Growing Careers by Merritt Melacon

  • June 29, 2018

From Southscapes Magazine

By Merritt Melacon

Ornamental horticulture generates jobs for rural Georgians

When public officials start to talk about economic development in rural areas, the conversation often centers around bringing call centers, distribution centers and manufacturing to those areas. But sometimes the businesses with the most local economic impact are high-tech, homegrown and in growing fields, like the business of growing plants.

Across the state, Georgia’s ornamental horticulture industry — greenhouses, container nurseries and turfgrass farms — employs about 84,800 people. 

Beyond greenhouses full of hoses and plastic pots, modern ornamental operations are equipped with moisture sensors, robots, smart irrigation systems and nutrient meters, and require the highest levels of biosecurity to keep plants healthy.

Greenhouse production is a form of high-tech manufacturing, said Ken James (BSA – Horticulture, ’95), who co-owns James Greenhouses in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, with his wife, Leah James (BSA – Horticulture, ’96).

“Like every ag operation, there is plenty of manual labor. We stick cuttings, move materials, spray, harvest, package, ship, and we do lots of cleaning,” Ken James said. “While the daily work of running a nursery remains the same, technology is now a part of even the most basic jobs. Our people have to be ready for that. More than half of our workforce interacts with our ERP software on a daily basis. There are 16 automated irrigation systems that must be programmed, monitored and maintained each day. We have five environmental control computers that must be monitored. There are soil-mixing lines, hot water boilers, automated fertilizer mixing systems, lighting, you name it.”

Ken and Leah James launched James Greenhouses in 1998. Today it’s grown to include 3 acres of highly automated, climate-controlled greenhouse space and 2 acres of shade houses. They produce over 8 million specialty ornamental plants annually, sourced weekly from cutting suppliers all over the world. They recently launched a line of green-roof modules grown with plants that excel in urban rooftop environments.

James Greenhouses employs about 45 people year-round and more than 50 during peak seasons. That’s about 50 of the county’s 1,660 total jobs; not a huge percentage, but important to the local economy.

It takes a lot of people to keep the business moving forward, and it can be hard to keep those jobs filled. Currently, the Jameses work with seven University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences graduates and two from UGA’s Odum School of Ecology. They also hire many trained tradespeople, like plumbers, electricians and those familiar with industrial technology.

Sometimes it’s hard for Ken James to find local folks to fill those roles. He laments that so many schools have gotten rid of their technical training programs.

In McDuffie County, west of Augusta, Georgia, Skeetter McCorkle and McCorkle Nurseries keep an even larger workforce moving forward in the tiny town of Dearing, Georgia. McCorkle employs between 160 and 250 people, depending on the season. To put that in perspective, the town of Dearing has a total population of 550.

McCorkle works with UGA plant breeders to grow some of the most popular new ornamental varieties on his 440 acres. There’s a strong history of nursery-growing in McDuffie County that includes the McCorkles, Dudleys and other families as well.

That long-term commitment to the community builds stability in the local economy, McCorkle said. When you grow this type of business, the community you support becomes like your family.

“We have been blessed to be part of a small, rural community that provides a healthy lifestyle,” McCorkle said. “Farms and families go together like peanut butter and jelly. We are honored to have provided jobs for our team members and their families over the years.”

Green industry jobs have always been a big part of rural economies, said Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Green Industry Association.

“The annual economic impact of the green industry in Georgia is over $7 billion,” Butts said. “When considered together, greenhouse growers, container nurseries, turf farms and field-grown tree nurseries combine to make ornamental horticulture a top-five commodity group in the state. This production drives the landscape business statewide, providing contractors with Georgia-grown products on jobs ranging from residential to large, commercial projects. Georgia growers also ship plants for contractors and retailers across the country.”