From labour shortages to spiraling energy costs, the horticulture sector continues to face significant challenges, but Hutchinsons’s new Horticultural technical sales specialist Darren Tongue is confident there are good opportunities for domestic growers.
Mr Tongue has more than 30 years of experience in the horticulture supply trade, having worked for a number of leading companies in southeast England, so is well aware of how the sector has changed and the support that growers will need going forward.
“Across the board, we’ve seen large-scale producers – many linked to the sheds and garden centre chains – getting even larger, while more medium-sized and smaller independent businesses struggle. It’s evident in most sectors, but particularly so for protected monocrops, such as protected salad crops.”
However, disruption to trade caused by both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the risks of the UK being too reliant on foreign imports and could present opportunities for more domestic producers that are able to ensure consistency of supply to end markets, he says.
Emergence of small niche growers
The pandemic has also sparked the emergence of numerous small-scale niche growers in the past two to three years, serving local markets that have been boosted by an upsurge in home gardening and “grow your own”, he adds.
“Even once things return to normal, I believe there is a place for these niche growers serving a certain type of customer longer-term. The industry needs a good mix of large and small-scale producers to bring innovation and new skills to the market.”
Indeed, sourcing skilled staff that understand the job, technology and processes involved, has been an ongoing issue for many businesses, although difficulties have been accelerated by Brexit, Mr Tongue notes.
He therefore recognises the significance of the excellent training offered by Hutchinsons, in developing new people with technical excellence and links to the market.
“As the sector has changed, so we’ve seen that a lot of the key skills training is now done by organisations like ourselves. As a family-run business, Hutchinsons’s whole ethos has been to put their customers and staff first. They really understand people and the market, with strong links to key manufacturers at home and abroad, so are well placed to ensure continuity of supply.”
From advanced heating, lighting and irrigation systems to crop monitoring and recording, technology will continue to drive future change, so it is essential that new entrants are equipped with the skills and knowledge to understand this, he adds.
“As with all sectors of agriculture and horticulture, there’s now a wealth of data available to growers, so the key is to understand what the information means and how it can be used to improve cropping efficiencies.”