Making Connections through Horticulture: People, Plants, Professions, & Perspectives
When you think of horticulture, does your mind directly think plants or profession? UMN Crookston has been delivering degrees in horticulture for more than 35 years. Not only is there a diverse group of people who fill many roles in this profession, but there are varying degrees of perspective in the industry. Two individuals at different stages of their journey shared their insights, challenges, and opportunities regarding the same profession. One individual has years of experience under her belt and the other will soon be joining the horticulture workforce as he is graduating this spring. Both provide their view of the rewarding parts of the job down to the nitty gritty daily tasks.
Jacoby McConkey and Meghan (Messerschmidt) Arms share a passion for the horticulture industry. While they currently hold different positions in the same field, they both enjoy working with the people in their profession and were excited to share their passion for the industry, while describing their individual goals and accomplishments.
Jacoby McConkey, a senior at the University of Minnesota Crookston majoring in horticulture with an emphasis in production, currently works in the campus greenhouses. McConkey shared he simply enjoys “working with the plants.” From growing the plants to providing a finished product, the most rewarding part of his job is seeing the joy on the customers face when they see the attractive plants and landscapes he creates. This experience came to life when he was a part of the team that designed and implemented the south bed of the UMN Crookston Allen and Freda Pedersen Campus Garden in the summer of 2019. This project and space of the garden received local news coverage and McConkey feels this is one of his greatest accomplishments thus far. His passion shows as he talks about the project with pride. His work on the UMN Crookston campus garden is only the beginning. Looking into the future, he shared with me his post-graduation plans involve moving to Colorado and working at a botanical garden. “I would like to work my way up in the field, eventually being a curator of a botanical garden,” he said. “One day I hope to introduce a new variety of plants to the commercial market and also own my own business at some point.” he smiled as he shared these goals and continued to express what excites him about the future of horticulture. He can’t wait to see the potential the industry has as it grows, but is most excited to see the opportunities the industry can provide for himself and others who choose this path.
In contrast, Meghan Arms works in the horticulture industry as the health and safety director at Bailey Nurseries in Elko New Market, Minnesota. Arms graduated from the University of Minnesota Crookston in 2002, with a degree in plant industries management with an emphasis in horticulture. She has worked for Bailey Nurseries for 18 years and appreciates every experience gained through the company. The favorite part of her job is working with employees in the field, educating, and coaching them on the safety practices of the workplace. She also finds joy in working with three languages: English, Spanish, and Karen (kəˈrɛn). These experiences make her accomplishments even more meaningful. Arms feels she is approachable in her role as a safety director. This feat has changed the overall safety of the company’s workplace as the employees want to become engaged and feel comfortable reaching out to those who can help answer questions about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations that must be followed. On the topic of OSHA and the practice of workplace safety at a company such as Bailey Nurseries, Arms hopes to one day create a network of safety-focused professionals in the horticulture industry. She stated this network would tour the companies similar to Bailey Nurseries and then review the different safety procedures the companies implement to provide a safe workplace. In the meantime, she is on her way to completing all OSHA certifications. These goals tie into what Arms finds most exciting about her career. From learning about OSHA regulations to traveling between the many locations of Bailey Nurseries, she finds not being behind a desk all day is rewarding and she loves that each day provides new challenges, ideas, and thoughts.
Jacoby and Meghan’s passion for horticulture was apparent as they shared their goals and experiences of the industry, but as the saying goes: “every rose has its thorn.” Like most professions, the horticulture industry provides its challenges. Both McConkey and Arms agree that the job has moments of difficulty, but the challenges are meaningful as they provide opportunities for growth and learning.
While McConkey is no stranger to a challenge, he shared it was hard to get used to the work hours horticulture requires. He also stated the working conditions can be difficult as was learning how to manage the many tasks projects require in order to be done successfully. However while the dirty work provides its test, he also sees things from a broader perspective. He joked, “It’s like fashion.” He shared that horticulture has become very trend based and the challenge lies within knowing what the next trends will be. He poses the question, “how does one keep their garden centers up to date with the trends and fads with an ever-growing horticulture industry?”
Arms has also seen challenges first-hand in the horticulture industry and how they affect newcomers to the profession. She worries that in the future it may become more difficult to find people to work the general labor jobs due to more extreme working conditions. Arms described these conditions as working in very hot or very cold environments and a lot of laborious fieldwork. These positions are mostly held by Hispanic and Karen employees. Retention of this workforce poses a significant concern. This has also been an issue when retaining new college graduates, as in some cases, they feel they are not performing the jobs they were hired to do and oftentimes leave to find work elsewhere. Arms has concerns horticulture could be pegged as a dying field because some may think there is a wide variety of careers, but not much room for advancement. On the contrary, she wishes people would stick it out longer because “truly there are a lot of opportunities - individuals just need to work through the tough jobs for a while and take what they can from the experience.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also posed some challenges for Arms. Though the past year has been great for the company, she explained new safety restrictions and protocol relative to the pandemic have increased the complexity of operations and how to keep employees safe. She and some of her coworkers explain the nuance of this historic pandemic as, “trying to fly a 747 jet with thousands of passengers and with no training at all.”
Though years separate these two individuals, they are connected through their passion for plants and people, and forever bound by their likeness and path through the University of Minnesota Crookston. From generation to generation, it is a pride in their work and interest to move beyond challenges toward growth and accomplishment, these Golden Eagles will carry on a long-time tradition and meaningful contributions to the industry of horticulture.
Written by Karli Renney, senior, majoring in communication, Detroit Lakes, Minn., for the Alumni and Student Spotlight e-Newsletter.