Behind Luisa Santamaria, rows of colorful pansies and geraniums complement the purple ink she uses to write instructions on a flip chart. As rain pings on the plastic roof, a collection of workers step closer to hear her speak.
Santamaria moves hands to hips to emphasize her point. She explains, in Spanish, that pathogens cause disease. The damage that fungi, bacteria, and viruses can cause to nursery crops can create economic headaches for an industry that contributes $745 million annually to Oregon’s economy.
On this day, Santamaria, a plant pathologist with Oregon State University North Willamette Research and Extension Center, is working with employees at Tanasacres Nursery in Hillsboro. These workers are the first line of defense against the spread of plant disease. Weeding or moving plants can spread deadly pathogens through swaths of potted perennials and shrubs.
Since 2011, Santamaria has reached about 500 Spanish-speaking workers from 25 nurseries with her message of “action before reaction” when dealing with plant disease. She works with many of the largest plant nurseries in the business, like Tanasacres, J. Frank Schmidt & Son, Hines, Iwasaki, and Oregon Pride.
At Gold Hill Nursery, in Hillsboro, Santamaria stands next to a projected illustration of the life cycle of boxwood blight. The audience, including president Matt Gold, his nursery workers, and his production manager, presses in to see details of this fungal disease that has decimated crops in Europe, established a foothold in the eastern U.S., and begun to show up in Oregon. With 25 percent of its crop in boxwood, Gold Hill is eager to take preventive measures.
“We want everyone who works for us to have knowledge of boxwood blight,” says Gold. “If not, we could lose our entire crop of boxwood. That would be a huge problem.” Santamaria works in Spanish and English to help everyone identify the pathogen and take steps to avoid its spread. “When our employees get the knowledge,” Gold says, “rather than just nodding their heads, they say, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’”
Santamaria’s work focuses on the most serious plant diseases. That includes Phytophthora, a fungus-like organism that causes root rot in 150 species of Oregon’s most iconic nursery plants, including rhododendron, azalea, pieris, and viburnum. This pathogen travels through water and can be controlled by limiting irrigation and leaving space between plants for air circulation.
Damaso Ruiz, an irrigation supervisor at Tanasacres Nursery, has participated in three of Santamaria’s trainings and has changed the way he works. He points to a neatly wound hose and nods approval. No longer, he says, are hoses dropped to the ground where they can splash Phytophthora spores or pick up pathogens and transfer them to plants.
“Luisa’s class is good for me and important for the company,” Ruiz said. “I prevent the disease, rather than having to do something after the plant is sick. I know about plants when they’re sick; when they need to be sprayed and when they have to be dumped. Now I learn more about how to stop the disease.”
“Bilingual training is very important to us since our workforce is 100 percent Spanish speaking,” says Frank P. Kilders, production manager at Tanasacres Nursery. “Workers are not simply being told to do something, now they understand the ‘why’ behind what they’re doing.”
Santamaria demonstrates why hand washing is crucial. She smears workers’ hands with a flourescent gel to simulate unseen bacteria, then instructs them to wash it off. White splotches of leftover gel are visible in the ultraviolet light, showing how easy it is for bacteria to evade clean-up. The workers point and elbow each other good naturedly. To reinforce the lesson, she has them swab seemingly clean pots and clippers and put the swabs in a test tube over night. The next day, the employees see the telltale results.
Since training began at Tanasacres Nursery, Kilders has implemented hygienic watering strategies. Workers wear gloves and use alcohol to disinfect their hands as they plant, stake, and load hundreds of plants a day. They’ve learned that every time they touch a pot it’s an opportunity for a pathogen to jump from one to another, infecting plants along the way. “They’re responsible for putting practices into play,” he says. “They’re integrated into the process.”
Educated nursery workers have become critical to business success. “At first, they might not know what pathogens are,” Santamaria says. “But once they understand, their lives change. They are participants.” If they recognize a diseased plant or notice practices that could lead to disease, they’re more likely to approach crew leaders to prompt intervention that saves money on labor, materials, and lost inventory.
“Having bilingual Extension programs helps with the overall needs of the nursery industry and challenges of the labor force,” says Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries. “We face labor shortages and it’s not getting better. Finding ways to train and educate our workforce is more important now because we have to be more efficient than 25 years ago.”
Although most of the workers haven’t completed high school, “they’re experienced, active in the workforce, they do a good job, and they want to work,” says Santamaria. To help nursery workers extend their knowledge, she is developing a certification program in collaboration with OSU’s Professional and Continuing Education, with a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
As Santamaria puts down the purple marker and ends her Tanasacres lesson, the students head to lunch. Instead of the usual mealtime gossip, the conversation turns to black lights and bacteria, lifecycles and fungi.
"Education is the key,” Santamaria says. “If we prepare them to recognize the problem, they will help find the solution.”