Exciting opportunities in production horticulture

From operating hi-tech machinery to developing new varieties, production horticulture needs young people to drive the industry, writes Rachel Anderson.

Viticulture apprentice, Jacob Evans - image: Plumpton College
Viticulture apprentice, Jacob Evans - image: Plumpton College

Producing edible and ornamental plants is big business. Government figures reveal that the UK's agri-food sector, of which fresh-produce production is a part, is worth around £103bn, or 13 per cent of national employment.

Meanwhile, AHDB estimates that plant production for ornamental horticulture is worth around £1bn annually. There are therefore ample different career opportunities offered by these industries - no matter what your interests, ambitions, skills or qualifications.

From operating the latest piece of agricultural machinery in a field or orchard, to micropropagating plants or developing new varieties inside a laboratory, the list of jobs is almost as big as the need for new recruits in this area.

British Protected Ornamentals Association secretary Simon Davenport reveals, for instance, that there is a need and continuing demand for technical leaders in the ornamentals sector "in all areas of growing and nursery management including crop planning, crop monitoring, personnel management, team leadership, pest and disease recognition and control, spray application, integrated pest management and glasshouse environment manipulation".

British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward adds that the opportunities in the fresh-produce sector are continuing to grow. "One in seven people is employed in the food industry and so, for someone coming into the fresh-produce sector, bear in mind that there are terrific opportunities, upstream and downstream. Coming in with the right skills, behaviours and knowledge opens up really exciting opportunities and can see people working in many different areas, from production, manufacturing, retailing and quality assurance.

"The skills are interrelated. But fundamentally, understanding how fresh produce is grown will prepare you for numerous opportunities, particularly as there's demand for people within the fresh-produce industry. We are in a situation where big companies are advertising for a range of people, not just someone who has a degree in horticulture."

He continues: "They are looking for people with retail or food safety or environmental experience, for example. So the opportunities are continuing to broaden out, rather than narrow down. If you have the right aptitude and the right behaviours then there's no reason why you should not be ending up as a director of Sainsbury's."

Dynamic industry

As Ward suggests, the fresh-produce sector is a dynamic industry, something that ambitious Sophie Bull (21) realised while working at flower and fresh-produce supplier Emmett UK during her placement year. Bull, currently in her final year of a degree in agricultural food marketing and business studies at Shropshire-based Harper Adams University, has just secured a place on a scheme run by Management Development Services that offers management training for graduates entering the fresh-food, produce and arable industry.

"It's a two-year scheme with four six-month placements to help give me an idea of the whole fresh-produce supply chain," she says.

"We learned about fresh-produce production in my second year and that's when I decided I wanted to go into that area. Every day is different - it's such a changing, fast-paced environment. In future I hope to be working with a commercial team, such as being a managing director of a fresh-produce firm. But obviously there's a lot of learning to be done before I achieve that."

Rachel Fisher is another Harper Adams student who has gained a place on a graduate scheme, in this instance with fresh-food specialist Bakkavor. "I am studying a food nutrition and well-being degree and during my placement year I worked at AMT Fruit, which supplies all of Tesco's citrus fruit," she says. "I was working in the commercial sales department for them, which proved to be an invaluable experience."

Evidently, the production side of the horticulture industry attracts those who enjoy the buzz of a bustling environment. But it also attracts those who love working in the fresh air. University of Worcester PhD student Megan McKerchar, for instance, is spending her days on an orchard, examining the effect wild flowers have on fruit pollination and natural pest regulation.

"I love working outdoors and especially in an industry that has such practical applications," she says. "It really motivates me that growers and the environment might benefit from the research, both in the long and short term. I love meeting new people from all areas - academic, public, industry. I get the opportunity to engage with them and both learn and teach information. I like that I get the opportunity to have these knowledge exchanges."

New facilities and courses

As we strive to find sustainable ways to feed our growing population, colleges and universities are helping to meet this requirement by opening new and exciting facilities and courses. James Pashley, head of horticulture at Plumpton College in East Sussex, says one of the focal points of the college's new urban horticulture foundation degree due to be launched later this year will be urban crop production: "To grow as much as possible as sustainably as possible using aquaponics."

Aquaponics integrates aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics. Pashely says Plumpton has already set up a unit "whereby we have trout, tilapia and crayfish living happily with the edible crops we're growing. In future, you should be able to feed a family of four off a 16sq m aquaponics system."

Andrew Worrall (20) works for GrowUp Urban Farms in East London, a business that uses its aquaponics system to produce salad products for London's restaurants. "I've been working here since October," he says. "It was hard at first. We had to learn everything very quickly so we could be as productive as possible. Six months later, my colleagues and I know everything about the procedures. Everyone is amazed by the technology - no one had really heard of it before so they all want to learn all about it."

Clearly, new technologies are opening up new avenues of opportunity. Simon Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University, where a new innovation hub for agricultural technology is being built thanks to funding from the Government's Strategy for Agricultural Technologies. He reveals that precision farming is going to change the way we grow our plants.

"The job which is going to change the most is that of people who operate the machinery on the farms. Because the tractor driver will become a robotic operator, they will learn how to fix the robots and gain new skills so they know how to control and programme them, instead of just driving machines - and the horticultural sector will have the first round of robotic machines. Staff will therefore need to have new skills for the machines, but it should make life easier."

Given that some fresh-produce farms are already trialling drones to help them detect pests and diseases in their crops, the face of horticultural production is already rapidly changing. Those who dare to enter this brave new world can do so in many ways, from becoming a horticultural apprentice on a farm or in a nursery to studying a degree in horticulture or one of the many other degrees, such as plant science, agricultural engineering or food marketing, that relate to this broad and dynamic sector.

- For more information on careers in production horticulture, visit www.growcareers.info. To search for apprenticeship schemes in your area, visit www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk.

Case study - Viticulture apprenticeship

The UK's wine industry is rapidly expanding, with new plantings at an all-time high due to the international success of its sparkling wine.

In fact, following a round-table discussion earlier this spring with environment secretary Elizabeth Truss, the industry pledged a further 50 per cent of vineyard plantings over the next five years. This will see plantings rise from 2,000 to 3,000ha by 2020.

Given that hands-on vineyard staff are already in short supply, the industry may well face a challenge to achieve this aim. Fortunately, Plumpton College in East Sussex has extended its apprenticeship provision to include a viticulture pathway.

Apprentices are taken onto the two-year course annually so that there is continuity of staff and training. Based at Plumpton's 10ha vineyard, known for its award-winning wines, they learn all essential operations including harvesting, winter pruning, trellis establishment and repairs.

Jacob Evans was the first person to take advantage of the scheme. Alongside the vine-growing skills he has gained, Evans has also become a competent tractor driver and completed a City & Guilds level 2 diploma in horticulture.

He has now completed his training and says: "I didn't realise how many different jobs there were to do in a vineyard. It's hard work but I have really enjoyed learning them. After I get some more experience I would like to be a vineyard supervisor or even manager."

Case study - Fruit farm apprenticeship

From trying a range of interesting machinery, such as electronic secateurs, to using his smartphone to help record pests and disease levels, Nathan Sterrett is now a dab hand at tending to the apple and pear orchards in which he works.

Through an apprenticeship scheme provided by Hadlow College in Kent, the 27-year-old is currently completing an intermediate (level 2) apprenticeship in production horticulture at WE Gunyon & Sons in Maidstone. As well as mastering the many techniques required to produce good-quality top fruit, Sterrett has also attained a tractor-driving certificate, a competency in forklift skills certificate and the PA1/PA6 pesticide spray certificate. He says: "I've learned loads of cultural tasks needed to grow apples and pears, like pruning, harvesting, fruit thinning and identifying pests and diseases."

Working at the Blackthorn Trust - a charity that offers medical care, specialist therapies and rehabilitation through work placements in the Blackthorn Garden - is where Sterrett first started what he describes as "a complete life change". Before this he was a trainee bookkeeper and an administrator. He then studied a level 1 certificate in horticulture before progressing onto the level 2 apprenticeship programme.

Grower Alex Gunyon reveals that the farm was keen to train someone with the right skills. "I am sure that everyone in the industry would recognise that to keep it going we need some young people joining. I would recommend apprenticeships. It comes down to the individual, but Nathan is good."

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