Networking at Conferences: The Green Industry sparks learning in January 2023
Every year, PennState Extension puts on the Southeast Pennsylvania Green Industry Conference to provide industry professionals in the region with an opportunity to stay up-to-date on the latest research, techniques, and technology to help their businesses succeed. It's usually the first event of the year where people can earn continuing education units (CEUs) for a variety of professional certifications: Pesticide Applicator, Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist, and ISA Certified Arborist. This conference also provides opportunities to network with colleagues, industry experts, college and university faculty, regulatory experts, and Penn State Extension educators. For the past couple years, Women in Horticulture has been a presence and led networking opportunities throughout the day. Here's a recap of the day from my perspective.
Representing Women in Hort were Emilia Zabegay and myself, Lucy Dinsmore, in the vendor area and during a special networking session over lunch. A dozen women gathered over boxed lunches to get to know each other, bring up ideas for future programming, and discuss some thought prompts:
1. What's one thing you wish you had support with?
2. What's the biggest obstacle you've faced in your career?
3. What's changed the most in the industry since you started?
These questions are ones we may ask ourselves from time to time. They're topics that anyone can ponder, and whose answers can also help Women in Hort with planning. If there are ways people need support, we want to provide that space. Sharing allows us to learn from one another and grow as people and as professionals.
Native Plant Panel Following lunch was an intriguing panel on native plants with some veterans of the field, including Randi Eckel (Toadshade Wildflower Farm), Jim MacKenzie (Octoraro Native Plant Nursery), and John Mark Courtney (Kind Earth Growers). Moderated by Extension Educator Margaret Pickoff, the panel spoke candidly about their challenges as native plant growers. They addressed the labor shortage, which Jim pointed out has been a documented issue in the PLNA records dating back one hundred years! In response to that, they all addressed staff retention within their respective companies. They also touched on the fact that plants are one of the only things in our modern world whose prices haven’t changed in the many years they've been growing them. While we’re seeing costs increase in every other aspect of our lives, it’s still possible to buy a $9 shrub. All the panelists touched on the fact that this needs to change in order to support fare wages and benefits for employees.
During the Q&A, an audience member asked the panel what plants are most difficult to grow. Their responses were: Sassafras (Jim), Trilliums (Randi), and Sparganium or Pontederia (John Mark).
Pertaining to customer expectations of native plants, a memorable quote from John Mark was: “A plant that’s not being eaten is not doing its job.” They all have to manage those expectations through educating their clients. They all reiterated that demand for natives is still greater than availability everywhere. So, there's always a need for more growers!
Welcome to Ambler
The day started with a welcome from Kathy Salisbury, Director of the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University. In her opening remarks, she showed us a video of the campus before and after the devastating tornado of 2021. Idyllic images of a gorgeous campus offset harrowing scenes from a post-apocalyptic war zone. At least that's how it felt during my arrival to the conference, passing huge swaths of torn apart woods and a desolate landscape. But Kathy spoke of planting for the future before handing it off to the keynote speaker.
Stressors on Conifers
Margaret Pickoff presented an informative session on conifers and their stressors. She started by briefly showing the native habitats of some of our most commonly used ornamentals (arborvitae, eastern red cedar and Colorado blue spruce) as a way to explain why they might be susceptible to stressors in our landscapes. As a PennState Extension Educator, Margaret encouraged us all to use the Plant Disease Clinic. An interesting fact about the clinic is that half of the samples they receive every year show no pathogens. This means that half of the samples people are sending in are suffering from abiotic stressors instead. Drought is a big one that was discussed in length due to last year’s challenging growing conditions for plants. She went on to discuss more specific pathogens and pests affecting conifers growing in nurseries and landscapes.
Green Stormwater Infrastructure
Anne Brennan presented with Joshua Caplan from Temple Ambler on plant growth challenges in urban stormwater basins. Specifically, they discussed their monitoring-based research on a series of bioswales installed along I-95 in Philadelphia as part of PennDOT’s major renewal of the Interstate. The work Anne and Joshua are doing is so important for guiding future projects, of which there are around 70 planned. Their findings can help improve the design, installation, maintenance, and overall function of future basins. They tracked over 8,000 plants over several years, and found the top four reasons for their decline: hydrological extremes, de-icing salts in runoff, design and installation missteps, and insufficient maintenance. Mysteries arose during their monitoring which they had to solve, like the reason for huge deaths of certain plants. This also led to their recommendation of more salt-tolerant native plants.
H-2A and H-2B Visa Reform
For anyone in the green industry, you’re either doing your best to understand these visas or you’re completely lost on the topic (I’m in the latter category). Brook Duer from Penn State Law gave us a whirlwind update on the efforts being made to reform these. H-2A reform gained momentum recently with the passing of the Farm Worker Modernization Act of 2021 through the House of Representatives, however it died in the US Senate. Unfortunately, any reform to the H-2B visas, on which the landscape industry relies heavily, is still far into the future.
The presentations described here only cover a fraction of the topics offered throughout the day! Conference sessions included turfgrass management, ornamental plants, stormwater management, pesticide application, regulations and labor issues.
There was also ample time to engage with vendors throughout the day. Here’s who was there: Kind Earth Growers, Harmony Hill Nursery, Octoraro Native Plant Nursery, Cedar Run Landscapes, Fisher and Son Co., Feeney's Wholesale Nursery, and the Professional Grounds Management Society.
With so much to learn, I hope to see you at next year’s Green Industry Conference!