and well being of any community in any country. We as horticulturalists can bring our expertise to the international scene and help countries stabilize or improve their food production and thus promote a healthy diet and a full stomach as a good pathway toward peace in many parts of the world. I applaud Diane Doud Miller and John Griffis, Jr., for their excellent columns in the ASHS Newsletter that keep the membership abreast of opportunities in the international scene. I believe that we can play an active and tremendous role in both helping to shape the policy decisions on the way that foreign aid is delivered and also by providing horticultural expertise and by partnering with colleagues around the world to help solve food production, distribution, and storage problems that currently have negative impact on the lives of countless individuals.
There is hope for the “Morning After”, but we definitely need to ballast the ship and weather the storm. There are many challenges facing us, some of which we have no control over, and others that present new opportunities that we can take advantage of and move in new and exciting directions. One thing is certain, if we stay the same and keep saying that we will return to the “old days”, we are certain to die on the vine. It is a time to look outside the box and energize our profession and institutions.
Remember—horticulture touches everyone everyday and behind that touch is years of research (basic and applied), educational activities, and extension/outreach programs. That is what we are all about.
My quote for this column comes from George Washington Carver:
How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. This is because someday in life you will have been all of these.