Filled with enthusiasm and passion, a younger generation of growers is helping to breathe new life into the UK fresh produce business
As the UK searches for ways of increasing its food production to feed a burgeoning population, the entrance into the fruit and vegetable business of confident people in their 20s or 30s is proving invaluable to the trade’s continued evolution.
Produce Business UK takes a look at four business-minded horticulture workers who are each driving important change at their family firms and ensuring that the future of domestic produce sales is in good, reliable hands.
Tom Hulme, AC Hulme & Sons
At AC Hulme & Sons in Kent the arrival of rows of cherry, plum and apricot trees is largely thanks to 36-year-old grower Tom Hulme, who has experienced a busy few years since he joined the family business in 2011.
“Cherries are a passion of ours,” Hulme says. “We hadn’t grown cherries until we bought a farm in the late 2000s which had some. We planted Gisele trees on the back of that and we’ve grown the area on a reasonable scale.
“Growing cherries meant that we had to also grow plums because we needed work for the cherry pickers between the cherry and apple picking periods. We also planted some apricots. It’s all about having work for our employees.”
Prior to joining his family business, Hulme worked in London for 12 years as a corporate stockbroker. He explains: “I came home because my family asked me to. But I was getting very bored of working for other people and I was looking for an opportunity to work for myself.”
He is now one of a many of growers who have joined the industry in their 20s and 30s with a wealth of enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Given that the average age of a farmer in this country is 59 [according to the most recent statistic from Defra] their arrival and achievements should perhaps be celebrated to help inspire more people to join the ranks.
Like Hulme, who last year (2014) also oversaw the construction of 7,500 bins worth of coldstorage facilities, people of his generation are often able to put to good use the skills they have learned prior to getting into the business of growing food.
Hulme, for example, says the people skills he acquired whilst working in London have helped him to manage his large team of farm workers.
“I might be quite green to farming and growing fruit but I have a reasonable level of understanding of business and managing people. We have 100 members of staff here at the peak of our year and they all walk out of their caravan at 6.50am and expect to know what they are going to do for the day.
“We grow lots of crops and moving them around to have them in the right place is a challenge. I think as much as anything, farmers are logistics merchants.”
Ben Bardsley, Bardsley Farms
Ben Bardsley, of Bardsley Farms in Kent, has also been able to put his skill set to good use since he joined his family’s business 18 months ago. After finishing university he spent five years as an infantry army officer - he wanted to do something different before joining the family firm.
He says the skills he acquired during his time in the army have undoubtedly helped him in his new role as packhouse director. “A packhouse director is about managing people – which is exactly what I was doing in the army,” he says.
By joining Bardsley Farms, he has also given his father Nigel the confidence to make investments so that the company has a future in farming going forward. “If I wasn’t there my father would not have been so inclined to reinvest [in new packhouse facilities, orchards and land] as we have done.”
Bardsley, aged 29, also believes that, like any business sector, farming needs young people. “You need a fresh outlook on life,” he says. “We [the younger generation] bring along that enthusiasm and new lease of life to continue to evolve and change. The top-fruit industry is certainly dynamic and things change almost day by day.”
Laura Marner, Vitacress
Laura Marner, a 33-year-old assistant growing manager at Vitacress in West Sussex, points out that the younger generation of growers are drawing on a distinct set of skills that were not part of their predecessors education.
Marner, whose parents and grandparents also worked as growers, says: “Being younger, you learn a lot of business skills that perhaps a lot of the older generation would not have [experienced].
“We sometimes have a greater understanding of how a business should run. My parents, yes, they were taught how to grow a plant but not necessarily the [economical] impact of growing with six barrels of peat rather than three.
“There’s also social media skills, as we are all far more comfortable with using the internet. Vitacress, for example, has a team that manages its social media presence. Whereas an older person might not feel that this is part of the job. We also do charity work at Vitacress and go out to schools. A grower today has to be more multifunctional and we [the younger generation] can maybe diversify a bit more.”
Oli Pascall, Clockhouse Farm
Like Marner and Bardsley, soft-fruit grower Oli Pascall of Clockhouse Farm in Kent had also always wanted to work in horticulture.
He says: “I’ve always enjoyed doing what I do – both the commercial and growing sides of the business. So it just happened.”
The 25-year-old joined the family business a year ago after gaining a degree in agriculture and working on several other large fruit farms. Pascall joined the family firm sooner than he had originally planned because he was offered the huge opportunity of managing and redeveloping a 45-acre soft-fruit farm of mainly raspberries.
“It’s been interesting and I’ve learned a lot,” he explains. “We’ve effectively started a new team here with the plan to overhaul the whole site. By the end of this year (2015) we’ll have rebuilt all of the polytunnels and replaced all of the plant material and most of the irrigation – so it’s having a bit of a shake-up. It’s been brilliant – it’s going in the right direction and should become one of our most up-to-date and modern spaces.”
Pascall adds that the arrival onto the farm of younger people often results in this kind of change. He says: “Because we are still learning, we question things along the way and it results in everything having a bit of shake-up, which is always beneficial. It’s an industry that’s always going to benefit from a new lease of life because it’s so fast-moving.”