My Experience of Digging into Horticulture

Digging Into Horticulture

By Jon Dixon

Prior to the study trip with Soil Association in July, my horticultural experience to date was roughly a year of mostly voluntary work once or twice a week. I was keen to broaden my understanding of both organic and conventional approaches to horticulture and to explore how viable a career it would be for me.

Growing up in the London commuter belt, a future in horticulture was never suggested or encouraged. I had relatives who farmed in Cumbria, but they were struggling to stay afloat financially, and so it had seemed a distant and unrewarding occupation. I’d also understood it to be an industry without innovation and with a reputation for ignoring and exacerbating ecological problems.

However, in recent years learning about the organic movement I have felt compelled to get actively involved, which led me to apply to the Digging into Horticulture study-visit.

Horticulture Study Visit

After meeting outside Portsmouth Harbour station, we chatted on the minibus and soon learnt about each other’s varied backgrounds and experience. We were eager to see Binsted Nursery, our first stop. It was interesting to see how the producer was adapting the glasshouse infrastructure to suit more exotic plants to meet consumer demand. During the tour, we were also shown a ditch running around the site which is home to water voles and a reservoir system that both alleviated localised flooding in the nearby village but also supplied a source for irrigating the nurseries.

Binstead Nursery

On arrival at Vitacress white coats and hair were nets donned. We were shown around their large scale potted & cut herbs ‘food factory’, suitably fitted with stainless steel; set up for the supermarket supply chain. There was evident investment into technologies to further the efficiency of production. Thousands had been spent on LED lights, the transmittance colour of which could improve the shelf life of herbs, demanded by supermarkets. The technology was still being explored and it was found that certain herbs such as mint didn’t respond positively to the Red colour frequencies. From what I observed, the basic principles of the space management and system of wheeled play trays at Vitacress could be transferred to many horticultural enterprises to improve efficiency, particularly in packing environments.

 Visiting Vitacress

Before dinner that evening we sat down to discuss the trip so far, feeding back on our own experiences and how we became interested in horticulture. Hearing about their experience and knowledge was insightful and inspiring, these conversations continued over dinner and at the pub afterwards.

The next morning, we were on the ferry over to Isle of Wight to visit APS, a large tomato grower that supply 30% of British tomatoes to supermarkets. It was interesting to see the scale of production of one crop and good to hear about the efforts to move towards a closed system (including composting and plant-fibre packing cartons). I think many of the principles could be implemented in some way in other farms. They were clearly dedicated to improving soil health and I learnt a lot about the value of carbon in the soil and innovative technologies being explored such as Biochar. Additionally, the innovative way the vines (up to 15m long) had been grown on hooks and rotated was not something I’d seen before.

Growing British tomatoes

Overall. I found the trip helpful for me to gain a broader picture of the industry and what larger producers are doing to improve their operations, towards automation and sustainable systems. At the early stage in my career, I have a lot to learn but I found the conversations that I had with the farmers and my peers on the trip stimulating and challenging. As someone who is changing career path I feel encouraged and inspired to pursue a future in horticulture and I am now exploring viable options for learning and training in organic farming. Through the trip, I have realised the importance of dialogue between the industry and policy makers and the need to empower farmers to create positive change for the environment, food systems and their businesses.

The next study visit will be held on Sept 29th and 30th in Evesham.  For more information and to apply for the trip, please click here.