by George Looby

The exhibit hall of the Sturbridge Host Hotel, Sturbridge, MA was transformed into a large recruiting venue on Feb. 27 and 28 by the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA) to allow members to sign up anyone interested in a career in the field of landscaping or nursery.

Today the Massachusetts environmental horticulture industry contributes an estimated 2.6 billion to the Massachusetts economy, half of which is in plant production and sales. It also keeps 90,000 acres of land in Massachusetts dedicated to agriculture, 40 percent is in a land preservation program. According to a recent economic impact study the Massachusetts green industry employs at least 68,000 people at nurseries, greenhouse, floral shops, garden centers and landscape related businesses. Almost 43,000 are full-time positions. Almost 7,500 jobs remain unfilled in the field across the state, providing viable job opportunities for people with a wide range of skills and experience.

The range and scope of the jobs being offered ran the whole spectrum of agricultural activities and beyond. If an individual had an interest in any area of nursery or landscaping, they were almost certain to find employment if they chose to attend this unique recruiting opportunity. Part-time work was also available which appealed to those in the high school and college age group.

Besides those actively recruiting there were several booths manned by a variety of support groups such as the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards.

One of the programs developed and managed by the Department of Agricultural Resources is the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program designed to assist farmers in keeping land in production as opposed to having it developed for other purposes. This is designed for those who may have reached a point in their careers where critical decisions have to be made regarding their future course of action. Farmers are offered a price for their holdings that is up to the difference between the fair market value and the fair market agricultural value in return for a restrictive deed which essentially limits any future use to agricultural activities.

Attendees were invited to challenge their own plant knowledge with a display of unlabeled plant specimens laid out for identification. For those at the top of their game, it may have been something of a no brainer but for those whose exposure to a number of native plants is somewhat limited, it may have been a challenge. This quiz may have also served as a review for those about to take the certification exam.

Twice during the course of the afternoon there was a discussion scheduled about a partnership that has been developed between a commercial operation, Ahronian Landscaping and Design, and the Holliston High School Internship Program. This program has been developed to provide learning experiences and opportunities for students with an interest in the field and to serve as a pipeline to careers in landscape and design. Speakers included Mark Ahronian and Christopher Johnston of Ahronian Landscaping and Design and Sue Stone, Career Services Coordinator, Holliston High School. On day two of the meeting OSHA provided opportunities for those attending to learn more about how to increase safety on a given job site.

During the time that recruiting activities were going on, educational opportunities were available to those registered for the meeting. Topics were varied and were assured to be of interest to almost everyone. On day one there were presentations on beneficial insects and so-called innocent bystanders; plant identification; compromised root systems and what to do about them; and new landscaping ideas that work. On day two topics covered included underutilized herbicide products for landscape and turf; pruning tips for overgrown shrubs and keeping trees small; the designer’s way of creating gardens and lives of beauty and meaning; and the real “buzz” about bees.

The annual meeting and luncheon concluded the meeting. At this time, the Commissioner of Agricultural Resources, John Lebeaux was presented with the group’s most prestigious award, The Environmental Leadership Award. This meeting provided all attendees a variety of opportunities to expand their knowledge and interact with colleagues as they prepare for the upcoming season.