As the labor market continues to evolve and fluctuate, you may find yourself hiring capable employees who may have little horticulture experience (but are willing to learn). Like teaching them how to water properly, teaching them how to scout for problems and pests is also incredibly important.

Luisa Santamaria, nursery pathology specialist, Oregon State University, spoke on the topic at Cultivate’22. She noted that while growers have seen strong sales over the past three years, they’re still constantly being challenged by pests – but that’s just one challenge in achieving plant health.

Those other challenges include good training opportunities, educational tools dedicated to the horticulture workforce, the accessibility of data from applied research and that ongoing skilled labor shortage.

“You need to start with educating your workers,” Santamaria said. “Workers need to understand their role in healthy plant production, and education needs assessment” to determine how effective it is. “The general goal is to improve best management practices that lead to a reduction of plant diseases.” A properly trained worker will improve productivity and efficiency.

In surveying nursery workers, Santamaria found some options they said would be useful for their education: nursery field days, webpages devoted to nursery problems (pests, chemicals, diseases and training), bilingual materials, demonstrations and specific trainings to explain BMPs and audiovisual support for specific topics (using videos, photos and posters).

Demonstrations and specific trainings were considered the most important, followed by nursery field days. Santamaria said the workers really enjoy learning what other nurseries are doing and interacting with other growers.

Survey takers were also asked to rate the importance of receiving training in specific areas. Topping the list was safety issues, followed by BMPs, diagnosis of pests and disease, non-chemical pest control, pesticide application and then weed identification. They noted they most often access information via search engines, then through printed materials.

When it comes to building their skills to scout, Santamaria said the focus should begin with general health concepts (disease vs. fungus vs. virus); then use hands-on activities (scouting, tours, etc.); and finally provide resources and other educational materials.

If you’re interested in running a workshop for your employees on scouting for pests, start with a “lecture” covering the basic concepts of plant pathology, signs vs. symptoms, a disease cycle, BMPs and integrated pest management. Following the lesson, provide handouts (either through downloadable PDFs with lots of pictures or pocket-sized, water resistant field books). Then organize hands-on activities help to break the ice and give the workers a chance to practice their new skills. “Explain the ‘why’ we’re doing something,” Santamaria said.

But scouting is only one step in the process to look for clues. Providing employees with visual aids will help them review and confirm the concepts they’ve been taught. Make scouting relevant by noting that if problems are caught early, growers can react in a timely manner. They can avoid pathogen spread by removing diseased plant material, reduce crop loss and reduce chemical applications.

Workers should also be encouraged to record their observations. It doesn’t need to be extensive – the date and location of the observation, the problem being noted and a description of what is evident (standing water, signs of disease, insects, etc.) is enough.

Writing down observations will help managers and employees remain organized. They’ll have references of the most susceptible or resistant crops for future use. And they’ll have a history of when the disease or problem was present to avoid repeated issues.

This whole process may not be easy. Santamaria noted educating the nursery workforce can be challenging due a low level of subject knowledge, unfamiliarity with computer-based learning (if you use that option) and because it takes time to build trust and confidence in your employees. “Education is not an easy process, but a lot of people want to learn,” she said.

Santamaria offered some tips in communicating science-based knowledge effectively:

  • Introduce new concepts with live experiences (hands-on activities, demonstrations, group activities, etc.)
  • Identify available resources that will help with your instruction (guest speaker, handouts, etc.)
  • Explain why the information is relevant to prevent plant problems

Ultimately, scouting plans will be different for each nursery and depend largely on their pest activity. “Know your place, know your plants, know your pests,” Santamaria stressed.

by Courtney Llewellyn