The changing face of horticulture

Michael Geary, president and CEO of the new trade
association AmericanHort, talks about how the horticulture industry is evolving
and what the association is doing to ensure plants remain relevant to consumers.

By David Kuack
The start of 2014 brought a new trade association,
AmericanHort, to the horticulture industry. Although the name is new, the
association represents 220 years of service to the industry through the
combined history of the two organizations that created it. AmericanHort was
formed by the consolidation of the American Nursery & Landscape Association
and OFA – The Association of Horticulture Professionals. The more than two-year
effort was approved by the two associations’ members in September 2013.

 The mission of AmericanHort is to unite, promote and
advance the horticulture industry through advocacy, collaboration,
connectivity, education, market development and research. Its vision is to be a
leading and unifying organization for the industry in order to cultivate
successful businesses, and for the industry to enhance lives through the
benefits of plants.

The new association will represent all segments of the
plant industry. This includes breeders, greenhouse and nursery growers, garden
center retailers, distributors, interior and exterior landscapers, florists,
students, educators, researchers, manufacturers and all of those who are part
of the industry supply chain.
Michael Geary, former CEO of OFA and executive vice
president of ANLA, who is now president and CEO of AmericanHort, talked with
Hort Americas about the changing horticulture industry and how the new
association is working to ensure the industry remains vital and its members
continue to be successful.

Michael Geary, president and CEO of AmericanHort
Photo courtesy of AmericanHort

How has your definition
of the horticulture industry changed?

The definition of horticulture has been an evolution for
me. While I didn’t work directly in the industry prior to taking the job with
OFA, my father used to work for the U.S. Forest Service. He was involved with
forest management, breeding and plant pathology at a research station in Fort
Myers, Fla. So I was exposed to the research side of horticulture. As a young
child I would go to the research station with my father and into the
greenhouses and into the field with him and measure plants and take data. That
was my only exposure.

When I started to work in the industry I didn’t fully
understand what is encompassed by the industry. As I talked to other people my
interpretation of horticulture came to include the production, distribution and
selling of plants.
Early on I used to wonder whether people who operate
garden centers think of themselves as being part of the horticulture industry.
They are. They are very integral, sometimes in the production of plants, but certainly
in the distribution, selling, promoting and services related to plant material.
The word “horticulture” has a very scientific connotation
to it, but it’s more than that. It goes beyond production and research. It
involves everything with how we experience the plant world. It’s really
everything that is involved with plants.
How do you think
the horticulture industry is evolving in regards to the types of plants that
are being grown and sold?

Edibles are definitely a part of the horticulture industry.
Not necessarily big agriculture, which would include crops such as corn,
soybeans and wheat. We don’t really think about those crops in the context of
what AmericanHort does as an organization as being a part of horticulture.

Edible crops that are grown in greenhouses, plants grown
by consumers in their backyards or on their porches and patios, those would be
included as a part of horticulture.
AmericanHort has been engaged for a while talking about
edibles to greenhouse growers. There has been a push for vegetables and fruits
that consumers can grow and I expect that will continue to increase. We are
also looking at how growers can produce product for a larger market similar to
what big ag is doing selling to wholesalers or directly to grocery stores.
Growers are looking at alternative crops. If a grower’s
greenhouse is empty in January, why not fill it with something like tomatoes or
green peppers? How do they do that? What does it take to do that sort of thing?
What are the economics of growing an alternative crop? Those are the types of
things that we are discussing within the association committees and with our
staff and leadership. It’s not something new, we’re just looking at what more
can we do to support the membership.
There are so many opportunities for alternative crops.
The association can support these crops through educational sessions at
conferences, but also through research that is necessary and all of the
marketing and other business components that go along with these alternative
OFA and ANLA were
considered to be “grower” organizations? Do you think that perception will
start to change with AmericanHort?

AmericanHort, although it does have a focus on production
techniques as part of its educational programs, we are not only about
production. You can be an amazing plant grower, but you have to know how to run
a business also. I hope that people will look to AmericanHort not just to get
information on diseases and plant production, but to also look to the
association for support in regards to business management and business skills,
which are also necessary in order to provide a great product to the

With the consolidation of the two associations,
AmericanHort is now the largest organization of garden retailers. You can
expect to see and hear more from us about growing the retail end of the market
chain. For years we have been offering a trade show and a variety of
educational opportunities for retailers and there’s more to come. AmericanHort
is for every business sector in the industry.
Also, AmericanHort’s support for the industry includes
government relations activities in Washington, D.C. Those issues are extensive
and impact all sectors of horticulture.
What is
AmericanHort doing to ensure that the horticulture industry and its products
and services remain relevant to consumers?

There is whole generation of people who have not really
experienced our products and services. AmericanHort received a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant
to study the interest of young people in plants and gardening.

The association will be working with Michigan State University
horticulture professor Bridget Behe and Meister Media on this project. We are
trying to understand now what Generation Y and Millennials will be interested
in the years to come. When they get to the age when they are buying their first
major home or having children, we don’t know what they are going to be
interested in then. We don’t think that we can make an assumption that they are
only going to be interested in technology and they’re never going to be
interested in the nature side of life.
We are conducting focus groups and other research
including one-on-one interviews with younger people to learn about their
shopping habits and interests. What are they interested in at that age level
and how they want to be engaged.
Young people are interested in nature. This generation
cares about the environment. But what are they going to buy and use, we really
don’t know yet. We can’t make assumptions. We are just starting now to research
and understand and prepare for that when that generation is prepared to buy
more than just music and iPhones.
We are not only trying to help by doing this research,
but we are also trying to get individual businesses to be more successful.
We’re trying to help owners to better manage their people, dollars and their

For more:
AmericanHort, (614) 487-1117;;

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort
Worth, Texas;

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