ASHS Presidential Address: What Does the Future Hold?

John M. Dole 114 ASHS Annual Conference, Waikoloa, Hawaii, September 22, 2017

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Let me start by saying how honored I am to have been President of ASHS for the last year. From the time of my first ASHS conference in 1986 to now, ASHS has played an important role in my career and life. It has been a wonderful privilege to serve ASHS.

Thank you to my fellow board members and all of the volunteers that do so much to support ASHS. Volunteers make this organization strong and ASHS would not be what it is today without all of the efforts of our members. I also want to say thank you to the ASHS Staff for their dedication, energy and professionalism. The membership is being well served by the ASHS staff. Not only do they make ASHS run so well, but they have worked diligently to keep budgets in line.

I will start my presentation today with an overview of ASHS, then discuss two major initiatives, the ASHS Taskforces and Seed Your Future, and finish with thoughts about our future.

Status of ASHS

Membership. At the end of 2016, ASHS had 2,358 members, which includes all of the membership categories. Without the graduate and undergraduate students, which receive free membership, membership has slowly declined, which is not surprising considering the decline in horticulture programs and faculty around the country. While Active members have decreased the most, there was also a slight decline in Emeriti members. In 2013, overall ASHS membership jumped, which was due to the offering of free membership to graduate and undergraduate students.

ASHS Income. ASHS is financially healthy. Publications account for more than half of ASHS revenue, followed by the conference (which is not an income-generating event at this time), and membership dues. Its accounts remain in the black due in no small part to the continued efforts of Executive Director Mike Neff and the ASHS staff to either contain or curtail operating costs. We have also had the benefit of a strong stock market that provided investment income.

ASHS Expenses. The major expenses are publications, conference, and membership services. Over the last few years, ASHS has been able to make modest tweaks to the budget to stay in the black while trying to avoid adding to the financial cost of its members. ASHS has a healthy reserve, but as with any prudent association, ASHS holds the reserve for emergencies (of which there have been none in several years) or for short-term support of mission-oriented projects, such as support for the first year of the Seed Your Future initiative to promote horticulture. However, the time has come for us to make major structural changes as there is a limit to the amount of tweaking we can do to stay in the black.

Publications. The bad news is that subscriptions have been declining for all three journals and for both institutional and member categories. This situation is not unique and is similarly occurring with many journals across the U.S. and internationally. However, submissions to the three ASHS journals reached an all-time high at the end of 2016—nearly 1300 manuscripts were submitted to the ASHS peer review system. It is clear that our journals continue to be well-respected and highly regarded, especially in light of the many new journals, both real and fictional, popping up these days. Submitted manuscripts are rapidly and thoroughly evaluated by the Consulting Editors, the Editors-in-Chief, and the hundreds of reviewers, who support our journals with their time and expertise.

Conferences. The conferences continue to go well. While there has been some variation in attendance over the last 10 years, in particular during the recession years, participation by the core Full members has stayed fairly constant. Abstract submissions have also been steady over time as well. The conference remains one of the most popular of ASHS’ activities and a focus of the organization. The conference technical program committee and ASHS staff continue to work to make sure the conferences meet the needs of ASHS members and have been experimenting with changes in the format and content as new technology and member ideas emerge.

In summary, ASHS is healthy, but needs to adapt to changing membership and journal subscription trends. And we should do so now, while ASHS is financially and organizationally strong.

ASHS Taskforces

As I just discussed, ASHS is facing a great many changes and it is clear that we have to adapt. ASHS has been changing over the years. It streamlined operations and staff, modified the conferences, and with Longwood Gardens, began Seed Your Future, a long-term project to increase the interest of youth in horticulture and enrollment in horticultural programs. Efficiency at the journals has improved such that manuscripts are given a thorough review, yet acceptance decisions are often made in three weeks or less, faster than just about any other journal these days.

However, as the pace of change accelerates, so does the need to adapt. Last fall, to address the long-term issues facing ASHS, we appointed three task forces to research and present reports to the board on reorganizing/rethinking ASHS: 1) Membership and Member Services, 2) Conferences and Other ASHS Events, and 3) Publications and Scientific Communications. Each task force was given a charge and asked to report back to the Board.

Conferences and Other Events. The conference is ASHS’s most important event; not only providing a place for all members to get together, but also providing an outlet for students and faculty to officially present their work. The charge to the taskforce: Reimagine the ASHS Conference to determine the structure that would best prepare ASHS for the next 20 years. Should the conference continue as is, be drastically changed or become something in between? The taskforce was chaired by Brian Pearson, University of Florida, and the members were Ajay Nair, Iowa State University, Dennis Ray, University of Arizona, Eric Runkle, Michigan State University, Carl Sams, University of Tennessee, Tracy Shawn, ASHS, and Danielle Treadwell, University of Florida.

Many great recommendations were made, of which only a few are presented here. The creation of two committees was recommended and acted on: a permanent conference committee and an industry involvement and sponsorship committee. The main intent of the latter committee is to solicit ideas and interaction, not funding, as industry already gets many requests for funding. Many other recommendations were made to make the conferences more attractive to graduate students and faculty.

Membership and Member Services. ASHS is a successful organization with a long history of serving its members, industry, government, and educational institutions. The current ASHS structure with its committees, working groups, board of directors, and officers has served ASHS well over the years and provided members with value through its conferences, publications, awards, and other activities. It is time to review membership benefits to determine if they still meet the needs of the membership. The charge to the taskforce: Reimagine ASHS member services to prepare ASHS for the next 20 years. This committee should consider the value and importance of ASHS services and member benefits. The taskforce was chaired by Dean Kopsell, University of Tennessee, and the members were Chris Currey, University of Iowa, Mary Meyer, University of Minnesota, Alex Rajewski, University of California, Riverside, Cindy Slone, ASHS, and Chengyan Yue, University of Minnesota.

A number of the recommendations from this taskforce have already been implemented or will be shortly, including establishing a committee with the focus to generate ideas for webinar topics, live discussion groups, and newsletter articles, converting the monthly newsletter to a twice-monthly electronic news blast(s) and changing “working group” name to “Professional Interest Groups”. Note, the names of the interest groups were intended to be read as the topic followed by “interest group”, such as Floriculture Interest Group. However, we recognize they will be more commonly known as PIGs! Other recommendations also include charging the ASHS Membership Committee with implementing a program to provide sample resources on various horticultural topics, adding position papers to the ASHS website, and adding guidelines and advocacy information from the ASHS National Issues Committee to the ASHS website and distributing them among the membership.

Publications and Scientific Communications. As discussed in the first part of this presentation, the ASHS journals are successful. Submissions to the three ASHS journals reached an all-time high at the end of 2016 and they have an excellent reputation. However, overall subscriptions, both member and institutional, are declining. In addition, the world of publishing is dramatically changing, with increased pressure to make journals free and to provide instant online publication. In some ways this taskforce had the most difficult job, as they had to consider not only where to lead the journals but the implications to the society’s budget. The charge to the taskforce: While the ASHS journals are certainly not in crisis and doing well, we need to come up with a sustainable plan for the future of the journals. What should that plan be to best prepare ASHS journals for the next 20 years? The taskforce was chaired by Amy Wright, Auburn University, and the members were Neal De Vos, HortTechnology and JASHS, Ricardo Hernandez, North Carolina State University, Mike Neff, ASHS, Ron Robbins, HortScience, and Marc van Iersel, University of Georgia.

This taskforce made many wonderful recommendations including: increase emphasis on the open access option to increase author awareness, assign DOI to previous issues beginning with JASHS (first priority), provide reviewer incentives in the form of a rewards program (thank you to the hundreds of reviewers in the society!!), review and possibly increase the subscription cost for HortTechnology, provide more press releases for articles, provide “How to Publish” sessions for graduate students at annual meetings, and review publications structure and journal segregation. The board will consider all of these at its next meeting this fall.

Finally, I want to say thank you very much to our dedicated members who served on the task forces. We selected smart, thoughtful, motivated ASHS members to serve on the task forces and not surprisingly, these are the very characteristics of people who tend to be especially busy with their projects and their home institutions. I especially want to thank the task force chairs, Dean Kopsell, Brian Pearson and Amy Wright, and the ASHS staff members, Mike Neff, Tracy Shawn and Cindy Slone, who supported each task force. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Seed Your Future

Like the perfect movie theme, three story lines began in the summer of 2013. Mary Meyer, ASHS President in 2013/2014, was expressing concern about plant blindness, the lack of awareness and appreciation of plants and the critical role they play in all facets of our lives. She made addressing plant blindness one of the goals of her presidency. At the same time Doug Needham and Paul Redman of Longwood Gardens were being inspired by a study and report from The Royal Horticulture Society that stated it needed to improve the perception of horticulture, support horticultural education, and safeguard the health of horticulture in the United Kingdom. And finally, in early June, a meeting at Cal Poly, horticulture administrators from around the country realized that many of us were facing declining enrollment. We knew we needed to take action to increase the number of horticulture students at our institutions and to meet the demand of horticulture industry, government and academia for well-trained educated employees and leaders.

The concerns of horticulture administrators were confirmed in a subsequent survey which reported that undergraduate enrollment either decreased slightly (up to 20% decrease) or greatly (over 20% decrease) in the last five years for 43% of four-year institutions (Dole, 2015). However, the situation was not universally bad, because 37% of schools reported that undergraduate numbers stayed the same. Even more encouraging is that 21% of schools responded that their student numbers either increased greatly (over 20% increase) or slightly (up to 20% increase) in the last five years. Thus, it appeared that with a concerted effort we could reverse the decline in horticultural student numbers.

The three story lines coalesced at the ASHS conference in Palm Desert, California, where we shared our concerns and decided to take action. Longwood Gardens, with Doug Needham, Brian Trader, and Marnie Conley, and ASHS, with John Dole, Mary Meyer, and Mike Neff teamed up and prepared a white paper that had several recommendations for study and action:

  • Improve public perceptions of horticulture

  • Increase number of horticulture students in 2-year and 4-year college and university programs

    • ◦ Develop tactics to ensure that horticulture is part of the national education curriculum

    • ◦ Increase youth participation in NJHA, JMG, 4-H, and FFA

    • ◦ Increase the number of high school students in horticulture and plant sciences programs

  • Increase number of well-trained horticulture employees

The white paper presented a broad outline of how we would accomplish these goals through a national study, education plan, marketing plan and public advocacy plan.

Very quickly more than 150 partners with similar concerns endorsed our vision and we launched our initiative, known as Seed Your Future, to promote horticulture in the United States in 2014. Through a competitive process FleishmanHillard along with its partner Scholastic were selected to research and guide the movement.

We created a structure for Seed Your Future consisting of the Leadership Cabinet, co-chaired by Paul Redman, Longwood Gardens, and Anna Ball, President of Ball Horticultural Company and the Advisory Council, chaired by Charlie Hall, Texas A&M University. The Leadership Cabinet provides strategic vision and resource development to Seed Your Future and includes horticulture leaders from a spectrum of companies, consumer groups, educators, and nonprofit organizations. The Advisory Council provides input to the Leadership Cabinet to inform and influence the direction of the initiative, connects the initiative to key industry, professional, education and government circles in the U.S., introduces the initiative to potential new partners, advocates for Seed Your Future’s goals, and advances the communications, education, advocacy and outreach activities of the initiative.

In late August 2016, the organizational structure was completed with the hiring of Susan E. Yoder as the dynamic Executive Director of Seed Your Future. With her extensive experience and leadership skills, she began to move Seed Your Future forward rapidly and decisively.

At this point, we reiterated our goals to 1) change the perception of horticulture by increasing public awareness of the positive and diverse attributes of the profession and 2) increase capacity in horticulture through a perception shift that drives talented young people to view horticulture as a vital, viable, and vibrant career path.

Early funders made the difference. The ASHS committed to $25,000 per year for three years, making the statement that this issue was key to the long-term viability of horticulture as a scientific field and as an industry. Numerous universities stretched their accounts and provided up to $5,000 per year for three years (

Longwood Gardens was key to the initiative’s success from the very beginning. They provided the initiative with strong leadership, management, and marketing expertise, providing invaluable in-kind support. Later they upped the ante and committed to providing $500,000 to move our vision forward.

Industry stepped up quickly. The American Floral Endowment and the Horticulture Research Initiative awarded grants to the Initiative starting in 2014. Ball Horticultural Company committed to the movement with a donation of $250,000, and a commitment for an additional $250,000 in 2017. Many other industry and individual donors are also contributing.

So, what is the status of Seed Your Future? We have made much progress. All the major phases of research have completed. We understand that more research will be needed in the future, as with any large project, but we have enough results to launch the campaign.

In the first phase of the research, we confirmed that horticulturists think their field is important and their careers are rewarding. The public is either unaware of horticulture or, if it is aware, has a negative perception about horticultural careers. The good news is that the view of horticulture is highly positive once the people are aware of what it means, which gives us great hope to effect change. In fact, when FleishmanHillard interviewed to become our research and marketing partner, they said they had never worked with an issue that had such an inherently positive feel. There is so much more to the first research phases that can be found in the HortTechnology article by Meyer et al. (2016).

The final phase of research was just completed in spring 2017. In quantitative surveys of 1,000 middle-school students, 1,000 parents of middle-schoolers, 500 teachers and 500 guidance counselors, we learned that students (and their parents) were interested in jobs with passion, availability, and compensation. Unfortunately, the types of jobs and job attributes of most interest to students and parents, such as job availability, passion and compensation, were not the ones they associated with horticulture.

We also wanted to find out the ways people prefer getting information and where they turn for trusted advice. The sources varied by groups:

  • Students rely on parents, web, teachers and friends

  • Parents rely on counselors and web

  • Teachers rely on guest speakers, curricula and videos

  • Counselors rely on materials from colleges, other teachers/counselors and professional organizations

Education of parents, teachers, and counselors increases the likelihood of recommending horticulture as a career and many opportunities exist to bring horticulture into the classroom and educate students about horticulture and overcome negative perceptions.

In focus groups we learned that few understood the jobs available in growing, breeding, distribution, science, technology, art, design, and business in the industry. But once participants learned about the diverse opportunities in the industry, they were very interested. Significantly, not one middle-schooler in the focus groups had ever heard the term “horticulture.” They told us that we need to use simple language they can understand; and inspiring, relatable imagery.

Youth told us that titles such as “plantologist” and “plant specialist” resonate more than “horticulturist.” Participants liked titles that sound or seemed sophisticated, impressive, important or professional. We learned that youth want jobs where they can “make an impact on the world”, “be creative”, and “save the environment.”

The research was just the first step and there was so much more than I have time to present today. We are now using what we learned to create a national movement through an education plan with tools, lesson plans, web resources and partnerships, as well as advocacy and marketing plans.

So, just four years after we all came together with these ideas and goals, we are on our way to inspiring many more young people in finding the joy of a horticultural career. I hope you will continue to support ASHS and Seed Your Future in this quest. For all of those who serve on Seed Your Future committees, participated in the research, donated and/or spread the word – Thank You!!

Reflections on the Future

Movies, television shows and books tend to view the future either as a utopian paradise (think Star Trek movies) or as a dystopia (think 1984, The Handmaids Tale or Mad Max movies). Optimists feel that science and technology will cure all problems, while pessimists feel that for every positive advance, there will be a bigger negative affect. Reality, of course, is neither completely bad nor good. For example, inorganic fertilizers were a major factor in the green revolution, but also resulted in significant environmental degradation.

I feel the future is bright for horticulture. Yes, there are many global and national challenges facing us – population growth, climate change, global human health, water and energy. In them, I see an increasing need for virtually everything that horticultural scientists do. Expanding populations and climate change require increased food production from a dwindling amount of arable land. We need to improve varieties through plant breeding, refine production techniques, improve pest management, and optimize postharvest handling. Ornamental horticulture provides the plants and landscape designs needed to keep our cities cool, reduce pollution, purify water, and slow runoff. Horticulture is addressing the energy issue through the development of low cost, environmentally friendly renewable fuels. As you can see, horticulture is critical to addressing society’s grand challenges. In closing, I strongly believe that horticulture on all levels is critical to our society and both horticulture and ASHS have a bright future.

Literature Cited

  • Dole, J. 2015 Status of student numbers and program identity at two-year and four-year horticultural programs ASHS Nwsl 31 1 5 6

  • Meyer, M.H., Needham, D., Dole, J., Trader, B., Fox, J., Conley, M., Neff, M. & Shaw, J. 2016 Importance of horticulture and perception as a career HortTechnology 26 2 114 120

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  • Dole, J. 2015 Status of student numbers and program identity at two-year and four-year horticultural programs ASHS Nwsl 31 1 5 6

  • Meyer, M.H., Needham, D., Dole, J., Trader, B., Fox, J., Conley, M., Neff, M. & Shaw, J. 2016 Importance of horticulture and perception as a career HortTechnology 26 2 114 120

    • Search Google Scholar
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John M. Dole 114 ASHS Annual Conference, Waikoloa, Hawaii, September 22, 2017

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