Interview: Ian Ashton, managing director, Lowaters Nursery

Horticulture is struggling to deal with some turbulent times of late, not least the funding crises for applied ornamentals research and land-based education.

Ian Ashton, managing director, Lowaters Nursery. Image: HTA
Ian Ashton, managing director, Lowaters Nursery. Image: HTA

One man near the centre of both fights is Ian Ashton, who through his work with the HTA, the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) and Lantra has been a good friend to the sector.

Perhaps this was one reason why the HTA named his as the 79th winner of its annually awarded Pearson Medal for outstanding contribution to the horticulture industry at the Garden Futures event last month.

The Lowaters Nursery managing director was flattered by the decision but has not been distracted from the tasks at hand. "I'm certainly very busy at the moment," says Ashton, as he reels off a list of his current commitments and horticultural interests. "I think the funding issue is what I would most like to talk about. I am very worried for ornamentals," he reveals.

The first thing to work on at the HDC, he argues, is bringing the ornamentals panels together. "It need not necessarily be the end of any one panel but would make sure that they are at least sharing and looking for common cause. I think (HW campaign) Save Our Science has been brilliant for that."

The drive to food security is his biggest worry, in that ornamentals has been overlooked. "When I read consultation papers, they rarely mention ornamentals. One of the first comments I always make is: 'Don't forget we are still here.' We still feature in the landscape and there's a lot of value in what we do."

He says a major worry is competitiveness with Europe, pointing out that if the research is not done here then we will lose more ground to countries with well-established R&D programmes.

Another thorny issue is how funds are classified. "One of the biggest problems we have at the HDC is that money that has been taken from us as growers becomes public money. You can use industry money for match-funding for things such as partnerships with regional development agencies - all sorts of things become possible. But if you are working with public money they are closed to you. It does seem bizarre that money is taken and goes into a single pot but then effectively becomes public money. It just doesn't seem right."

So what hopes does he have for the likely change of Government next year? "I would hope, at the very least, that an incoming Government would maintain what is good - things like the Rural Development Programme for England, which runs to 2013 and has been very effective," he says.

"It has put EU money towards things that have environmental and marketing benefits. It is possible to apply for fairly generous grants for things like training. We have successfully applied for money to install a reservoir. But I don't know how much we can expect."

The other issue close to Ashton's heart is training. He has worked with Lantra and the southern training group and is very mindful of Lowaters' staff development. "I have always been involved in training at one level or another. Peter (Lowater) was a big believer in training - he always encouraged me to develop myself by going to local grower association groups and we have always tried to support those."

With the HTA training and careers committee, Ashton has been working on the new Government-backed diplomas. "We thought if we could do something that fitted with the skills council then we would become funded, but it hasn't happened so the HTA has said it will help."

He adds: "We are now trying to do something for growers so we have commissioned some research that will focus on what growers actually need, because production horticulture has one of the lowest uptakes of NVQs historically."

But Ashton has issues with both the diploma and the system they were designed to replace. "I have my own views about the way NVQs are structured, which is that you don't necessarily need to train someone in every aspect the NVQ covers. We have always run a lot of in-house workshops. We get people like (nursery consultant) John Adlam in to help out.

"I think a lot of businesses can't afford the time to send their staff away for lengthy periods, particularly if that is not necessarily linked back to what they are doing in the workplace. The question is how to come up with an alternative that uses the networks already out there, and that is where the HDC comes in."

Lowaters is undergoing major expansion, which will see it building at least another 0.8ha of glass and a reservoir. If it can win a planning appeal, it will also convert some old glass to office space.

The building spree comes on the back of a record year for the company, which Ashton says is finally achieving the goals it set when it launched the Garden Beauty brand in 2005.

"We saw 27 per cent growth this year. We have been ambitious but I think I can say this has been the first year the whole thing has come together as intended. Ceasing to supply to the DIYs has been the best thing we've done - it allowed us to focus on independent customers."

1975 Works for Lowaters during gap year
1976-79 Studies Geography and Economics at University College London
1979 Assistant manager, Lowaters Nursery
1980 Manager, Lowaters Nursery
1980-2009 Southern training group
1983 Becomes a partner at Lowaters
1999-2002 Chairman, production industry group at Lantra
2000-2003 Growers director, New Forest buying group
2002 Joins HTA ornamentals committee
2008 Joins HTA board
2008 Joins HDC board
2009 Wins HTA Pearson Medal

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