Swan Song

Many years ago, I worked in a factory and belonged to a union. We weren’t much of a union, or at least not much of a local: The only sign we ever saw that our dues were doing something was the annual meeting and elections, held at a nearby bar, where most members couldn’t wait to get the business over with and start in on the pitchers of beer that always followed.                            

It was a joke. My friends and I scoffed at the very concept of unions. We knew nothing—nothing of the long history of abuses that necessitated the often-violent formation of unions, nothing of the major role they played in this country’s history, and nothing of subsequent abuses on the other side of the coin.        

Most of all, we hadn’t yet assimilated this basic fact: When you scoff at an organization of which you are a member, you insult yourself. Like the machinery in that factory, a union is made of parts, and if the whole isn’t working it’s because the parts have failed.            

Fast-forward a bunch of years. I’m in the plant business, the predominantly non-unionized, disorganized plant business, gradually becoming aware of the alphabet soup of associations that serve the green industry’s various sectors. I can be quite a slow learner. I go to the trade shows, I attend the seminars, I (grudgingly) pay the dues. And like many of my peers roaming the aisles at OFA, FarWest, NEGC, PPA, etc., I assume that all this just happens. Some big machine is rumbling along, churning out the details, choosing speakers, making rules, collecting money. What a dummy.        

Fast-forward another few years and I’m starting to get involved. Helping to choose good exhibit venues for a former employer. Getting invited to (reluctantly) stand up on my hind legs and speak. Helping with a regional conference here, sitting on the local site committee for a national symposium there. Gradually figuring out that the only thing that “just happens” is the weather. Shows, tours and symposia work because people work them. They happen because people—your peers and colleagues—make them happen.                    

There were occasional epiphanies along the way, signs steering me toward more involvement. First was a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, who is more famous for his war exploits than his business acumen; his best-known quotes are “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and “Bully!”                 

But here’s what Teddy had to say on the subject of trade associations: “Every man owes a part of his time and money to the business or industry in which he is engaged. No man has a moral right to withhold his support from an organization that is striving to improve conditions within his sphere.”                 

Another moment of revelation came during a business meeting at the OFA Short Course. A fellow who had served in a planning capacity for about a year described how the experience opened his eyes.                         

“A trade show is like a swan on a pond,” he said. “When you see him from up above, just gliding along, everything looks beautiful and smooth and easy. But down below the surface, there’s a whole lotta kicking going on to keep things moving.”                

Yes, they also serve those who only stand in their booths and pay their dues, or their rental fees. No shame in that. But there’s so much more to see and do and influence on the other side of the registration counter. There is no Them. There is only Us.              

I’m nobody’s role model in this department. I’m now on the Board of Directors of the Perennial Plant Association, but it took me 20 years to get there. Like I said: slow learner. Meanwhile, my employers for those two decades have benefited enormously from PPA membership. It would be nearly impossible to calculate the value of the contacts, customers and cultivars we’ve found. Most of your colleagues could say similar things about their involvements, be they OFA, state or regional organizations, the Garden Writers Association or the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Don’t take my word for it. Get your feet wet, and start kicking.

This article previously appeared in Grower Talks.

John Friel is marketing manager of Yoder Brothers’ Green Leaf Perennials brand and a freelance writer.