Interview: Catherine Dawson, chair, Growing Media Association

After years of being "tainted" by the effects of the peat debate, the Growing Media Association (GMA) is fighting off its bad press by stepping up its PR campaign.

Its new chair, Catherine Dawson, has made raising the profile of the industry her main aim and plans to speak at as many conferences, and to as many grower groups and retailers, as possible.

"For me it's about getting away from the ingredients and focusing on the product," she says. "It's the principle of putting ourselves about to show that we are a responsible industry that does not just sit around and argue about whether we should use peat or not."

"There's a lot of great news going on that never hits the headlines. We enable the horticulture industry to flourish and play a significant part in what the rest of the industry produces. You only have to look at the quality of plants that are grown in this country to realise that growing media is a fundamental part of that process."

If anyone can shake off the industry's bad press and regain the trust of its critics this woman can. Her steely approach and extensive knowledge of growing media unarguably makes for an encouraging combination.

For the past 15 years Dawson, a soil scientist, has been the R&D co-ordinator for Melcourt. The Gloucestershire-based company is a well-known supplier of mulches and compost and prides itself on being one of the first 100 per cent peat-free organisations to join the GMA.

But, as Dawson points out, apart from small, independent peat producers there's not a single growing media manufacturer out there that's not seriously working with peat alternatives. "The peat debate just does not get discussed at our meetings," she admits.

So what is discussed?

Quite a lot, it seems, for Dawson took over the chairmanship of the GMA at a significant time. In July the organisation joined the British Ornamental Plant Producers (BOPP) certification scheme - a move Dawson hails as a positive step.

"For the first time users of growing media will be able to buy it from companies that are accredited."

According to Dawson, the scheme is already gathering momentum among retailers and a high proportion of GMA members want to "go for it".

Bulrush Horticulture trialled the system shortly after the GMA joined the scheme, and the first training day is due to take place today (22 November) at Notcutts in Solihull. "We are keen to get up and running with it as soon as possible," says Dawson.

Joining the scheme is just one of the advantages of the GMA's administration transfer to the HTA - a move that took place in 2005 under the leadership of former chair Jamie Robinson.

"As an association we are now reaping the benefits of the move in terms of the number of new initiatives we can undertake," Dawson explains.

She admits that the HTA is such an effective machine that she could easily just chair the GMA meetings and come home. "But I wanted to be more effective than that," she says, explaining that she has several projects on the go that she is working on with fervour.

Aside from raising the profile of the industry, she is developing a GMA Youth Initiative "to make sure students know that there is a worthwhile career in growing media." She says: "We need people with expertise for our future."

Dawson also sits on the Growing Media Initiative committee. The initiative was formed two years ago when DEFRA, the RSPB, Focus DIY, Do It All, the National Trust, GMA and the HTA decided that "something needed to be done" to form a clear strategy on how to reach the Government's peat reduction targets.

"We are responding to government targets in a responsible way," says Dawson. The industry exceeded DEFRA's 40 per cent peat reduction target for 2005 so the challenge now is to reach the second target of a 90 per cent peat reduction by 2010.

"That's only two seasons away, which is quite challenging," Dawson says while admitting that the industry cannot afford to wait for the consumer demand for retail bagged growing media to change.

HTA GIM figures reveal that, out of those who have bought compost in the past year, 44 per cent did not know what the main constituents of multi-purpose compost are.

"The majority of people are not aware that it's peat in the bag to start off with. They call it compost or soil. So if they don't know what's in it the last thing they are going to be doing is calling for it to change. It illustrates why there has been little demand for alternatives. You are not going to ask for a change if you do not know what's in there in the first place."

However, after what Dawson describes as a "rocket ride" of history between NGOs and industry, the initiative is now "on the brink" of launching an external verification scheme of companies' commitment to the government target.

As the biggest percentage of peat usage is within the amateur bag product trade, the scheme is going to start by concentrating on this area only.

"During the past two years we have had this complete cross section of interested parties designing a scheme that we can all agree on," says Dawson. "It is is due to be launched in the early part of next year."

Such progress marks a significant step forward for the industry - and a piece of good news that might just hit the headlines.


Late 1970s: Honours degree in Soil Science from Newcastle University

1979-1981: Trials officer with Farm Protection (agrochemicals)

1981-1983: Soil research at the Oenological and Viticultural Research Institute, Stellenbosch, South Africa

1983-1992: Technical officer with Cambark

1992 to date: R&D Co-ordinator, Melcourt Industries

2007: Becomes chair of the Growing Media Association.

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