Ecosystem services: Am I going to get a bill?

Spent last Friday in a departmental faculty retreat – you know, the “vision thing”  – S.W.O.T. analysis, where are we going to be in five years, etc.  But we actually got some things accomplished. One of the more interesting aspects was discussing trends in horticulture, both popular and practical, and how we could respond. One of the reoccurring themes throughout the day, especially related to urban agricultural/horticulture, was ecosystems services. I’ve heard the term mostly from environmental science and urban forestry folks.  But also seems fairly appropriate for us horticulturists, who are constantly trying to explain what, exactly, we do.

The definition offered by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (“Bringing biology to informed decision making”) is pretty good:

Ecosystem Services are the processes by which the
environment produces resources that we often take for granted such as
clean water, timber, and habitat for fisheries, and pollination of
native and agricultural plants. Whether we find ourselves in the city or
a rural area, the ecosystems in which humans live provide goods and
services that are very familiar to us. [They include:]

  • moderate weather extremes and their impacts
  • disperse seeds
  • mitigate drought and floods
  • protect people from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays
  • cycle and move nutrients
  • protect stream and river channels and coastal shores from erosion
  • detoxify and decompose wastes
  • control agricultural pests
  • maintain biodiversity
  • generate and preserve soils and renew their fertility
  • contribute to climate stability
  • purify the air and water
  • regulate disease carrying organisms
  • pollinate crops and natural vegetation”

Horticulture, as a discipline, touches on so many of these areas.

My question to our readers: does the term ecosystem services mean much to you? Or do you consider it jargon, best kept to grant proposals and impact reports?

A Garden Professor is most severely vexed

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeff’s recent post on “What happens to the horticulturist.” It’s true – universities rely more and more on faculty-generated grants for funding, so new hires tend to be in “hot” areas of research.  Fewer horticultural generalists are hired in teaching/research positions, and the same is true for Extension – the educational outreach arm of land-grant universities.

Many of you might not even know what Extension really is.  In my opinion, that’s because Extension as a whole has done a pretty poor job of evolving with the times.  When small farms were the mainstay of life for many people, farmers relied on practical, science-based information provided by university Extension services.  We’ve become an increasingly urbanized society, but Extension just hasn’t kept up.  The bulk of the research and information coming from plant and soil science departments is still geared towards production agriculture.  It’s of little immediate use for the majority of us living in urban areas.

So we have an imbalance:  there are increasing numbers of people living in urban areas who want good information on home gardens and landscaping, and decreasing university resources to fill those gaps.  Nature hates a vacuum, and this information gap is quickly filled with all kinds of stuff: some good, some bad, some dangerous, some illegal.  The very worst offenders, in my opinion, are the fear mongererss with most definite agendas but no solid evidence to support their claims.  For instance: I’m always skeptical when I hear about an article in an “obscure journal” being the only source of new information. If there was something new out there on an important topic, the researchers would not be publishing in an “obscure” journal. It would be in a highly visible and highly regarded scientific journal.  In any case, the information would be easy to find and discuss, not hidden away in a secret location.

I don’t have a good way to end this post, because I don’t have an easy answer to the problems that both Jeff and I see in horticulture departments and in Extension.  Do you?

A Nice Museum

I’ve been to Chicago before, but mostly on business.  It always seemed nice though, so, last week I went with my family and, for the first time, I had the chance to look at some of the sights.  Navy Pier – overrated.  Shedd aquarium – met expectations.  Chicago style pizza from Giordanos – so much better than I expected.  Chicago hotdogs – damn good, but not equal to Chicago pizza.  The Field Museum – TERRIBLY UNDERRATED.  I just loved the Field museum.  There were all kinds of fantastic displays on everything from whales to evolution.  There was also a great display on plants.  The information in the display was spot on, but this was definitely one of the simpler displays at the museum.  In fact, to be honest, it seemed a little bit like the display cases were made in the 1950s or 60s.  That said, there was a lot of room for the display to spread out across, after all, this is, supposedly, a major attraction for the museum.

The thing is, no one was there.  It was freaky.  My wife was taking the kids to another display hall (one more suited to younger kids where they could actually play with stuff), and so I went to the plant display by myself.  My feet echoed across the halls as I walked down the corridor.  When I turned around to look at the direction from whence I came it felt like a movie where I was walking in a hallway from the fifties and everyone outside was hustling and bustling in the 21st century.  When I turned a corner in the hall there was a guy apparently passed out over his laptop.  This was the only living person that I saw while visiting the display — and he obviously had no interest in plants – at least not when I saw him (Truth is, for all I know he was dead.  The next day I felt guilty for not checking his pulse to make sure he was really alive).  And, based on this photo from someone on flickr, I’m not the only one who has seen this exhibit empty.

Is this the interest that people have in plants today?  How sad.  No wonder we’re losing horticulture departments.   But on a livelier note, I’ve been such a downer the last few posts that I promise I’ll provide something a little happier next week!

What Happens to the Horticulturist?

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with a professor in the agronomy department who’s going to be retiring very soon.  We talked about education and field trials, corn and trees, and then we started talking about the future of our departments.  Both of us are concerned that this generation of horticulturists (and agronomists—but I’m just going to deal with horticulture here) will be the last.

Over the last 10 or so years we have been losing horticulture departments.  Because of smaller budgets colleges and universities have combined hort departments with other departments to save money.  But I don’t see this as a major problem, after all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet (OK – truth is I don’t know many sweet smelling horticulturists).  Horticulturists can be in departments besides horticulture and still do their job…But what is the job of a horticulturist at a university?

There will be all kinds of opinions on the “real” job of a horticulturist, but I believe that a big part of being a horticulturist is being a generalist – knowing a little about a lot of different things – insects, plant disease, soil.  We’re a little like a general practitioner who can take care of basic stuff and then refer the client to a specialist if needed.  Though most of us work with a particular type of crop (historically horticulture was split into 4 large groups – floriculture, fruit, vegetables, and landscape horticulture), horticulturists generally know enough about other crops so as not to make too much of a fool of themselves if they talk in general terms.  We know how plants work, and we know how the environments around them work to help them grow.  We are, in many ways, applied ecologists who are concerned about landscapes and the production of what many consider “minor” crops (at least compared to corn and soybeans!).

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that we are not hiring, or training, the number of horticulturists we once did.  In colleges and universities a premium is placed upon hiring faculty members who can acquire big dollars through federal grants.  The government likes “sexy” research which, right now, includes things like genetic engineering and biochemistry.  The government is open to having this work done on crops like apples and onions, or even nursery stock.  The problem is that generalists don’t tend to have the specialized knowledge in genetic engineering or biochemistry to do the work.  Hence, a biochemist or molecular biologist is hired and, hopefully, gets the grants the university needs.  But, in my experience, rarely do they really understand the crops they’re working on in terms of actually growing it.  Some do of course, but in the cases where they do it tends to be after the fact – in other words they learn about the crops after they begin working on them and their knowledge is often very basic.  I suppose this is OK, but to me it is sad that we’re not hiring what I consider true horticulturists anymore.  And, because we’re not hiring true horticulture faculty we’re not graduating many horticulturists from our graduate schools either.  Sure, we’re graduating molecular biologists and biochemists – and even a few breeders (who very often are horticulturists) – but these students may or may not leave a university with knowledge of “horticulture” as a whole.  And if we don’t start hiring more horticulturists what will happen?  Who will teach our introduction to horticulture course – or will horticulture just fragment and we’ll all need to go looking to specialists.  I don’t know, but it bothers me.