Careers In Horticulture - Growing opportunities

A fresh focus on the need to feed the population sustainably, and higher-profile TV coverage, mean more opportunities are emerging in this fast-paced sector across a variety of roles, Rachel Anderson discovers.

Apprenticeships: Norfolk-based organic vegetable producer Taylorgrown participating in Sainsbury's programme
Apprenticeships: Norfolk-based organic vegetable producer Taylorgrown participating in Sainsbury's programme

Production horticulture - growing edible and ornamental crops on a large scale - without doubt offers people a diverse range of career opportunities. From managing the day-to-day tasks of a growing crop to working as a fresh-produce or plant buyer for a leading supermarket, production horticulture is so varied that those who enter the sector are bound to find a role that suits them perfectly.

But only recently has it started to dawn on those who are advising those thinking about their career options that this fast-paced sector offers great job prospects. This "awakening" is in part down to the unavoidable truth that we have a growing population that needs to be fed sustainably.

The fact that two land-based colleges - Worcestershire-based Pershore College, which is part of Warwickshire College Group, and Reaseheath College in Cheshire - are currently building state-of-the-art, Government-funded, multi-million-pound technology centres suggests that the country's leaders are acknowledging horticulture's important role in helping to deal with these key issues.

Meanwhile, many prime-time television series, such Jimmy Doherty's Farming Heroes, Harvest, Countryfile and Kew on a Plate, have also picked up on these issues and are helping to open the public's eyes to the process of commercially growing food and ornamental plants. The upshot of this flurry of activity is that more people, particular those of younger age group, are now choosing to study for a qualification in production horticulture.

And so, while there still remains a skills shortage in this area, "the tide is definitely turning," affirms Alan Harvey, Kent-based Hadlow College programme leader for its BSc honours degree in commercial horticulture and its commercial horticulture foundation degree.

He says: "There are a lot of positive images on the TV and this has helped a lot in showing people the potential career options. On our production horticulture degree we (still) have a lot of career changers but we have also seen an increase in applicants from the younger market."

Colleges such as Hadlow are pro-actively working with industry to both accommodate the increased level of interest in the sector and better promote production horticulture to schools and universities. They are also doing more to ensure that their courses "hit the spot" - giving both students and employers the kind of skills they need.

Harvey says: "We 'student network' throughout the degree and often our students are offered jobs before they finish their degree. Students go on to manage nurseries - including garden retail nurseries, for example - or they go on to work in post-harvest technology and quality control. They also go and work for high-profile businesses that are researching environmental control technologies for the production of crops."

Despite the sector's many career paths, it was not so long ago that horticulture degrees were being pulled from the curriculum because the colleges and universities simply could not attract sufficient entrants. Fortunately, change is definitely in the air as several new production horticulture-based degrees are starting up over the next few years.

Reaseheath College, for instance, is launching a new BSc in plant protection technology this September to coincide with the anticipated opening of its £8.5m Food Futures Centre.

Meanwhile, Pershore College, which is currently building a £5.8m science and technology centre, is launching three new horticulture degrees in 2016, including a new BSc in production horticulture. Pershore's acting principal Tamsin Jones explains that this course has been created to better meet the demands of the industry.

"We have seen a slow rise in recruitment at BSc level," she says. "For me, it's about working in partnership with the industry. They (employers) want those industry-specific skills."

She points out that Pershore is the main training partner for Worcestershire's Food Enterprise Zone, one of 11 such zones across England that is receiving Government funding to help promote food production in the region. The scheme will see Pershore College further strengthen its links with nearby growers to develop "field-to-fork" educational courses, such as the creation with employers of new higher level apprenticeships, which are generally on a par with higher education diplomas.

Shropshire-based Harper Adams University, which has a Fresh Produce Research Centre, is also continuing to strengthen its links with growers by helping many of its agri-business undergraduates to secure employment on graduate schemes. Its enticing fresh-produce modules and gap-year placements with growers are encouraging more students to join the industry.

For example, 22-year-old Emily Warriner has already secured a placement at Barfoots of Botley in Chichester when she graduates later this year. Other employers such as Cambridgeshire-based salad and vegetable grower G's Growers are also doing their utmost to get "fresh blood" into the field.

G's has just modified its two-year graduate training scheme by splitting it into five training plan categories. G's group management trainee and business placement co-ordinator Megan Pollexfen explains that farming is one such new category.

"The farming (training) plan is solely keeping people within the farming operation," she says. "They might be on placement in the UK, working on a certain crop, and then they might go out to our Spanish or Polish operation and take on a slightly different role there. They are gaining experience of the whole growing operation - such as irrigation, pest control and harvesting."

She adds that both of G's new farming trainees, Angus Walby and Rebecca Hesketh, studied agriculture-based courses at the University of Newcastle. As part of the industry's drive to find fresh talent, G's carried out a "roadshow" to promote its graduate scheme to universities and help students understand what fresh produce is all about. "It's (fresh produce) very fast-paced, more so than combinable crops," says Pollexfen.

But despite all of this university activity, higher education is by no means the best or only route into production horticulture. Many production horticulture degree tutors also state that there are no rigid entry requirements for their courses because students are considered on an individual basis. The door into the sector is, therefore, open to people of all ages, abilities, interests and backgrounds. There are very academic jobs available in the sector as well as very hands-on, practical jobs - and each role is a valued and essential part of the supply chain.

For those who are itching to get outdoors and learn, apprenticeships, which give people aged 16 and over the opportunity to earn as they learn, are an ideal starting point. The industry has cottoned on to this fact and more apprenticeships are cropping up as a result.

G's, for example, is one of several Sainsbury's suppliers that has taken on an apprentice, Adam Hall, as part of the supermarket's new apprenticeship scheme.

Ornamental production horticulture apprenticeships also remain popular and are run by colleges such as Myerscough in Lancashire. They are an ideal route into this part of the sector, according to British Protected Ornamentals Association chairman Simon Davenport.

He adds that he is keen to see more short-term, ad hoc, task-related training courses and modules developed for people working in ornamental horticulture nurseries. "If there's a flexible way of linking this to a structure then I think that's the answer," he suggests. "It will give employees some useful skills."

Case study: Sainsbury's/Staffline apprenticeship scheme

Sainsbury's started its new apprenticeship scheme in September last year (2014) to help build a more resilient supply chain. It worked with British Growers and Staffline to create the 20-month programme.

There are currently seven apprentices on the scheme, based at some of the country's largest growers including AC Goatham & Son, G's and Norfolk-based organic vegetable producer Taylorgrown.

Staffline is delivering the training, which includes modules in plant identification and nomenclature, the identification and control of pests, diseases and disorders, the application of nutrients to crops, crop harvesting and storage and planting in different growing mediums.

"The qualification is geared towards the employers'/workplace requirements thus the modules delivered reflect the learning taking place in the working environment spread over the 20-month programme," Sainsbury's representative explains. "A majority of the learning takes place in the workplace, which is then complemented by (apprentices) attending a residential week at a land-based college every 12 weeks to undertake more in-depth theory work.

"Each apprentice is assigned an assessor, who visits the apprentice every four-to-five weeks in the workplace to undertake observations on their practical capabilities at specific tasks arranged in advance with both the employer and apprentice."

All the apprentices are new to the sector, though all had an interest in the industry - whether living in the country or having family members who have worked or are working in horticulture.

Me & My Job - Ryan Williams, trainee, Norman Collett/Hadlow College

- How did you get started in the industry?

Before I started my AS levels I did a month's work experience for Norman Collett's technical director Nigel Jenner on fruit maturity. I did a two-year extended level 3 diploma in agriculture at Hadlow College, Kent. This opportunity then came up at Norman Collett. I'm now nearly two years into the three-year apprenticeship.

- What advice would you give to others starting out?

There are a lot of higher management roles that offer great opportunities for youngsters that they might just not know about.

- What does your typical day involve?

From March until the growing seasons (July), for example, we walk around the farms diagnosing pests and diseases. I am also learning about the different growing techniques for fruit varieties. This past month I've been going into college once a week but before that it was once a month.

- What is the best aspect of your job?

Working outside is great, as is meeting new people. I'm also learning all of the time, but not subjects you would typically learn in school. As it's all seasonal work, it's never repetitive.

- And the worst?

Pruning during the winter months, in the rain and the cold. But you have to take the good with the bad.

- What has been your greatest achievement at work?

As part of my traineeship I have gained five or six extra qualifications, such as my forklift tractor license and fruit-spraying certificate. Also, my introduction to the industry.

- What does the future hold?

I am deliberating over two potential routes - a farm manager role (two growers have already asked if I would consider working on their farms with a view to taking over in 10-15 years) or an agronomist role that would require me to do a qualification, but I could go on to a farm management role after that.

Me & My Job - Steve Austin, product manager, Hillier Nurseries

- What does your typical day involve?

Most of my time is spent facilitating projects, so one day I can be looking at strategy with the senior management team, discussing targets and promotions with the sales and marketing team or out on the nursery with the production team. There's a lot of problem-solving.

- What takes up most of your time?

Meetings and planning. There is so much going on with new product development and we are trying to plan ahead to make sure that marketing, sales and production are all on track. We've also started working with Plant Haven to market Hillier-unique product globally, so I am working with growers in the USA, Australia and New Zealand to ensure they have enough product in time to launch.

- What is the best aspect of your job?

Seeing every plant off a nursery bed go out to customers and knowing that it's made a profit. Or introducing a new plant, facilitating all its marketing and development, and seeing it sold in garden centres.

- And the worst?

Fitting it all in by the end of the day.

- What has been your greatest achievement at work?

Introducing added-value products to the Hillier range. Hellebore 'Winter Gold' in a basket as a Christmas gift line was an idea we had last autumn. It took time but the market went crazy for them and there were great link sales on the back of it.

- How do you wind down after a hard day at work?

I hit the gym. I also study, which weirdly seems to help me to relax. I am studying for a masters in horticulture with the RHS.

- What does the future hold?

We have a big programme of plant introductions in the pipeline, which will now be global, not just in the UK. My personal ambition is to work my way into Hillier's higher management structure.

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.

Ornamentals grower career path

Many larger nurseries prefer formal horticultural qualifications, particularly for their middle and senior positions. However, some of them 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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