Our world is highly dependent on horticultural expertise to provide the technology and people necessary to meet the rapidly increasing global demand for fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, and ornamentals in the face of the changing global environment and limited natural and financial resources (Siegel et al., 2014). Horticultural science is critical in improving the nutritional content of food, enhancing the safety of our produce supply, and increasing the availability of healthy, local, and sustainably produced foods (Rubatzky et al., 2012). In addition, the role that horticulture plays in promoting positive mental well-being, on a large scale from public botanic gardens, parks, and sports fields, to small-scale individual home gardens is critical to our life today (Hall and Dickson, 2011).
Despite the increasing value of commercial horticulture crops and services (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2009) university horticulture programs have plateaued or experienced declining student enrollment, with only 31% of 4-year schools indicating the word “horticulture” was still in their department title (Dole, 2015). Arnold et al. (2014) surveyed graduate programs, showing enrollment declined in 39% of MS and 31% of PhD programs at land-grant universities in the last 5 years, whereas 21% and 27% of programs increased and 23% and 41% were steady, respectively, for MS and PhD programs.
Jobs in horticulture are available: an average of 35,400 new U.S. graduates with expertise in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, or the environment, are expected to fill only 61% of the expected 57,900 average annual openings (Goecker et al., 2015). Concurrently, the horticulture industry shows a shortage of trained professionals with a gap between students graduating and employees needed for many areas of horticulture (Dickey, 2014; Needleman, 2014).
The perception of horticulture is often limited (Higgins, 2014) and increasingly negative (Smith, 2014). Plant blindness, defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs” (Wandersee and Schussler, 2001) along with more than 53 h per week in screen time (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010) and only half as much time outdoors for young people (Juster et al., 2004) have affected the perception of plants and reduced children’s interaction with plants and their choice of careers involving plants.
Limited awareness of horticulture and insufficiently trained employees are not localized to the United States. In Australia, the government developed specific strategies to promote horticulture (Collins and Dunne, 2009; McEvilly and Aldous, 2010), perhaps based on an earlier comment: “The horticultural industry does not effectively and positively sell itself generally to the broader community, and more specifically to parents, guidance officers/career counselors and students. A whole-of-horticulture promotional/public relations campaign is clearly needed to achieve this purpose” (Stone et al., 2005). In Britain, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) used a collaborative approach involving parliament and industry documented in Horticulture Matters, but still reported 70% of horticultural businesses struggled to fill skilled vacancies (RHS, 2015). The International Society for Horticultural Science also addressed the importance of horticulture and its diverse career options in its publication (Hewett et al., 2012).
Leadership in American Society for Horticulture Science (ASHS) and Longwood Gardens realized the limited public, especially youth, awareness of horticulture and careers in horticulture and the lack of trained professionals. Several horticultural administrators at land-grant universities also recognized this limited perception and agreed to financially support this initiative. To better understand the public perception and importance of horticulture, the challenges the industry is facing, and the various paths individuals take to get into the field, ASHS and Longwood Gardens engaged FH to conduct qualitative and quantitative research with internal and external audiences as a first step to addressing these issues.
American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS)2014GrowIt. 1 Sept. 2014. <growit.ashs.org>
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CollinsR.J.DunneA.J.2009Can dual degrees help to arrest the decline in tertiary enrolments in horticulture: A case study from the University of Queensland, AustraliaActa Hort.8326570
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U.S. Department of Agriculture2009Census of horticultural specialties. 28 Oct. 2015. <http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Census_of_Horticulture_Specialties/>
WanderseeJ.SchusslerE.2001Toward a theory of plant blindness. Plant Sci. Bul. 47:2–9. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://www.botany.org/bsa/psb/2001/psb47-1.pdf>