Saturday, 05 December 2015 05:08

Americans at Work Series: Horticulturist

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Americans at Work Series: Horticulturist

Nellie Call

The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon and the nonsense arising from it has made it apparent that too many of us are ignorant of our fellows' working lives, so we are inaugurating a series, "Americans At Work," which will, in the words of the workers themselves, explain their jobs, their motivations, and their satisfactions.

Growing up on a self-sufficient farm I spent many hours behind the handle of a hoe, a scythe, an axe, a pitchfork, a shovel. We spent most of our time working to grow and preserve food, cut and split wood, care for the animals, and other jobs that produced food and fuel for life.

I was fascinated with the science of everything, my mind questioned everything, how, why did it work like that? What was the science behind the way cows give milk, moss and mushrooms grow in the woods, rennet makes cheese curdle.

After studying Animal Science in college and doing just about every menial farming task there was to work my way through school, I faced the world of work with an Associate's Degree in Animal Science. Coming to New York State was my dream as I saw it as the agricultural state, able to grow alfalfa and grain corn, as well as the home of Cornell University. I worked a variety of agricultural jobs from tractor driving, milking cows in a parlor, and Dairy Herd Improvement Association milk tester. None of them were very well paying or satisfying, so I determined to go back to college to earn a Bachelor's degree.

I worked on large commercial farms during the summer, driving tractors and farm equipment, and at the Cornell farm during the school year. After graduating from Cornell, my first job was working for the Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM) at The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, scouting farmer's fields for pests. The programs were developing then and I enjoyed working with Cornell researchers and farmers to establish scouting methods and thresholds.

I went on to work as the Assistant Vegetable IPM Specialist at the NYSAES in Geneva. Being familiar with the program I found it easy to learn the job, and I felt at home at the Station. I worked with many professors, adapting their research for practical use by farmers. I worked all over the state supervising field scouts, educating farmers, and helping researchers to come up with better scouting methods, pest thresholds, and disease prediction systems. It was the early days of IPM and I was able to contribute in substantial ways. I felt however that the IPM program was too narrow, leaving soils, fertilization, and knowledge of varieties up to the farmer. I wanted to learn more and know the whole system in order to help farmers adopt more IPM techniques.

A job came up in Genesee County as a Tri- County Vegetable Specialist as well as running the Master Gardener Home horticulture program. I approached this job with gusto and enjoyed learning the farms, farmers, soils, crops, pests, as well as all the home gardeners' problems. I got great satisfaction from diagnosing and solving problems for farmers and used field demonstrations, trials, newsletters, and meetings to disseminate information.

I left extension work to start my own consulting business, as I knew I had enough work to be able to make a decent living. I had three large farms signed up and several smaller ones, and I set about setting up a full service consulting business. I developed my own field record forms and crop recordkeeping. I bought the first "laptop" computer that was as big as a small suitcase and I went to farms to record and organize their crop rotations, pesticide use and prices, pest activity, weed problems, soil sample results, etc,, so farmers could easily see where they could make or save money and what improvements could be made.

I walked miles every day in the hot sun looking for pests in various vegetable and field crops. This was somewhat satisfying work, however I had limited control and it was difficult trying to get farmers to change their practices in any significant way. Many fields were biological deserts after years of intensive vegetable production and were dependent on chemical inputs.

I decided I would keep consulting for several growers and train other consultants to take over some of my accounts so I could start my own small flower farm, partially to test some of my growing methods. I enjoyed setting up the farm and shop and studying markets, varieties, production methods, etc. I learned a lot about the industry by joining the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and selling both retail and wholesale.

I found that I needed to sell a percentage of my flowers for the maximum amount possible, which was the wedding market. This is a stressful market but I became good at it and sales at my retail shop and to florist and farm stands was enjoyable and made the wedding work bearable. After twenty years I still have the three main customers I started with.

The industry went through a major contraction during the 1990s and many florists and wholesalers went out of business. Major retailers and grocery chains contracted directly with South American co-ops to buy directly from very large growers who could supply year-round flowers at very cheap prices. Middlemen were cut out as company-owned trucks met the airfreight shippers in Miami.

Labor was another issue because dependable help was hard to find as kids prioritized sports and social activities in their summers off. I had my share of employees not showing up for work at critical times (wedding days, for instance) so decided that going forward I would only do what I could do myself.

I kept scouting and consulting for twelve more years while I developed my flower markets. I sold the consulting business to another consultant and trained him to do the job. Recently I moved the flower business to a farm which has better soil and that is closer to my markets. It is highly seasonal and I have made the most of season extension products such as wreaths for Christmas, early season weddings, etc. The wedding market is huge but has become increasingly difficult with the internet, magazines such as Martha, and television shows, advertising lush and inviting pictures of everything wedding-related. It has become very difficult to meet the demands of most brides without importing flowers from every corner of the globe. Wholesalers are all but gone, so buying small quantities of any quality is very difficult.

On a side note: Back in the early 20th century, right up into the 1960s, local growers took their cut flowers from the field and their greenhouses to the wholesale houses in the city on a daily basis where flower shop owners met the wagons and trucks and purchased what they needed.

The work of growing flowers follows the seasons and has intense peak times of planting and harvesting. Spring is always nerve wracking as the annual production field has to be tilled, planted, and mulched, irrigation laid out, and deer fence put up. I plant 130 flats of annual flowers, about 8,000 plants and 500 tubers and bulbs. The perennial patch needs to be mulched, weeded, and renovated, replacing unproductive varieties with new ones.

While I maintain the annual field of flowers, weeding, watering, and pinching back, I also pick and sell flowers from the perennial patch in arrangements for weddings and orders. I make sure to keep the self-service stocked with bouquets. Having a steady supply and meeting customers' needs can be demanding, but the cash supplement is important to my income.

By fall I really need a break from the relentlessness of caring for the flowers, keeping them producing, spraying for pests, picking, dealing with customers, etc. Before I can rest I have to do a final harvest of anything I can dry, then dig all of the bulbs I planted in the spring, mark the colors and store them in the basement. Then of course there is wreath making and workshops for the holidays that are labor intensive.

The fact is that under ideal circumstances of not having the pressure of making a living at growing flowers, I would enjoy it immensely. I work with the rhythms of the season, spending time in a field of beautiful flowers, my cozy shop, and trips to the "city" twice a week where I talk to the shop owners who buy my flowers, sharing stories and news of the day.

Under the pressure of maximizing sales to make a living with increasing customers' demands, the work can be difficult. When my friends ask me when they stop to visit, "Nellie, are flowers still pretty today?" I want to always say "Yes, of course," but when my arm is throbbing from tendonitis, my back aches, and I've had no decent meal all day, I wonder, if the grass is greener in an office. Then I remember that there is no grass in an office, and I go back to work!

People see the beauty of the flowers and always say how wonderful it must be to be working in all that beauty. But the reality is, it is a business with all the entailing headaches.

In the final analysis of my career in agriculture I would say that I would like to grow flowers half time and work half time in horticultural and agricultural problem solving. The flower production and marketing is satisfying as you produce a beautiful product and the challenge is doing a better job every year and learning all the details of new varieties and better production and marketing techniques. Consulting is interesting and challenging (and less physical) as I like to solve problems that combine the chemistry and physics of the natural world and depend on good interpretation and communication of results. *

Read 2803 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 December 2015 11:08
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The St. Croix Review speaks for middle America, and brings you essays from patriotic Americans.

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