Wednesday, 31 March 2021
I have recently been reading old copies of Horticulture Week dating back to 1977, the year I started my career in horticulture. Interestingly I have spotted numerous businesses that no longer exist, yet were powerhouses of their time. Famous names like Ingwerson, Waterers, and Slocock, once giants in horticulture, have all disappeared. We can however take comfort from the fact this was not generally due to the impact of poor economic conditions. Many enterprises ceased trading for a variety of reasons, such as family career changes, takeovers, buy-outs, diversification, and land development. Few were direct victims of an economic downturn. Research shows we do seem to be an industry that endures even when it cannot thrive!
In fact during my 44 years in the industry the horticultural industry has lived through 3 recessions; the early 80s, the early 90s, and the great recession of 2008/9. Yet, despite many industries suffering badly during these recessions, on the whole the horticultural industry fared well! This new Covid induced downturn may have some unique aspects, but should throw nothing at us we haven’t partly experienced and weathered before. Of course there are always some winners and some losers as competition increases and the need for adaptability becomes key, and some horticultural businesses have indeed sadly closed over the past year. So, whilst one might not be as bold as to describe our industry as recession proof, we can however have confidence that it has historically been recession resilient, and there is no reason to see that changing now.
There are several reasons for this confidence, but perhaps the most important is our UK collective gardening heritage, which is still strong, vital and a force for national economic and individual wellbeing. We are a nation of gardeners, with a love of public and personal outdoor space, and this goes way back to the early Victorian plant hunters, the greening of public spaces, and the development of plant collections such as Bodnant Gardens. The use of small gardens and strips of land to feed a family and supplement incomes is also centuries old, culminating in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign which further forged our collective love of gardening and making good use of outdoor space. Gardening is a low cost hobby, easy to learn, and offers solace, comfort, enjoyment, and the satisfaction of creating something good when times may be hard. This is why the horticultural industry can continue to trade so well even during difficult economic times. Our temperate climate also helps of course! It’s a lot easier to garden in the UK than it is in a country that has greater extremes of temperatures, and with our spring on the horizon, our sales should soon be blooming too.
So how is the industry bearing up right now? Well, the news is good! According to the HTA statistics in September 2020, lockdown has created 3 million new gardeners and significantly nearly half (49%) are younger gardeners under the age of 45! Covid has managed what we have been trying to achieve for years – to attract younger people into gardening. Covid (and Brexit) has also created a new generation of grow your own gardeners, with many consumers turning to their gardens fearing supermarket shelves may run low on fresh produce. This uplift in grow your own gardening was actually already gathering speed pre-pandemic due to a cultural shift towards a more predominate plant based sustainable diet, both individually and within school and community projects. One only has to consider the rise in community projects to see how collectively we are much more interested as a nation in where our food comes from and how it is grown.
Surely then, if our industry can survive and in some cases prosper during a global pandemic, the future must look bright? Several macro factors support this and will drive a greater demand for horticultural products. Take housing for example – UK developers need to build 340,000 houses a year until 2031 to meet the projected demand for homes. These homes will have gardens or balconies, however small, and they will need plants! Likewise, big government infrastructure projects will require landscaping, which will create a further demand. This, coupled with a reduction in imports from the EU will of course increase the demand for UK grown plants, and the cultural shift towards healthier, sustainable and accountable food will increase the demand for UK edible produce. Consumers are becoming aware that mange tout grown in Kenya and shipped to the UK is as bad for the environment as it is for the purse!
So is it all good news for horticulture and in particular Welsh growers? On the face of it, yes. Wales has a favourable climate, fertile soils, ambition, and many support initiatives exist such as those provided by Tyfu Cymru and the various ‘Horticulture Clusters’ encouraging growth and expertise. There will still be enormous challenges however in Wales and UK wide as collectively we seek to capaitalise upon future market opportunities. The most pressing of these is perhaps a shortage of labour. We have a skills shortage (the lack of labour available) but also a skills gap, where those available do not have the necessary skills to quickly engage productively in a horticultural enterprise. This is of course nothing new. RHS Director General Sue Biggs launching the ‘Horticulture Matters’ campaign in back in 2014 stated that “Horticulture contributes £9 billion to the UK economy every year and employs around 300,000 people across a variety of disciplines. However, 70% of businesses say that they struggle to find the skilled workers they require and 83% put this down to the poor perception of horticulture in schools and colleges." Sadly this is still the challenge we face, and if we cannot get extra labour so easily from abroad post Brexit, we must promote and be better industry ambassadors to encourage more young and local people to enter the industry, and provide richer careers to retain them.
Of course in the short term perhaps an even greater challenge is the increased cost, confusion and grief involved in exporting to the island of Ireland. I cannot say if or when this may be resolved, only that Welsh growers are in an enviable geographical position to exploit this large market on their door step should trade and political talks find a way. So keep lobbying and keep alert!
We would like to say thank you to Neville Stein for his valued thoughts, insights and contribution in this article.