Young people looking to get into horticulture are often told “you won’t get paid much but you’ll really enjoy your job”. In my experience this advice is completely wrong. Wrong in the sense that it’s not accurate, and wrong in the sense that it could put off a generation of future company directors and high level industry professionals.
A career in commercial horticulture can be extremely rewarding, but like a lot of young people today, I was told I wouldn’t earn very much or go very far pursuing it. As it turns out, it didn’t take long at all for me to find my feet and I’ve since had a number of interesting roles.
The sad truth is that the list of careers presented to A-level students doesn’t usually include commercial horticulture at all - a recent survey conducted by the Guardian found that only 7% of UK schools and colleges have ever suggested students consider it. It made for grim reading – especially when the same survey revealed that 75% of the young people surveyed actually enjoyed growing plants. We could be putting off a whole new generation, through misinformation – or lack of information altogether.
I was almost a case in point - interested by plants and the processes involved in nurturing them to perform at their best, but set on a degree in chemical engineering. Fortunately, just before my final exams, I changed my mind, dropping out of college to start work at a tree nursery in North Yorkshire (Yorkshire Plants). Several temporary jobs in the UK followed before I landed a job in Virginia.
After a year and half in Virginia managing a 10ha glasshouse, 20+ha of outdoor growing area and 30 staff, I returned to the UK and studied International Commercial Horticulture at Writtle College.
My degree opened the doors to a job at Suttons Seeds as Assistant Product Manager, and after only a short time I became responsible for all edible crops – not only was I doing what I loved, but I was getting somewhere. After two years at Suttons I was offered the opportunity to expand my horizons even further and took a position in sales at Modiform (Dutch horticultural plastics company).
Stories like this matter – not least because they illustrate the variety, travel and progression that a career in commercial horticulture can offer. As a sector, we need to do more to make sure that this message is filtering out to schools and colleges across the UK.
Recently I have joined Carbon Gold where I am pushing boundaries in a completely different role. With my help, Carbon Gold produces soil and substrate amendments made from biochar enriched with Mycorrhizae and Trichoderma fungi, helping the sector to increase yields in a reliable and cost effective manner.
Biochar is a highly purified form of charcoal, cooked at a low temperature over a long period of time with minimal oxygen. This process leaves it highly porous. When applied to soil, rockwool or coir it improves water holding capacity, increases nutrient delivery to plant roots and provides a permanent housing for beneficial soil micro-organisms, including Mycorrhizal and Trichoderma fungi.
So far our enriched biochar products have on average resulted in an 11% yield increase in organic growing systems and 7.2% in conventional production in customer trials over 35 hectares in nine European countries, despite the presence of pests and diseases including nematodes, pythium ultimum, armillaria mellea, phellinus noxius, rhizoctonia solani and armillaria ostoyae.
I really enjoy working with commercial growers and retailers, providing innovative new solutions they didn’t even know existed to problems that have been ongoing for years or even generations. There’s a lot of satisfaction in using organic soil biology to give answers to problems the multi-national chemical conglomerates have no answer for. So in some sense the careers advisors were right, I do love my job, but they were wrong about everything else.
I started off wanting to grow trees and now I develop organic biotechnology products. Horticulture is a growing industry with fantastic opportunities and constant innovation, it’s not just the unskilled manual labour that careers advisers seem to think. And if you’re good at what you do, it pays well.
If I had listened to careers advisors, as many sensible young people do, I would be enjoying my career far less. It’s time commercial horticulture professionals put an end to the pessimism and start encouraging young people to get into the industry – we all have a responsibility to do more.