Seabrook on... promoting horticultural talent

Steady reduction in acreage for horticultural crops has been reported over the years: the areas down to top fruit, soft fruit, green vegetables and glasshouse production continue to decline.

Nowhere, however, is the other side of the coin - our ability to increase yields - given equal prominence. A commercially viable crop of tomatoes in the 1950s was 50 tonnes per acre - growers now harvest over five times that amount.

Similarly, apple crops through that period have increased fivefold. It should be no surprise, therefore, that acreage has gone down when yields have gone up so remarkably. Concern is expressed over the shrinking number of new entrants to our industry; here, again, output per skilled worker has gone up out of all recognition in my working lifetime.

Note the "skilled". We now need fewer but highly skilled professional people to continue to improve on these highly creditable results: skilled not just horticulturally but also in IT, engineering, people management, marketing and many other qualities for key staff.

At Horti Fair in Holland last month, there was a robotic grafting machine for tomatoes with a £50,000 price ticket. While two unskilled workers fed in the seedlings, it took engineering skills to understand how it works and keep it running. Horticultural ability is needed to provide the right under-stock and scion in ideal size.

While the machine was designed specifically for tomatoes, visitors to the trade show saw a number of other genera it would graft. Who knows where this will lead - perhaps to every poinsettia, fruit tree and rose bush being machine grafted?

If we are to attract the calibre of staff needed in the future, our outstanding skills need to be shouted from the rooftops. I was told last month that Oxbridge freshers want to start growing their own: fertile ground indeed to make them aware of the high skills our industry now requires.

Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster.

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