Sep 14, 2022
HRI Leadership Academy Class Begins This Week

The Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), the AmericanHort Foundation, is excited to announce the members of the inaugural class of the HRI Leadership Academy. The class convenes next week for the first of the five in-person sessions that will take place over the next 11 months.

Launched in spring of 2022, the HRI Leadership Academy is a new program designed to develop leaders on all levels of the green industry. Participants will grow personally and professionally, through leadership and business skills training, engagement with a green industry network, and completion of a real-world leadership project. This program is presented through a partnership with AmericanHort.

“HRI is pleased with the response we received from program applicants and the diligent process that ensued to select this first class,” said Alan Jones, HRI Board president and president of Manor View Farms in Monkton, Maryland. “The class members are impressive, and this initiative is an important step in ensuring the future of our industry remains bright.”

Jon Reelhorn, chairman of the AmericanHort Board of Directors announced the inaugural class members during the Cultivate’22 keynote address.

Inaugural class members are:

Susannah Ball, Ball Horticultural Company, Illinois – Ball is a fourth-generation member of her family’s horticulture business who grew up in the industry and worked in agriculture managing a livestock farm prior to joining the company. Through her travels, she has interacted with people from around the world, developing her appreciation for different cultures. She has been instrumental in developing Ball’s corporate Sustainability Initiative as she currently serves as their sustainability lead. She looks forward to creating a strong and resilient industry for the future.

Melanie Bedner, Bedner’s Farm and Greenhouse, Pennsylvania  Bedner has worked in the family business for 23 years, starting in the greenhouse during summer college breaks. Due to her enterprising spirit, the business has expanded over the years, going from a four-person staff to a team of 50-60 people during spring peak. She has served in a variety of capacities and is currently the finance & marketing director. Bedner continues to seek insight, knowledge, and improvements in how the family business can best serve their employees, community and customers.

Sander Brooks, Everde Growers, FloridaBrooks grew up on a family palm farm and is considered an expert on palm growing. With almost 20 years in the industry, he has diverse nursery and landscape experience in operations, sales, crop insurance and business planning; having worked in the green industry for more than two decades. He is an integral part of the Everde Growers management team where he serves as the director of Southeast sales. He is a creative and strategic thinker who is committed to his customers and has a desire to strengthen the industry’s value with consumers amidst the changing marketplace.

Hamza Daour, De Jong Greenhouse, Iowa – Daour grew up working for his family’s farm in Israel and learned about citrus grafting from his grandmother. With a degree in agricultural engineering, he moved to the state of Washington. He has held several growing positions in the industry and currently works as general manager at De Jong Greenhouse’s where he focuses on expanding their operations. As a result, they have achieved strong sales growth in the past two years. Daour is community-oriented and is enthusiastic about learning, supporting his colleagues and the future of the green industry.

Kyle Fessler, Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas, Oregon – Fessler is a third-generation grower for his family business, specializing in ornamental shrubs, annuals and florist azaleas sold in the U.S. and Canada. Fessler places importance on giving back and has served as board president of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, as well as coached youth sports, and held community leadership positions. He is an advocate for funding industry research, and is focused on attracting new generations to our industry. Fessler is known for his collaborative spirit and has worked closely with growers, greenhouse operators, retail garden centers, and the industry supply chain to meet business and industry goals.

Matthew Foertmeyer, Foertmeyer & Sons Greenhouse Co, Ohio – Foertmeyer is a second-generation greenhouse professional currently serving as head grower for the company his parents founded in 1988. While pursuing his degree in Crop Science, he lived in Germany where he worked for a leading European breeder and producer. He is active in AmericanHort and volunteers as the Greenhouse Community Connector coordinator. Foertmeyer is motivated by his desire to develop the industry’s workforce. He is committed to providing opportunities for growers to succeed in their careers, which mirrors his own constant pursuit of knowledge.

Christine Fortman, Berridge Nurseries Inc, Arizona – Fortman’s corporate, non-profit, and political experience serve her well as a third-generation owner and operator of the nursery her grandfather started. She joined the company over a decade ago and today is buyer for four departments and, as co-owner, participates in all management decisions. Giving back is important to her; she serves as board president of the Arizona Nursery Association, among other community roles. Fortman sees one of our industry’s greatest opportunities is the engagement and investment in the education of future generations.

Jonathan Jasinski, Microplant Nurseries, Oregon – Jasinski has two horticultural master’s degrees and focused his studies on plant molecular biology, becoming an expert in propagating plants via tissue culture, initially with the aim of bolstering sea oat populations along Florida’s coastline. Seven years ago, he joined Microplant Nurseries, one of the largest tissue culture laboratories in the United States, where he currently serves as chief operating officer. Jasinski loves learning, which stems from his curious nature and helps him be a driven and determined problem solver. Jasinski is interested in the long-term stewardship of agricultural lands and believes carbon capture could be a big opportunity for the industry to leverage. He wants to contribute towards sustainable growth for the industry across the nation.

Andy Klittich, Otto & Sons Nursery, California – Klittich is a third-generation nurseryman who joined the company his grandfather and father built after working for five years as a pest control advisor. Otto & Sons started with a commitment to being the region’s best rose nursery, which later expanded into fruit trees helping the business grow and thrive; Klittich looks forward to continuing this legacy. He is civic minded, growing up as a leader in Scouts and the National FFA Organization, and most recently serving two terms as president of his local Rotary club. His leadership experiences in fundraising and charity giving efforts have instilled in him a philanthropic mindset.

Adam Kobes, Kobes Nurseries Inc, Ontario, Canada – Kobes grew up dreaming of working in the family business. He started working there as a young teen, sparking his aspiration to become a grower. Since college, he has been working in sales and shipping and currently serves as the sales and shipping supervisor where he trains, hires, supervises and organizes a team of 15-20 employees. Kobes is a member of several industry organizations, which has built his passion for collaborating and developing a strong network of industry peers. He helped write the Canadian National Occupation Horticulture Standard. He embraces the concept of continuous improvement and wants to revitalize the industry for the next generation.

Denise Mullins, Smith Gardens, Washington – Mullins currently serves as director of product innovations at Smith Gardens. Her career started with a love of plants and has had several chapters. She began with a brief stint in landscape design and architecture before running a 5-acre organic farm in Hawaii which she left for a coveted job at the Dallas Arboretum. Through her work in Dallas, she appeared on garden shows, spoke at Master Gardener events, and discussed edible herbs on live talk radio, as well as writing online articles. She left to join Smith Gardens where she managed the planning of over 4700-line items and 32 brands and established the company as a trial gardens site for both Lowes and Home Depot before taking on her newly created role. Mullins stands out not only for her plant passion, but also for her ability to work with so many facets of the industry from breeder to retailer.

Tyler Richardson, DeGroot Inc, Michigan – Richardson joined his family business after a career in the military. A member of the Navy ROTC program, Richardson graduated college and was commissioned as a Navy officer and served eight years of active duty before continuing in active reserves, rising to the Lieutenant Commander rank. He joined the family business more than a decade ago and has worn many hats including chief financial officer, buyer, inventory analyst, supply chain and logistics manager, information technology manager, and more. Richardson is a critical thinker who enjoys data and financial analysis. He is excited about the opportunity brought on by the pandemic to keep consumers engaged with plants. 

Jacob Stidham, Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, Kentucky – Stidham started in the industry as a greenhouse technician and has more than 20 years working in greenhouses specializing in retail sales, ornamental production, hydroponics and research. Today he is the greenhouse and nursery manager for Yew Dell Botanical Gardens; he developed the plan to launch a nursery program to allow the garden to propagate and grow plants for the garden, but also the community. He led efforts to build new greenhouse structures allowing them to hold plant sales, which went online in 2020. Stidham serves as president of the Kentucky Nursery & Landscape Association and, to fulfill his love of learning, is involved in other industry groups.

Ryan Watkins, Brownswood Nursery Inc, South Carolina – A certified landscape and nursery professional, Watkins worked outside the industry before joining Brownswood Nursery 15 years ago. After serving as General Manager, he became CEO two years ago. Watkins is also active in the industry and his community. He is a member of the AmericanHort Garden Retail Community Connectors and is a member of the South Carolina Green Industry Association board. He speaks to garden clubs, schools, and supports local efforts to introduce the next generation to the industry by setting up recurring fieldtrips. Watkins was a finalist for the Young Retailer Award and was named to the 40 Under 40 Class of 2020. He has a personal motto of “Inspiring People to Grow.”

“Strong leaders and strong ongoing leadership development are mission critical for green industry businesses,” said Ken Fisher, AmericanHort president and CEO. “We are pleased with the caliber of this first class and look forward to helping them become even better leaders in their company, in their community, and in our industry. The HRI Leadership Academy is an important investment in the future of our industry.”

The curriculum is designed specifically to meet industry needs and is organized to include strategy, leadership and people management, numbers and advocacy, and the value chain. In-person classes begin in September 2022, in Denver, Colorado. Course principles are put to practical application through a course-long leadership project which will be presented at Cultivate’23 being held July 16-18, 2023. Applications for the 2023-24 class will open early next year. For more information and to download an informational brochure on the HRI Leadership Academy, go to 

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GPN recognizes 40 industry professionals under the age of 40 who are helping to determine the future of the horticulture industry. These individuals are today’s movers and shakers who are already setting the pace for tomorrow.