Future of UK supply at heart of Sainsbury’s horticulture apprenticeship

Sainsburys Commercial Horticulture Apprentices

The apprentices in the 2014/15 scheme are expected to remain in the produce industry

Sainsburys Commercial Horticulture Apprentice Alex Parkinson
The apprentices are training to become commercial growers

At a time when UK food production is becoming more important, while natural resources are in decline, Produce Business UK takes a look at how Sainsbury's Commercial Horticulture Apprenticeship Scheme aims to inject enthusiastic, skilled and dedicated blood into the fresh produce industry and bring about real change by involving the entire supply chain

Forming part of Sainsbury’s 20x20 Sustainability Plan, the commercial horticulture apprenticeship got underway in September 2014 when major UK produce companies – G’s Fresh, AC Goatham, Taylorgrown, Drimbawn (formally Monaghan) Mushrooms, Cornerways Nursery, Allpress Farms and Vitacress took on eight grower apprentices for topfruit, mushroom, salad, root vegetable and brassica production.

For Sainsbury’s, the programme complements its existing work in agriculture and horticulture but the overarching goal is much greater. The retailer recognises that bringing new, highly skilled and trained workers into the industry is crucial to its continued success.

Why produce apprenticeships are vital

“It’s as much our responsibility as others to act now,” Rob Honeysett, horticulture manager at Sainsbury’s tells Produce Business UK. “We recognise that working together as a partnership we have an opportunity to change things and bring a new entrance of people into horticulture and the supply chain. This will have an impact on the quality of produce grown and sourced, plus it contributes to our sustainability as a retailer.”

Honeysett claims there is a lack of people entering agriculture as a profession because it’s an “unknown industry”, particularly the horticulture sector. People see fresh produce in the supermarkets yet they rarely get a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes.

“The bigger challenge for the industry is to raise its profile among school leavers and those heading off to university,” Honeysett explains. “Agriculture is tied to family farms so it’s a complex dynamic. But the horticulture industry is consolidating into bigger businesses and there’s now more of a career path in management, for example.”

Both Sainsbury’s and its apprenticeship training partner Staffline believe the industry needs to work on its overall profile among youngsters. If people don’t enter horticulture careers from manual labour right up to management, they argue there will simply not be an industry to supply food to the nation.

“Getting new blood and trained workers into the industry is vital for the future of businesses and the horticulture industry so we can continue producing top quality food for the future,” notes agriculture and horticulture training consultant Mike Dodd, who joined Staffline in January 2014 to set up and run the scheme.

“Apprenticeships are very relevant and valuable to the industry. Horticulture isn’t taught at school, so how else would you learn about farming and growing unless you were born into it? Apprenticeships give you the practical and theoretical knowledge needed to be a grower/farmer.”

The ethos of Sainsbury’s Commercial Horticulture Apprenticeship Scheme is to encourage new (and not necessarily young) blood into the produce industry and to harness the dedicated talent that will eventually become the managers of the future.

Given the opportunities and career paths on offer, Dodd says there has to be better education of farming and better careers advice in schools and colleges as well as government incentives.

“Some training advisors and schools are trying to promote farming as a career,” he admits, adding that certain produce companies promote horticulture jobs at career fairs, while Allpress itself goes out to local schools and invites students to visit its farms in Cambridge.

“Horticulture a very advanced and high tech industry these days, meaning the skills are transferrable,” Dodd continues. “A lot of growers are using drones, and the tractors have GPS systems. It’s long hours, of course, so you have to be flexible. But it’s quite well paid, especially if you move up the management chain.”

What the scheme is doing

To raise awareness and promote the produce trade Sainsbury’s specifically devised a national scheme that would bring together the supply chain in a unique way; pitching the idea to all of its farmers, growers and suppliers.

“We [Sainsbury’s] carry a bit of weight and we hope to bring about real change,” Honeysett points out. “We wanted to make it truly collaborative among our suppliers, and really supply-chain driven, rather than developing a bespoke programme that fits our requirements. The government is really keen on apprenticeships so there is good funding. We [Sainsbury’s] are just providing the link to make it happen.”

According to Honeysett, an apprenticeship of this type has never before been rolled out on this scale nor at this level of quality. When completed, the six apprentices will achieve a Lantra and City & Guilds-recognised and transferable Level 2 Work Based Diploma that Sainsbury’s and Staffline have tailored to commercial horticulture.

In short, the apprentices will be trained horticulture growers but thanks to Sainsbury’s open and wide-reaching approach the apprentices will also have gained a vast amount of knowledge about the inner workings of the entire supply chain.

“We want the apprentices to be enthusiastic about our industry so we’ve opened it up [as part of the course] so they can get to know it first-hand,” Honeysett explains. “They will get to understand the scale of the industry, all the processes and its complexity.

“They’re visiting our stores, our depots, our growers, packers and even seed breeders. They’ve seen how we sell produce and in July we’ll show them the buying process. It’s a comprehensive education programme – they are seeing it all.”

While many of the apprentices are expected to stay within the production field of horticulture, Honeysett says it’s vital they understand the supply chain at large, especially the end consumer.

“It’s a commercial horticulture qualification and they are learning how to grow produce but like any other course they may end up taking other roles within the industry so they’re getting to see the marketing, operations, finance etc,” he notes. “As a grower it’s crucial to understand the end consumer. One of the challenges for growers in recent years has been to understand their market better.”

What the employers think

The employers themselves also recognise that training and skills are important but their challenge will be to see through their investment. Fortunately, the signs are already pointing in the right direction.

“Apprenticeships by nature are an investment – by far the value is when they’re fully trained but you don’t know if it will pay off for three or four years,” says Honeysett. “Several of the apprentices currently involved will definitely have an exciting career ahead because they have the ability, and they will be an asset to their employers. But it’s up to employers to incentivise the apprentices to stay on. We are just creating that opportunity.”

Dodd agrees, adding: “The employers need good quality staff that they can retain in the business or the industry. The vision is that the apprentices will secure a job with the companies they’re placed with, subject to them achieving their diploma. Provided there are opportunities for the apprentice they are likely to stay.”

The fresh produce companies involved are fully backing the scheme, according to Dodd, who says thanks to broad-minded owners, the employers saw the benefits of bringing in youngsters. “They’ve all come on board thoroughly,” he explains. “G’s is already quite big in training because the firm has a good management training scheme, so they thought the apprenticeship would fit nicely into that,” explains Dodd. “AC Goatham also does a lot of training with its employees and it felt this initiative would be a natural progression from that. In fact, they took two apprentices!”

What the apprentices are learning

In a nutshell, the apprentices are learning how to become growers. From there, they can choose whether to continue with the training to become a farm manager. The skills they are learning are science-based and include: identifying pests and disease and their control, irrigation systems, nutrient requirements, monitoring crops (crop walking), plant terminology (knowing the Latin names and subspecies), preparing crops, harvesting and storing, as well as being able to communicate with their superiors and colleagues, and leadership qualities.

All the apprentices are assigned a Staffline assessor who visits every four to six weeks to tweak the programme where necessary. Every 12 weeks the apprentices attend college for one week for classes in theory and underpinning knowledge as well as to work on their portfolio or to visit other farms/places of interest to complement their knowledge. They also receive homework from college.

How it’s going

The scheme is going well with both employers and apprentices said to be very happy, according to Dodd. “The apprentices appreciate the fact that they can go to college for a full week as in other apprenticeships it’s usually just a day,” he explains. “They also can’t believe how many people they’ve met and how much they’ve learnt.”

Dodd says those involved have access to a closed Facebook account to share their experiences, which has proved popular with the apprentices. “They send in photos of themselves at the farm, sometimes at 3am!,” he explains. “It’s been better than the apprentices themselves expected. They’re working hard but the rewards are really good. Some of the machines are worth over £100,000 each so they can’t believe they’ve been given responsibility to handle them. Alex Parkinson at Taylorgrown is on tractors for most of the day and he’s now been asked to oversee the brassica side of the business, so he’s already been given the opportunity for more responsibility.”

Where it goes from here

Academically, once the apprentices have completed the Level 2 Diploma, they can apply for a Level 3 supervisory qualification to become a farm manager and continue on their work-based learning route. Or, they could go on to university.

For Sainsbury’s and Staffline, the Level 2 apprenticeship lasts 20 months (until July 2016) and will continue as a rolling scheme with the second cohort of apprentices starting in January 2016, once selected following the summer.

“The aim is to run the apprenticeship once a year,” reveals Honeysett. “Those employers currently involved in the scheme are already coming back for a second apprentice next year so the hope is that it will snowball.”

Sainsbury’s has also just launched a similar apprenticeship programme for livestock and poultry, which will get under way in September. In addition, the retailer is involved in a new trailblazer apprenticeship to raise awareness among farmers.

Meet the Sainsbury’s Commercial Horticulture Apprentices 

Sainsburys Commercial Horticulture Apprentice Adam Hall Adam Hall

Now that G’s Fresh’s apprentice Adam Hall realises not all farmers are born farmers, he is considering joining G’s own  management training scheme to carve out a future in the  industry.

“It was never really mentioned as a career choice at school - I never knew how to get into the industry,” explains the 24-year-old. “It wasn't until I started searching for a new job last year that I stumbled upon this apprenticeship scheme and the doors started opening for me.”

Already, Adam says he’s met “many great people” thanks to the programme and learnt a lot in a short space of time from crop monitoring, to pest and disease control, soil moisture monitoring, moisture probe/weather station installations and maintenance and much more.

Long-term, he’s keen to gain hands-on experience in all the different areas of the business at G’s. “I am very interested in the more technical side of the industry and would like to learn more about the science behind the crop and the soils themselves,” he says. “I am also interested in new technology and ideas, research and development, trial work as well as data analysis and input.”

Sainsburys Commercial Horticulture Apprentice Alex Parkinson Alexander Parkinson

Alex Parkinson is an apprentice for Taylorgrown, who is proud to be involved in supplying organic produce to consumers and keen to climb the corporate ladder.

 “I am passionate about what I do […] and I aspire to work my way up the ladder and become a farm manager,” he explains.

“In the future I hope to bring something new to the industry and help carry out new techniques in organic and conventional farming to strive for success while safeguarding our land for future generations.”

Sainsburys Commercial Horticulture Apprentices Ellie Errett Ellie Errett

Ellie Errett at Drimbawn (formally Monaghan) Mushrooms loves food and fresh produce, having spent most of her career in catering. Despite juggling family life, a full-time job and study, the 31-year-old says the experience has been a positive and exciting challenge aided by her skills in preparation, organisation and attention to detail.

“The apprenticeship has helped to give my career some direction,” she comments. “With the support and the opportunities we are being given I really hope to find my niche and grow in confidence to become the professional I know I’m capable of being.”

Ellie is particularly interested in a forum/agency partnering farms to research projects and universities, farm branding and marketing, research and development and at my place of work, which is currently undergoing an expansion project, an onsite, exclusive mushroom restaurant, showcasing our product.

Sainsburys Commercial Horticulture Apprentice Esther Harvey Esther Harvey

AC Goatham apprentice Esther Harvey says the scheme has been a great way to develop her passion of agriculture thanks to growing up in a rural area.

 “I have gained experience with the apprenticeship in different aspects of the company from harvesting fruit to preparing a new orchard. I would like to get more insight of different types of agriculture not just top fruit,” she notes.

On completing the apprenticeship, Esther already has plans to remain in the horticulture industry and hopefully study a higher qualification.

Sainsburys Commercial Horticulture Apprentice Jack Swindley Jack Swindley

Jack Swindley is an apprentice agricultural machinery operator working for Allpress Farms who is loving every minute of his experience and recently joined the Huntingdon Young Farmers Club in Cambridgeshire.

“I have experienced a lot of different work and I cannot find anything which I do not love doing,” he claims. “I have always had an interest in farming and horticulture and since I left school I have always wanted to have a career in horticulture.”

Ambitious Swindley says his father’s influence as a head gardener at a stately home first attracted him to the industry where he plans to own his own contracting business in The Fens and across the whole of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

“This is my first stepping stone to that career and I hope to gain a lot more experience and qualifications so I can build up a business for the future,” he reveals. “If I managed to set up and run a successful contracting business I would love to take on apprentices and hand over any training and experience I can to them.”

Sainsburys Commercial Horticulture Apprentice Liam Walker Liam Walker

Apprentice Liam Walker wishes to work as a horticulture grower now he’s experienced all the main operations at Cornerways Nursery in West Norfolk.

 “I would like to become more established within this industry and gain a good network of contacts within it,” he explains. “I also want to progress further with my studies and study towards a level three qualification or a foundation degree,” he explains.

In the last eight months Liam has learnt about harvesting, crop working and turnaround. He’s now working within the Cornerways growing team; learning about all aspects of tomato production including; irrigation, pest and disease and monitoring plant growth.

“Most of this is being taught by Robert Farthing (the recent winner of the Young Horticulture Grower of the Year award),” he says. “I enjoy learning about the scientific principles behind production horticulture. At college I have enjoyed studying subjects like pest and diseases and soil science.”

The six Sainsbury’s apprentices took part in the mentored student programme at the London Produce Show and Conference 2015 on June 3-5 to learn even more about the produce industry and make new contacts.

Anyone wishing to get involved in the apprenticeship scheme should contact Sainsbury’s

Further materials:

Information for employers
Information for apprentices
Sainsbury’s 20x20 Sustainability Plan
Sainsbury’s progress so far
Sainsbury’s 20x20 Factsheets

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