Our Industry’s Future Part 2: Rediscovering the Rewards

By Matt Edmundson, CHREF Board President

I am a legacy in this industry, meaning I grew up in it by working in the family business. Many of my friends and colleagues I have known my entire life. My dad used to tell me after meeting an old-school nurseryman that that guy “was one of the last of the hard asses.”

Ours is an industry where innovation tends to come at a snail’s pace relative to other industries. Often, we do things based on how it has always been done or the way we were taught because “if it’s not broken, why fix it?”

As I was reflecting on the riddle of the ever-present, unresolved issue of labor in our industry, I kept hearing the same voices I have heard my entire life about why certain things didn’t work. Over and over came the same reasons, excuses really, for why this was an insurmountable problem. But, why can other industries figure it out and not us?

You know, whenever I meet someone new, unfamiliar with the industry, whether it’s one of my kid’s friend’s parents or the cashier at Chick-fil-A, I am often asked what I do for a living. Of course, my reply is: “I own a nursery.”

Do you know what the response is 95 percent of the time? Without a second thought, it is usually, “Oh you mean kids?” This response has frustrated me for many years. Why don’t people think “nursery” refers to plant growing first? The reasons, or excuses, sound a lot like the reasons we struggle to attract talented, young people to our industry. The voices of the old-school mentors kept ringing in my head: “Our industry is different.”

The thing I loved most about growing up in this industry, and still enjoy, is the exposure to and experiences with the people within it. I often tell people how this industry is one of the last honorable businesses left. Even when there are religious or political differences, many diverse folks in our industry, especially in Colorado, work together with a sense of honor, dignity and mutual respect.

Is the world missing people who desire a place like that, where they can work, grow and enjoy a rewarding career? Are we doomed because all of the “hard asses” that used to populate this industry are gone? Of course, we don’t have to rely on old-school mindsets to succeed and grow. But as I was recently discussing this with one of my younger employees, a metaphor came to mind, an epiphany! “You know what,” I said. “If our industry had a dating profile, it would absolutely suck.”

I realized what is one of our greatest strengths is also our Achilles heel. We are so humble about what we do, because of our roots and our honorable culture, that we don’t promote all of the wonderful reasons people want to work in our industry. We work so hard, wear so many hats, that it doesn’t occur to do such a thing on purpose. Many of us got here by accident or by legacy, but once here, we have found our destiny. Over the years, certain folks have questioned these beliefs and worked to find solutions to help ease the pain points they experienced.

People don’t relate the word nursery to our businesses because we have been so busy growing and selling plants that we forgot to tell them. We have been keeping ourselves a secret for generations.

So now that we know the problem, how do we begin to make an impact? The good news is we are well positioned as an industry to find some collaborative solutions together. In the next LooseLeaf, I will lay out what can be done and how we can all pitch in together.