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Green industry grows despite shrinking economy

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

Despite Georgia's weakened labor market and widespread industry belt-tightening, the green industry is blooming, said Sherry Loudermilk, president of the Georgia Green Industry Association.

"People may not be able to buy a new boat or car, so they concentrate around the home," Loudermilk said, "and add a new deck, buy new flower baskets for the porch or landscape their backyard."

The green industry encompasses greenhouse, nursery and turf growers, landscapers, retail garden centers and golf courses. It has an estimated $4.2 billion yearly impact in Georgia, according to the Center for Urban Agriculture at the University of Georgia.

That's a significant impact, particularly for an industry so young, Loudermilk said.

"This is my 18th year with the GGIA," Loudermilk said. "I've seen it grow from seasonal to an all-year, hard-as-you-can-work operation. Nurseries exploded in the 1970s. And landscaping really took off in the 1980s. Plant palettes have gone from 25 to 30 plants to 3,000 to 4,000 plants."

Green industry folks are particularly optimistic now that the drought is over.

"During the drought, landscape installations fell off to nothing," said Gary Wade, a UGA extension horticulturist. "It forced the industry to diversify. Landscape companies offered new services such as hardscape structures -- walks, walls and fountains -- as well as irrigation systems."

As the industry has grown, the demand for qualified workers has increased.

"It used to be that if you had a pickup truck and called yourself a landscaper, folks would do what you said," said Wayne P. Juers, vice president of personnel development for Atlanta's Pike Family Nurseries, the largest family-owned garden center in the United States.

"But the public has gotten so savvy about gardening and landscaping," Juers said, "they want horticulturists."

To get the caliber of trained employees he's looking for, Juers travels. "I hire between 12 and 20 students each year," he said. "I'll visit the University of Georgia, Auburn, Kentucky, Virginia Tech, Ohio State and upstate New York."

The market for mid- and high-level jobs in the industry is good.

"There are a tremendous number of people who can take low-level jobs in the green industry," Wade said. "But there is a huge demand for people to fill the higher-level, supervisory positions. And there aren't enough qualified people to fill that demand."

More people are getting into the green industry, particularly landscaping, because they've lost their jobs, Wade said.

"A lot of people see it as a fairly easy business to start," he said. "It requires little cash outlay. With a truck, a few tools and a lawnmower, you can get started."

Golf courses make up another, significant segment of the green industry. And while the cold weather this winter affected golf play, it hasn't had a negative effect on the job market, said Tenia Workman, president of the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association.

"We're experiencing a lot more job openings at most levels of golf course management," Workman said.

"I'd say 85 to 95 percent of the students who major in turfgrass want to become golf course superintendents," said UGA turfgrass specialist Keith Karnok, who oversees the UGA golf course management programs. "I cannot remember ever having a student who hasn't been able to find a job in this business if they wanted one."

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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