Where technology is taking us

Consultant Chris Need, technical secretary to the British Protected Ornamentals Association and project manager for AHDB’s National Bedding and Pot Plant Centre, talks to Spence Gunn about tackling the sector’s R&D challenges

Some of the most highly-automated bedding and pot plant nurseries in the Netherlands opened their doors in September to a small group of UK growers wanting to learn more about the equipment the businesses have invested in and how it works in practice.

“Helping UK nurseries to automate is now one of our key technical challenges,” says consultant Chris Need, who took on the role of technical secretary to the British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) earlier this year. “That’s why we supported the study tour AHDB ran last month. There’s much already in use in Holland but, because the financial climate is currently so uncertain, we in the UK are generally not investing.

“I don’t believe we should be looking for public or AHDB funds to be spent on specific automation R&D projects – commercial businesses develop practical automation far better than academic research does. What we can do is help growers see it being used and talk to those who are already using it.”

It might all change after Brexit because it was the free movement of workers around Europe which Mr Need says has contributed to the lack of automation on many UK nurseries. “Most growers have an inherent interest in things mechanical as well as in plants ­– it was probably that combination that attracted me into the industry in the first place,” he says. “Nurseries such as Roundstone [now Newey, where Mr Need worked for 18 years] invested hugely in automation but since then many businesses have stopped because of the availability of European labour.

“Now it has come full circle. Anyone looking to expand, redevelop or build new needs to make sure their design is automation-ready, even if not planning to install right away.”

Identifying the technical challenges for growers of bedding, pot plants and cut flowers, and working with AHDB to see them addressed, is what the BPOA technical committee is all about, he says.

“We know from our recent consultation with members how much they value this aspect of BPOA’s work. It’s reflected in the support we get ­– technical staff from all the well-known nurseries actually want to be on the committee. So it’s at the sharp end when it comes to understanding what the sector’s R&D priorities are in areas such as crop protection and biosecurity, growing media, plant growth control and so on.”

Huge strides in crop-sensing technology have gone hand in hand with advances in automation but Mr Need says he’s not in favour of linking the two and taking the grower out of the equation. “What new sensor technology does is bring an extra level of detail to a grower’s decision-making. Only an experienced grower can balance what’s going on in the crop with what’s happening in sales. If the sensor comes up and says ‘it’s on the dry side, we should water’, the grower might think ‘it looks like I won’t be selling much next week, I’m going to keep it there to hold the crop’.”

Crop protection is likely to remain high on BPOA’s list of R&D priorities, says Mr Need. “We can’t stress enough the importance of AHDB’s work on EAMUs and minor uses but growers are also very focused on reducing their use of conventional chemistry, saving it for when the higher efficacy and more curative activity is really important, so the current research on biopesticides is welcome too.”

Growers of edible crops have long been familiar with residues management but it could be a looming issue for the ornamentals sector. “It’s something we are keeping an eye on,” he says. “Germany and the Netherlands are already residue-testing ornamentals. As part of the AHDB poinsettia variety trials we’ve started testing both the young plants and the finished crop, to give us an idea of what might be there and whether growers might need to manage it.”

So far, residues of a range of products applied by the propagation nursery have been detected in the young plants but had degraded by the time the crop was ready to market. Plant growth regulators (PGRs) applied after propagation left no residues in the finished plants, though some pest and disease products did.

PGRs remain crucial to growing a successful crop, he adds. “The current work on poinsettias, using deficit irrigation to control growth, is important but we have to be careful about saying we could grow entirely without PGRs as that’s not currently the case. It may be possible for those with highly controllable irrigation, such as ebb and flood, but not for those growing on the ground in half a dozen different types of greenhouse.”

Solving the technical aspects of a challenge often goes only part way to finding the complete answer. Growing media is a prime example: helping the industry move from peat-based to peat-free media is now not so much a technical as an economic question. “Peat reduction is a no-brainer, technically: blending with materials like bark and woodfibre makes for a better growing medium. I don’t think anyone now would go back.

“Moving from peat-reduced to peat-free is technically do-able, though more difficult, and is more expensive – we’ve proved that over the years in trials. The problem is, customers are still not prepared to meet the extra cost and growers are stuck between that and the official policy to phase out peat.”

Bans or peat taxes wouldn’t work as they would put UK growers at a competitive disadvantage, he says. The BPOA has been exploring, however, whether there’s scope for peat-free production to be recognised as a ‘public good’ and so eligible for support under post-Brexit agriculture policy proposals.

Plastics are now more of a challenge for horticulture than peat, he says. “To replace plastics will be harder and we’ve been through all the alternatives over the past 15 years or so. You can make pots, especially black, with recycled plastic; the problem is even if you have pots that recycling systems can recognise, will they end up in the recycling stream?”

The ornamentals sector and its need for technical support has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, Mr Need points out. “When I started out there were lots of small nurseries with a demand for technical advice at a fairly basic level.

“Some of the large nurseries can now afford their own highly skilled specialist technical staff. But they still support levy-funded R&D because even the biggest growers know they don’t have the resources to address challenges like impatiens downy mildew on their own.”

Where most nurseries used to be owned by growers who understood the technical issues and associated risks, businesses are increasingly being led by people who may have no practical growing background. “Decisions can get made without necessarily thinking about the horticultural risks involved,” he says.

That’s a particular issue in biosecurity, he suggests: “As a consultant I’ve been involved with the HTA’s plant health management scheme, which is trying to address just that.”

The industry is still made up of a significant number of small and medium sized nurseries, however, and he’s keen to see more guidance on how they can incorporate R&D results into their own production systems – a challenge he plans to tackle in his other consultancy role as newly-appointed project manager for the AHDB-funded Bedding and Pot Plant Centre.

The Centre was established specifically to run trials under typical conditions on small to medium-sized nurseries. Based at Baginton Nurseries in Warwickshire, the actual trials are run there and at other appropriate sites, depending on the crops involved, by a range of contractors including ADAS and independent consultants and consortia.

“We want to involve growers more closely in the Centre’s work, and I’m looking to involve several grower champions who we’ll help to take up R&D results and then pass on their experiences to others,” he says. “It’s about making it practical and applicable.”

Mr Need has also been tasked by the BPOA to attract more input from small and medium nurseries into the technical committee’s work. “This autumn will see a series of local workshops for smaller growers, likely held on nurseries where we can talk about their own technical needs and their views on AHDB and how levy should be spent,” he says.