Careers - Growing and selling

Business and marketing knowhow is just as important as plant knowledge for those producing and selling plants, Rachel Anderson finds.

Marketing skills: Barnsfold Nurseries redeveloped its product range to include colourful plant containers to attract a younger market
Marketing skills: Barnsfold Nurseries redeveloped its product range to include colourful plant containers to attract a younger market

Like a bee swooning towards pollen-filled blossom, those who choose a career in production horticulture and garden retail generally do so because they find themselves intoxicated by flowers and plants. This passion for nature and love of the outdoors stays with them throughout their career - and caring for plants and growing produce will always remain among the most important parts of the job.

However, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, working in production horticulture - be it ornamental plants or fresh produce - and garden retail are nowadays just as much about growing and managing a business as they are about growing and managing the plants.

Paul Simmonds, a tomato producer for Cornerways Nursery in Norfolk and a member of the NFU Board for Horticulture & Potatoes, says: "When I first joined the industry I came in as a grower - making sure that the plants had everything that they needed. But I very quickly realised that you can't just do that. Management and an ability to deal with people are essential as well. If you can't do that then you cannot do the job.

"I then went on to take over the commercial end of the business. This involved running a packhouse as well as a nursery and dealing with retailers and marketing agents, which required negotiation skills."

Jonathan Brown, a 28-year-old grower who works for UK Grower Awards winner Barnsfold Nurseries in Sussex, had a similar experience. "I have needed to be more business savvy over the last few years," he says.

Brown, along with his colleague Ollie Turner, has recently helped the bedding and pot plant producer redevelop its product range and its labels. The new range features colourful plants and containers and is attracting a younger market.

"When I first started, if you planted it and grew it you would sell it. But now a simple six-pack of pansies is not enough. Every product you grow has to be the perfect product."

British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) treasurer Simon Davenport adds: "People think growing is a very simple task. But running a business doing it is entirely different and far more complex.

"Everyone seems to need a much wider knowledge of business practices and ways of marketing. Growers need to be more competitive as their customers are demanding a lot more out of them."

Simmonds says he feels fortunate to have received some management training. He took part in a leadership development programme run by fresh food and horticulture recruitment and training firm MorePeople, based in Stamford, Lincolnshire. "It was really useful," he confirms. "I have been very lucky to have access to that kind of training."

A decade of training

MorePeople director Peter Hunt says the company has been running the course for a decade now. "We currently have nine people on the course, which usually runs over eight or nine months and includes four one-day sessions and two two-day sessions," he explains.

"The course came about because SMEs (small and medium enterprises) in the UK are not very good at training people and one of the areas that horticulture does not do very well is developing individuals."

He adds: "They are very good at developing technical subjects and machinery. But when you identify someone in your business who is good at their job, how do you take them to the next level?"

The leadership development course includes "hard topics" such as finance, HR and negotiating. The current course has nine people on it, including two in protected cropping and a few in vining pea production.

Hunt reveals that the industry's interest in the course has remained steady since it first started 10 years ago but has not necessarily increased. "We've put 200 people through it now from the food and horticulture side. But it's always a hard sell. The people who usually get the most out of the course tend to be from a growing background because they have never had that type of training before."

Developing people

Those who grow plants for a living may well be better at developing their technology than their people, yet Davenport argues that growers have difficulty finding the time to take part in technical training courses. Instead, he says they often employ consultants to come in and show them the ropes.

"For a lot of growers it's a hard enough job just to keep busying along. The jobs that take up the time are, firstly, keeping the staff busy and, secondly, keeping the products moving from the nurseries."

There are, however, still many organisations, including the BPOA, that offer growers in both ornamental and fresh-produce production horticulture useful technical training. While it may be only a minority of growers who are able to attend training seminars, workshops and courses, the number of people attending them is nevertheless increasing.

The Horticultural Development Company (HDC) carries out research and development in eight different crop sectors - including ornamentals, soft fruit and field vegetables - and runs technical events such as skills workshops and farm and nursery visits around the UK.

Last year (2013), following a survey of its growers and in response to their requests, it held a series of workshops at locations closer to where growers are based or in regions where there are more growers of certain types of crops. The HDC also doubled the number of events that it put on last year to meet the high demand for these new workshops.

Some of these local events included demonstrations on precision-farming techniques for field vegetable growers, workshops on asparagus production and minimising pesticide residues in leafy salads.

HDC representative Charlotte Corner says: "Skills are high on our priority list and early this year we held a 'developing technical skills for the horticulture industry' seminar, which will influence the HDC's skills strategy, due out later this year."

Training videos

During the past five years the HDC has also produced a series of popular training videos that teach growers both technical and practical skills. These videos also save growers the inconvenience of having to arrange a day away from the nursery. They include topics such as health and safety in horticulture, best practice for outdoor flower harvesting and safety on fruit farms.

Stephen Jacob, business development manager for BASIS, an independent organisation that establishes and assesses standards in the pesticide industry, points out that an increasing number of production horticulture growers are now completing BASIS's new foundation awards in agronomy.

Those who apply pesticides to plants have to first gain a certificate of competence, so this course is the next step along from the basic spray certificate, Jacob explains. It gives nursery staff a background in pests, weeds and disease identification.

"The biggest growth has been the foundation-level course, which is four days of training and then an exam at the end of it. It covers an introduction to agronomy and plant nutrition," says Jacob.

"It's not a pesticide application certificate but it explains why that is so important. People get the pesticide application certificate first and then they think: 'What's the next step?'"

Garden Centre Association chief executive Iain Wylie agrees that, while knowledge of plants remains important, marketing and people skills have also become increasingly high priorities in this part of the horticulture industry.

"You need people who know plants. But also you need people who can communicate that knowledge to customers," he points out. "You can be a brilliant horticulturist but that is not all you need to work in garden centres, so the skills set has changed."

Last year (2013), Wylie introduced online learning programme "Grow" to give people who are starting a career in garden retail a basic knowledge of both plants and the other skills needed in the sector.

The resource has proven to be such a hit - thousands of people have now started using it - that Wylie hopes there will be an intermediate and an advanced level in the future.

Best ways to break into the industry

Just a few years ago the production horticulture industry was disappointed with the lack of skilled people working in and getting into the trade and the fact that British colleges were not always meeting their training requirements. Fortunately, colleges are shaping up their courses to better suit employers' needs - and employers are working with one another and with these educational establishments to create apprenticeships for new starters.

The British Growers Association, which represents and promotes mainly growers of vegetables and salads, is developing an apprenticeship scheme with Sainsbury's and Staffline. It is aimed at people who will be working in the field rather than a packhouse.

Colleges such as Pershore in Warwickshire, meanwhile, have overhauled their horticulture curriculum to ensure that the needs of the industry are its main focus. Acting principal Tamsin Jones says: "The curriculum was redesigned recently to ensure that commercial operations, business and social enterprise opportunities are active at the core of all we do at Pershore."

So people considering a career in horticulture can choose to first gain a diploma, certificate or degree in a subject such a garden retail or production horticulture at college. They can then find a job with the help of the contacts they would likely have already made in industry.

Alternatively, they can apply to take part in an apprenticeship scheme, which is a good way of working in the industry while gaining a suitable horticulture qualification.

First steps

Fruit/vegetable grower career path

Some people start by working at a nursery and then develop through apprenticeships, combining on-the-job training with day release at a college. Others go from school to study a full-time college course. At a higher level, there are also degree programmes available.

Garden centre staff career path

On-the-job training is standard across the industry. Some employers look for a mix of horticulture qualifications and retail skills. However, others see a "can do" attitude and willingness to learn as the most important characteristics. A degree in horticulture is a popular route but NVQ courses or national certificates in horticulture are equally valid.

Ornamentals grower career path

Many larger nurseries prefer formal horticultural qualifications, particularly for their middle and senior positions. However, some take on trainees who study for an NVQ, such as level 2 in commercial and production horticulture. The two-year part-time higher national certificate in horticulture (commercial) is suitable for both managerial and technical roles.

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