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.

7 thoughts on “What Happens to the Horticulturist?”

  1. Great post! my two cents: Do we need more generalists? YES!! why? Because the problems/challenges/research questions we face do not respect the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines. Horticulturalists often operate at the human scale what we can see, taste, touch and feel. While research dollars are pouring in for projects that are at a molecular scale. This means lost plant id courses, and students with no idea about what they are seeing in the field. This ultimately leads to a shortage of people who can make observations about what is happening on the ground (as opposed to the lab). Big mistake! Critical thinkers need to be able to put it all together, soils, plants, insects, ecology and on and on.

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years (since my beloved VA Tech is headed down the same sickly path) and I have a few questions for the masses. If hort departments are being downsized because its researchers don’t bring in the big grants, then how do all the other departments that don’t bring in big money stay afloat? Like, say, art history and language departments?
    The major hort programs across the country are in land grant universities. Why is horticulture not embraced by private institutions and the public ones that aren’t land grants?
    What did hort programs look like before the indoor plant boom of the 70s made them more mainstream? I hope(d) the veggie boom would increase enrollments the way indoor plants did, but it doesn’t seem to. You four span the country – are hort programs responding to the boom in veggie popularity?
    I understand the need for grant money to fill the gap left by government funding cuts, but I resent that the stress on research seems to trump teaching. Being a fabulous educator in state schools is not enough, you have to be a fabulous researcher (or at least grant getter) as well. Great educators should be worth something too.

  3. I’m curious to know your opinion of the horticulture degrees offered in the two year state technical colleges. Here in Georgia they come under the Board of Regents same as UGA, etc.

  4. Your analogy of the general practitioner is interesting. GPs and Family Practitioners fell by the wayside for decades in favor of internists, pediatricians and other specialists, but have made a comeback in recent years as people look to reducing medical costs and experiencing a more comprehensive kind of care. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned there with regard to horticulture too.

  5. I have worked as a horticulturist/generalist for 27 years in Chicago with the University of Illinois Extension. I graduated in 1976 with a degree in Hort from the University of Illinois. At that time the Hort Department was thriving. Today the Hort Dept is buried in the Crop Sciences Department and enrollment is at an all time low. Even with the boom in veggie gardening and Urban Ag recruiting students into Hort at the University has been difficult.I think another issue is that many Hort positions at the entry level are fairly low paying. Also many Extension services have had major cuts in staff and programs over the last few years.

  6. Lots of good thought provoking questions — many of which I don’t have answers to — but Julie, I think that 2 year horticulture programs are great. The problem is that two year programs don’t train Ph.D.s and don’t do much research — so without the “big” institutions working on horticulture the small ones will suffer over time.

  7. I’m a horticulturist in Louisiana, or at least that’s what I’ve been calling myself for the last 35 odd years. Reading this prompted me to look up the actual definition of “horticulturist”. What,exactly, am I the “go to” person for? Besides the smattering of botany, taxonomy, pathology, agronomy, chemistry, etc., we have the added burden of having to know everything else.

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