Training Landscape Stewards
Fostering Agricultural Careers & Safeguarding EcosystemsBy Annie Sherman| Photographs by Jesse Burke
THE SUN IS ILLUMINATING AN UNSEASONABLY warm November day, and LaKiesha Stromley of Wild and Scenic Fine Gardening and Horticulture is tending a client’s waterfront yard in Westerly.
Today, Stromley is hauling wheelbarrows full of weeds, digging holes, planting grassy shrubs, spreading mulch, and watering. She may take a momentary break to review a complex to-do list with her boss, Meghan Gallagher, but she returns quickly to her labors. Stromley obtained a paid, registered apprenticeship with the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA) Growing Futures R.I. program, which fosters workforce development in the state’s $2.5 billion landscape, agriculture, farming, and plant-based “green” industries.
Besides teaching proper field techniques, the program encourages environmental stewardship by increasing resiliency of built and natural landscapes with a focus on protecting Rhode Island’s treasured shoreline and surrounding watersheds.
Respecting that important relationship is part of the lesson, says RINLA Executive Director Shannon Brawley.
Brawley helped launch this program in 2021 in collaboration with the state departments of Labor and Training, Environmental Management (DEM), and Education, and federal agencies.
We have to recognize the importance of the environment and our role in taking care of it.
LaKiesha Stromley of Wild and Scenic Fine Gardening and Horticulture.
Meghan Gallagher owenr of Wild and Scenic Fine Gardening and Horticulture.
It is a direct response to multiple instigators: COVID and the havoc it wreaked on the workforce, former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Back to Work R.I. initiative, and President Joe Biden’s pledge to reformulate the Civilian Climate Corps.
The program takes participants through a bootcamp-style training on Rhode Island public lands before they earn a coveted apprenticeship in their chosen field with companies like Wild and Scenic. The next stage is a voluntary five-week Career Catalyst rubric, which is a virtual platform offering technical training in the participants’ chosen areas of instruction.
Diverse topics include soil and turf management, horticulture, masonry, and land ethics.
“We believe in the ‘earn while you learn’ model. We brought companies together to define the skills necessary for the future, because in Rhode Island, there wasn’t anything,” Brawley says.
There wasn’t even a similar program elsewhere in the country, she adds. And the added focus on environmental responsibility is important too.
“We have to recognize the importance of the environment and our role in taking care of it, now more than ever. And the demand for these services will only increase as we respond to the demands of our climate,” Brawley says.
Addressing Industry Shortage
Along with 60 others, Stromley applied to the program in June 2021 and completed the three-day bootcamp at Arcadia Management Area in Exeter. She cleared fallen trees and debris, repaired fire roads, hauled tons of materials, and installed erosion control devices, which she says was some of the most strenuous work she has ever done.
The former hospice nurse from Wakefield then participated in a speed dating-style interview series with potential employers, where she was hired by Gallagher, owner of Wild and Scenic, with the hopes that she’ll stay on permanently.
“I worked with geriatric patients, and felt fulfilled, but there was a heaviness in my heart,” she says, while peacefully tending little bluestem grass in the Westerly garden. “I was into gardening but wasn’t sure my body could handle this labor. But now I’m planting flowers and vegetables and watching them grow. I can be happy about the work, and it’s more freeing.”
The layers of this heightened professional internship are intended to foster opportunity for would-be employees to explore a potential new career path, gain technical knowledge, discover how grueling the work is, and see if they are prepared. It similarly allows employers to test candidates’ physical abilities and abolish the false stereotype that landscaping consists of blowing leaves and mowing grass.
This symbiotic assessment attracted Gallagher, who was expanding her one-woman startup since founding it eight years ago. The apprenticeship program allowed her to hire capable and committed employees, which helped her increase workload.
“The biggest issue in our industry is a shortage of labor. This program allows [participants] to be part of something bigger, it helps with employee retention, which helps me because then I’m not training every year. They’re part of a community, they’re learning, and they help each other too,” Gallagher says. “My goal is to give them a career that can help them thrive.”
DEM’s district resource manager Jeff Arnold agrees. Amid budget cuts and an Arcadia workforce that shrank from 13 people to one since he started in 1995, he says he can’t maintain the 14,000 acres of the state’s largest public management area without these extra hands.
They’re such a boon that between this bootcamp and the Career Catalyst program, organizers say 115 people completed roughly 6,100 labor hours, equaling more than $174,000 in income savings for the state. This is the equivalent of two full-time assistant district resource managers for one year.
Building Natural Environments
“We are a densely populated state, and even during the pandemic, Arcadia never closed down. Some trails used to see 100 people a year. Now they’re seeing that in a weekend,” he says. “So we need this type of worker in Arcadia. Every one of them. It is so beneficial to be doing this work on state property. [The program is] a great way to get people into it, plus they can give back, and provide to a green industry.”
While increased usage is eroding trails, the teams are trying to return Arcadia to as natural an environment as possible to promote its diverse flora and fauna, Arnold says, which impacts habitat and watershed stability. Doing this while sustaining public access is a delicate balance, he adds.
“Not only are we maintaining recreational trails, but we are harvesting trees to foster growth. They are a renewable resource that can be managed to create habitat for rare and endangered species here,” Arnold says. “The benefits of the training, this work, and the environment go hand in hand for the industry.”
Armed with a rake, Arnold stands on a bridge walkway at Arcadia’s Upper Roaring Brook, surrounded by fir trees and deciduous varieties the shade of burnt amber and crimson. He is instructing RINLA participant David Shaw, who waded into the pond’s frigid November water to dismantle a beaver dam that threatens the bridge it lies beneath, as well as the watershed habitat downstream.
During the course of four hours, they pulled apart sticks, leaves, and other detritus that a family of beavers packed there repeatedly over 25 years.
Near their beaver lodge, a “beaver deceiver” installed last spring provides an alternate location for the crafty animals to dam for food, while allowing water to continue flushing through. Arnold says this is imperative to maintaining a healthy ecosystem and public access.
Shaw, a former music industry executive from Smithfield who was laid off during the COVID pandemic, says, “I enjoy doing this. I love the leadership role and working with my hands.” Seeking a new career path, he dove into this RINLA program.
“I wanted to take my passion for landscaping to the next level, so I was looking for jobs in the green industry. And with this program, they heavily vet you and tell you it will be hard work. So it really works twofold: it helps people like myself get experience, but it helps the state park by keeping it updated, keeping the paths clean and repaired, and other tasks.”
The six-woman team is extracting invasive plants and installing native grasses to create a natural meadow that will foster animal habitat and provide an ecological buffer with the nearby Quonochontaug Pond.
Learning a New Trade
While Arnold and Shaw tackle the beaver dam, RINAL Education Coordinator Jordan Miller directs other participants. Some are middle-aged men and women not ready to retire, others are 30-something military veterans putting their carpentry skills to good use. All are unemployed or under-employed, which is a prerequisite for participation. Though their backgrounds and skills vary, they all arrive the first day with an eagerness to work and learn, and an appreciation for the impact their work will have on Arcadia, Miller says.
“The whole plan is to raise the caliber of our industry. It’s a targeted investment that tries to improve the pipeline. It’s not a random free market experiment. There is a reason to this,” Miller says. “This is an audition. And usually they want to know what the next learning opportunity is. Ideally they do a bootcamp and can get a job right away with the skills they learned.”
Attracting business to Rhode Island is another component of this dynamic RINLA program. DEM Director of Agriculture and Forestry Ken Ayars says multiple out-of-state and international companies have contacted him about launching or siting their business here because of the state’s prominent workforce development platform.
“The labor shortage being what it is, coming to a place where you know you have an existing pipeline that has been developed, tested, and is working, is a big part of a company coming here. They want to hire local talent, and that’s the value of programs like this,” Ayars says. “The other thing it does is it adds value to the perception of the mission of DEM and the value of the resource. When we think about the vastness of Arcadia, and what that means for climate change mitigation, it’s thousands of thousands of acres of natural woodland. Sometimes people don’t recognize the value of protecting land and management areas.”
Investing in a Green Future
Back in the Westerly garden, there are no power tools in sight, just shovels, wheelbarrows, and clippers. The six-woman team is extracting invasive plants and installing native grasses to create a natural meadow that will foster animal habitat and provide an ecological buffer with the nearby Quonochontaug Pond.
They are discussing tree and shrub identification with Gallagher, who strokes the bark of an oak tree while discussing its leaf structure, and how microbiomes supplement soil health. Stromley and her colleagues ask about erosion, composting, and invasive species.
Discussions like these, Stromley says, have deepened her understanding of the role gardens can play in ecosystems.
“It’s very important that we say we want to help the earth, but when we dig a hole and fill it with cement for a retaining wall, are we really helping it?” she says. “Removing a native plant could be uprooting a family of hedgehogs, or maybe it’s a field where deer live and feed. We don’t remove a lot of leaves here because they keep mice and worms warm in winter …. But some people just want a garden.”
Stromley was part of the program’s inaugural cohort of 61 participants in 2021, Brawley says. Of that number, 53 individuals completed the Career Catalyst program, and 35 were hired. The 2022 program had a waitlist. Interest has skyrocketed, Brawley says, and businesses are recognizing the value of trained and educated professional labor.
RINLA and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council have also unveiled a two-year associate’s degree at the Community College of Rhode Island so that students may continue their learning in a field where jobs remain perpetually available.
“We have a responsibility to care for where we live, and our industry is stewards for that as first responders,” Brawley says. “We need to look at the intersection between the built and green environment, between the green and blue environment. It’s why we need to invest in green infrastructure definition to forests, where we’re working on public lands and installing coastal adaptation projects. We are right there, implementing meadows, rain gardens, and capturing water where it falls to help with flooding …. Whether it’s in your backyard or public lands, commercial facilities, or on highway medians that could be planted with pollinators, we are caring for Rhode Island.”