Careers for Green Thumbs

Tips, Resources and Job Outlooks for People Who Love Plants

For gardening, flower or nature fans, getting a degree doesn’t have to mean resigning to a dull desk job. There are many specialized career paths available in the fields of agriculture, horticulture and forestry for prospective students with a green thumb. Even though equipment advancements have reduced the farm labor force in recent years, there is still a demand for nursery and greenhouse workers as well as agriculture and horticulturists, florists and flower specialist. This breakdown of career paths provides a way for those with green thumbs to explore plant-centric industries, with tips to get a career with plants growing.

Map Your Career with Plants

Working with plants can be both scientific and creative. Some green thumb careers specialize in conservation and research, focusing efforts on environmental problems. Others require design and planning finesse, arranging floral collections or creating landscapes while keeping both beauty and functionality in mind. Those looking for a plant-based career can identify their particular interests and strengths to help choose an appropriate specialty or focus area and the jobs it may lead to. Major specialties in the plant industry include:

Horticulture

Horticulture specialists work on projects related to developing new crops and solving complex problems related to the environment. They may be involved with pest control initiatives, heritage and conservation projects or the study of certain types of plant populations. Their work usually takes them from the field to the lab as they perform tests and analyze data. Employers include research institutions, universities, conservation organizations, retail companies, food production companies and food suppliers. Educational requirements for a career in horticulture typically includes a bachelor’s or master’s degree in plant science, botany or a related degree.

Arborist

Responsible for caring and managing trees in a given area by overseeing all planting, pruning and tree removal duties, arborists may work for city or municipal governments or private businesses specializing in tree care, cultivation and removal.

Plant Geneticists

Plant geneticists study genetics in botany, isolating different genes and developing specific plant traits. A common goal among plant geneticists is to create different strains of crops that can outlast weather conditions, provide more nutritional value or be more sustainable overall.

Forestry

Forestry professionals work to deliver wood products to the market, protect the environment and follow policies and regulations pertaining to forested areas of the country. Some of these jobs are very hands-on and require working outdoors, while others emphasize technical, scientific or business knowledge to make informed decisions. Forestry professionals may educate decision-makers about forest land, inspect inventory and monitor reforestation efforts. Educational requirements vary significantly by job, but most entry-level forestry positions require an associate or bachelor’s degree, as well as some practical training. Management and research positions may require advanced degrees and several years of field experience.

Forest Scientist

Forest scientists ultimately manage the quality of land in forests, woodlands, parks, rangelands and other natural areas. Forest scientists have the option of working for governments, social advocacy organizations or privately owned land, and typically determine how to conserve habitats, maintain or improve water quality and comply with state or federal regulations.

Forestry Technician

Forestry technicians help to manage, develop and conserve woodlands. They measure and improve the quality of natural areas, forests and rangeland, and generally work outdoors. Forestry technicians typically need an associate degree in a field that is accredited by the Society of American Foresters (SAF).

Logging Crew Member

Logging crews harvest forests to provide raw material for different industrial products and consumer goods. These crew members typically work outdoors and will cut and de-limb trees to specified sizes. Specific duties generally consist of fallers, harvest machine operators, buckers, logging skidder operators and equipment operators.

Agriculture

The work of agricultural professionals may take them both indoors and out, in settings such as farms, nurseries, hatcheries and laboratories. From the business side of agricultural with management to the technical side of agricultural with science, these experts specialize in farming practices, plant and crop cultivation and agronomy. Careers in agriculture may lead beyond farming and ranching — the industry also employs bioprocessing and irrigation engineers, soil scientists and plant geneticists. Business acumen is applied in agricultural economics, with careers as resource consultants or agricultural policy analysts. Educational requirements vary by position, but most agricultural jobs require at least an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Bioprocessing Engineer

Bioprocessing engineers analyze the properties of biological material and work with them to find and implement beneficial uses. Bioprocessing engineers develop the biological systems that are used to manufacture products and also monitor production equipment, the production process and product quality.

Irrigation Engineer

Irrigation engineers create and develop watering systems for different landscapes, areas and projects. These projects can range from agriculture and crop irrigation to dams, drainage systems and canals to commercial and residential projects. Irrigation engineers design irrigation systems and oversee their construction and implementation, with the main goal of safely transferring water from one location to another.

Soil Scientists

Soil scientists participate in research for the production, yield and management of crops and agriculture overall. They study the chemical, physical, biological and mineralogical composition of soil to help make decisions on crop growth and production. Soil scientists also classify soils to study different forms of agriculture and crop growth.

Arborist

Responsible for caring and managing trees in a given area by overseeing all planting, pruning and tree removal duties, arborists may work for city or municipal governments or private businesses specializing in tree care, cultivation and removal.

Bioprocessing Engineer

Bioprocessing engineers analyze the properties of biological material and work with them to find and implement beneficial uses. Bioprocessing engineers develop the biological systems that are used to manufacture products and also monitor production equipment, the production process and product quality.

Environmental Scientist

Environmental scientists analyze environmental problems and develop solutions though data analysis, compiling samples of air, soil and other natural matter. Some environmental scientists specialize in environmental regulations that protect public health, while others focus on minimizing human impact on the ecosystem.

Forestry Consultant

Provides advice on maximizing the use of available land, taking into account environmental issues, pest control challenges and business and tax implications. These consultants may work independently or as part of private businesses to provide professional expertise on the best use of natural resources for a given project.

Forest Scientist

Forest scientists ultimately manage the quality of land in forests, woodlands, parks, rangelands and other natural areas. Forest scientists have the option of working for governments, social advocacy organizations or privately owned land, and typically determine how to conserve habitats, maintain or improve water quality and comply with state or federal regulations.

Forestry Technician

Forestry technicians help to manage, develop and conserve woodlands. They measure and improve the quality of natural areas, forests and rangeland, and generally work outdoors. Forestry technicians typically need an associate degree in a field that is accredited by the Society of American Foresters (SAF).

Horticultural Scientist

Primarily studying plant life and crops in a laboratory, horticultural scientists will also work in the field performing tests and experiments. They are directly involved with identifying, classifying and monitoring plant species, and may work for government research institutes, food processing and marketing companies, or food production companies to conduct scientific research on various plant forms.

Irrigation Engineer

Irrigation engineers create and develop watering systems for different landscapes, areas and projects. These projects can range from agriculture and crop irrigation to dams, drainage systems and canals to commercial and residential projects. Irrigation engineers design irrigation systems and oversee their construction and implementation, with the main goal of safely transferring water from one location to another.

Logging Crew Member

Logging crews harvest forests to provide raw material for different industrial products and consumer goods. These crew members typically work outdoors and will cut and de-limb trees to specified sizes. Specific duties generally consist of fallers, harvest machine operators, buckers, logging skidder operators and equipment operators.

Plant Geneticists

Plant geneticists study genetics in botany, isolating different genes and developing specific plant traits. A common goal among plant geneticists is to create different strains of crops that can outlast weather conditions, provide more nutritional value or be more sustainable overall.

Soil Scientists

Soil scientists participate in research for the production, yield and management of crops and agriculture overall. They study the chemical, physical, biological and mineralogical composition of soil to help make decisions on crop growth and production. Soil scientists also classify soils to study different forms of agriculture and crop growth.

Finding Agriculture and Forestry Colleges

Whether green thumb students are searching for an associate degree program to apply for entry-level positions or want an advanced or research degree, they should look for schools that provide a comprehensive educational experience. From opportunities to obtain practical experience to options for continuing education, since many employers and career paths in agriculture and forestry require some hands-on experience, students should search for schools that facilitate internship or externship programs. Here is a list of some important things to look for when searching for agriculture and forestry schools:

  • Internships

    Completing an internship before graduation can provide students valuable skills that prepare them to enter the workforce and get a jump start on their careers. Some employers even hire their former interns for permanent positions. Many schools offer internship placement assistance, referring students to reputable companies in agriculture-related fields, such as crop production companies, local farms and agri-businesses. Others provide leads for internships available during the student’s final year or summer term before graduation.

  • Professor Accolades

    The professional experience that professors and instructors have directly influences a program’s curriculum and overall quality. Those with research experience, advanced degrees, specialty certifications or experience managing an agri-business company may be able to offer more insight and expertise to aspiring plant professionals. Some may have earned awards or been otherwise recognized for their work. Membership in professional organizations, such as the American Society for Horticultural Science, the Society of American Foresters, AmericanHort or the International Society of Arboriculture, may also be beneficial for students seeking avenues for networking.

  • Program Quality

    The top-ranking schools in the country that offer agriculture, horticulture, forestry and related programs have a few things in common:

    • On-site farms, fields, ranches or gardens
    • Integration with community-based agriculture programs
    • Workshops affiliated with national organizations, such as the Future Farmers of America (FFA)
    • Affiliations with local food co-ops and other community organizations
    • Clubs such as Ag Ambassadors or Symbiotic Solutions, designed to enhance the student experience
    • Farmer training programs
  • Program Scope

    Many schools offer lab-based courses, hands-on farming or lab training, as well as traditional lecture-based classes. Students interested in specialized careers can enroll in a program that includes formal training in a certain area, such as organic farming, food science or forestry, to obtain skills necessary for entry-level positions. Smaller class sizes give students a chance to work on intensive, small-group projects and one-on-one with instructors. Few, if any, courses are offered online since most plant-related education requires hands-on participation in group activities and projects.

Fastest Growing Careers with Plants

From agriculture to forestry, green thumbs have a number of job opportunities with promising projections to explore over the next decade. Some of the fastest growing careers in this field involve new technologies and advances in areas of crop management, farming equipment, landscape design and food science. Here is a closer look at some of the fastest growing careers in horticulture, agriculture, forestry and other plant related industries:

Agricultural Business Manager

Overseeing all business operations of a farm, including production processes, employee relations, and vendor relations, an agricultural business manager is also responsible for making sure operations comply with government and environmental regulations.

Agricultural and Food Scientists

Responsible for making sure food production processes comply with food safety regulations and standards, agricultural and food scientists work in research universities, for the federal government and in the private sector.

Conservation Scientist

Working closely with private land owners and federal, state and local governments, conservation scientists find ways to use and improve land while preserving the environment. They also advise farmers, farm managers and ranchers on how they can improve their land for agricultural purposes and prevent erosion.

Environmental Engineer

An environmental engineer serves as a technological adviser, providing insight about land use, resources, pollution control and technologies that can help address common and emerging environmental challenges. May be responsible for providing reports from investigations and using engineering skills to monitor environmental planning initiatives.

Environmental Scientist

Environmental scientists use observation and existing data to develop methods of analyzing the effects humans have on the environment. They typically work on projects in the field and in lab settings performing various experiments.

Grounds Maintenance Worker

Typically working at seasonal jobs, grounds maintenance workers are responsible for trimming and pruning trees, mowing grass and other landscaping-related duties, as well as overall grounds keeping and maintenance.

Ranch Manager

A ranch manager oversees daily operations of a ranch or farm and is responsible for hiring, purchasing and training duties. They manage budgets, negotiate land leases and handle livestock. Some may be involved with creating effective employee management strategies, and with developing plans to protect the ecosystem.

Soil and Plant Scientist

Soil and plant scientists conduct research about plant and soil physiology, crop management and pest control. They may also study and provide research about soil composition and investigate best practices for improving crop productivity.

Sources: bls.gov, Payscale

Myths About Careers with Plants

With the many technological advances in plant-based careers over the years, the landscape of green thumb geared occupations has changed considerably. Common myths about agricultural, conservation and forestry jobs are being busted as these industries transform and evolve. Here are some myths that still perpetuate the industry, and the facts behind them.

Myth

People interested in landscape work only dig in the dirt.

Many landscape and nursery-related jobs are office-based, and depend on advanced technology. These jobs can be found in areas of construction, retail and business management. For example, many landscape designers use complex computer software to plot new projects before physically installing them with their crew.

Myth

A career in plants requires an advanced science degree.

Although educational experience beyond a high school diploma or associate degree is generally preferred, many positions are open to those who do not hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Because many agriculture or horticulture jobs require hands-on learning, companies will offer in-house training and educational programs to those who are dedicated to advancing their careers.

Myth

Environmental and plant careers are highly technical and scientific in nature.

Those with a strong artistic or creative side can explore a number of career paths that combine the science and beauty of plants. Working as a landscape designer, garden designer or florist are a few options.

Myth

Technological advances in agriculture will make many farming and agribusiness jobs obsolete.

Even though this industry is evolving rapidly with the newest technological advances, there is still a demand for trained professionals in agriculture fields. Those who are willing to learn about the latest machinery and equipment and gain hands-on experience can look forward to steady work.

Myth

It’s hard to land a job straight out of college in plant-based fields.

One of the best ways to increase the chances of securing a job is to complete a practical internship before graduation. Many companies and local organizations offer both paid and unpaid internships for students to fulfill work experience curriculum requirements, and these may lead to full-time jobs after graduation.

Myth

Jobs with plants don’t pay well.

Landscapers, scientists and agri-business workers can make six-figure salaries. Careers in consulting or in selling agricultural products for commissions can also open doors for generous earning potentials. Those who specialize in a certain area or work for a larger research-based organization can command attractive salaries throughout their working life.

Top Companies for People Who Love Plants

Those looking for a job in forestry, agriculture, horticulture and related industries can work across a gamut of organizations, from government agencies to local businesses. Some jobs emphasize the technological aspects of research and science, while others are more hands-on in nature. Examples of companies hiring professionals in this industry include:

  • Altman PlantsNow the second largest horticultural grower in the United States, Altman Plants provides retailers with unusual and varied plant materials. With locations across the U.S., they supply quality cacti, succulents, annuals, perennials and more.

  • Arbor Day FoundationThis nonprofit conservation and education organization dedicated to planting trees offers a wealth of job opportunities at its main office as well as landscaping jobs throughout the year at various locations across the country.

  • Dr. Pepper Snapple GroupFood and nutrition scientists are needed at this beverage company to evaluate scientific information, develop ideas, and work with product development and marketing teams to reach company goals.

  • John DeereA leader in next-generation farming and agriculture technologies, this company is committed to sustainable growth and offers a variety of job opportunities in plant nursing and irrigation, manufacturing, engineering and environment health and safety.

  • Plains Grain & Agronomy Specializing in advanced farming solutions, this company offers a wide range of services using the latest variable-rate technologies and innovative feed and grain merchandising services at terminals around North Dakota and surrounding areas.

  • Smithsonian GardensThe Smithsonian Gardens of the Office of Facilities Management and Reliability (OFMR) offers several job opportunities for horticulturists and plant specialists at various times of the year. Horticulturists are responsible for directing the design and installation of exhibit spaces around the Smithsonian Institute, and for leading teams to coordinate seasonal plantings. The organization also offers volunteer and internship opportunities.

  • WESTCOServing eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, the WESTCO Agronomy Division hires agricultural specialists for its fertilizer and chemical programs, soil testing initiatives and various agronomy services. The company also offers internship opportunities for those seeking a permanent career in agriculture and finance.

Green Thumb Internships

American Horticultural Society (AHS)

The AHS offers a fellowship and internships at River Farm in Alexandria, Virginia. The Wilma L. Pickard Horticultural Fellowship is open to a college graduate with a degree in horticulture or related field. Those interested in nonprofit and program management can also explore options in member program internships through the AHS.

Chicago Botanic Garden

Working at one the largest botanic gardens in the city, these paid, full-time interns can participate in exclusive educational programs and gain hands-on experience in the areas of horticulture, education and research.

Missouri Botanical Garden

This botanical garden offers unpaid internships for those seeking to meet academic credit requirements or fulfill apprenticeship requirements for a degree program. Internship opportunities are available in several areas, including horticulture, education, science and conservation and retail services. Interns receive free admission to the garden and discounts during their internship period.

Wyerhaeuser

With geological and forestry internships, Weyerhaeuser is a source for student work experience in areas of forestry, geology, engineering, horticulture and environmental science. The company specializes in timber, land and forest products, making it possible to build homes and develop consumer products.

Smithsonian Gardens

Students get a chance to work on a public garden with an internship in horticulture and grounds management at the Smithsonian Gardens. In addition to general upkeep, interns also have the opportunity to work on special projects within their desired area of specialization, including researching nomenclature, reviewing public programs or assisting landscape architects.

The United States National Arboretum

Each January, the National Arboretum posts new internship opportunities in horticulture, botany, facilities management, education and other related fields. Internships vary from three months to a year and begin in the spring, offering the chance to gain hands-on experience in Washington, D.C.