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Prominent Nebraska Nursery Struggles to Find Enough Workers

After 60 years of steady expansion, Mulhall’s Nursery may have to face stagnation, says co-owner Dan Mulhall. Why? Lack of immigrant labor in an industry in which the American-born seem less willing to work with each passing year. “Who will do the work?” he asks.

In 1951, former U.S. Navy Secretary Francis P. Matthews assumed his duties as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, taking up residence at a lush Dublin estate with 82 acres of gardens. To supervise the grounds, he hired John Mulhall, a local lad with a horticultural degree and experience cultivating exotic plants.

The match has become Nebraska lore: When the ambassador returned home to Nebraska, he asked Mulhall to grab his new bride and follow him to America. By 1957, young Irish immigrants John and Maureen Mulhall had launched a landscaping business out of their Omaha garage, hiring college students and firefighters to mow lawns.

Today Mulhall’s Nursery has 250 employees and includes a full-service garden center, a growing facility with over 100 acres in production, and a landscape design and maintenance service. After six decades of steady growth, however, the company’s continued growth is threatened, due to a decline in available labor, says Dan Mulhall, one of two sons now managing the business.

Nationally, immigrants make up close to one in three workers in the landscaping services industry.

“As I remember, growing up, our workforce was all locally born and educated,” Mulhall says. “Sometime in the early ‘90s, employees became harder and harder to find. It was at that point that guys who grew up speaking Spanish started to apply. . . . in the ‘00s, far fewer people who grew up speaking English were applying for our jobs.”

Mulhall’s wages are comparable to other retail and labor jobs—$10 to $18 per hour, plus health insurance and paid vacation. “But it’s still a challenging job,” he says. The hours vary unpredictably due to weather with plenty of long, hard days in the sun—factors Mulhall believes contribute to a declining interest among American-born workers.

“We have some great American-born crew members and crew leaders who really enjoy what they do and are very good at it, but there are not enough to meet the work load we have. I guess the American-born have found other opportunities,” he says. “My sense is that, whether they have a high school diploma or a college degree, for the vast majority, becoming a landscaper isn’t their aspiration. Then the question becomes: ‘Who will do the work?’ ”

The answer for Mulhall’s Nursery is immigrants. Two-thirds of its 80-to-90 landscapers were born in another country. And yet it’s this core “labor force,” says Mulhall, that helps make the other 160 jobs at the nursery possible—in sales, marketing, purchasing, and so on.

“Because of our labor force, our managers have jobs. Because of our labor force, we buy trucks, equipment and supplies from other Omaha companies. Because of our labor force, we generate profits, that – after taxes — we invest back in our company and our community.” Mulhall says. “Without our labor force, we couldn’t do anything.”

Mulhall’s nursery is not alone. Nationally, immigrants make up close to one in three workers in the landscaping services industry. In some states, such as California, the figure is far higher—three out of every four workers in the industry. In Nebraska, immigrants comprise more than two-thirds of workers in the state’s $12.6 billion beef industry, the state’s largest sector.

In the past, Mulhall used temporary visas for seasonal workers, but when visa caps in the mid 2000s denied him labor just weeks before his season opened, he deemed the program too risky. He now hires workers already in Nebraska, but the influx of new, young immigrants is shrinking.

“I don’t know where the landscapers are going to come from,” he says. “We’ve been here 60 years. . . . We could sell more, but we think our growth is capped now by our inability to find labor.”

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