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Green fingers: starting a horticulture business

  1. Apples.
    Celia Woolfrey

    Celia Woolfrey UKBF Newcomer Free Member

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    Now is not a bad time to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Producers who can say their food and flowers are sustainably grown, and involve no airmiles and few road miles, are finding customers willing to pay a premium. 

    And horticultural businesses that can differentiate themselves from the crowd are doing well. They might be producing gourmet salads with edible flowers and the kinds of leaves and herbs that chefs love but supermarkets don't sell. Perhaps they’re growing seasonal flowers by the bucket-load for weddings. Or maybe they run a plant nursery that's plastic, peat and pesticide free.

    There are farm shops, community markets, farmers' markets and online veg box retailers such as Farmdrop, too.

    In short, there’s a whole variety of ways to sell that are small-business friendly.

    Rule number one, though, before you even put a seed in the ground, is to jettison the ‘keen gardener’ mindset. “If you're going to do it as a businesss, Do It as a Business,” says Janet Waters, who has been growing seasonal cut flowers at JW Blooms in Somerset for weddings, events or the kitchen table since 2011. Waters, who loves being outdoors but admits she finds spreadsheets boring, invested in one-to-one business coaching a few years back and saw her turnover increase by 60% as a result. “What worked for me was being made to do it,” she says.

    Georgie Newbery of Common Farm Flowers, who runs Career Change Workshops from her smalholding, also in Somerset, is equally emphatic about taking a hard-headed approach.

    “The first thing I would say to anybody thinking of turning their hobby into a business is to work back from your proposed income to give you an idea of how much business you need to do and what your prices need to be,” she says. 

    “Grow what you can sell at a premium. Don't compete with cheap imports,” is her tip.

    Market gardener Kate Collyns, who left a career in magazine publishing to set up Grown Green at Hartley Farm in Wiltshire in 2010, and is the author of Gardening for Profit, has a similar take. “Often, people like the idea of growing, but don't always think about where they will sell their produce. Identify demand first,” she says “because selling the veg is the only thing that's actually going to pay your wages.”

    Needless to say, you should write a business plan and base cashflow forecasts on data-driven projections, not hunches as to what might sell. You'll need to factor in start-up costs, infrastructure – sheds, polytunnels, water, electricity, access, machinery and so on – and the cost of renting or buying land. 

    The latter is often the biggest barrier to new entrants without a family farm to build upon. But incubator schemes such as FarmStart, which offers micro-plots and mentoring to new growers, and the Ecological Land Co-op, which rents or sells live-work smallholdings to more experienced landworkers, are there to give people a leg-up.

    Or you may find a sympathetic landlord, as both Waters and Collyns have done. Kate, for example, pays £500pa rent for 2.5 acres including polytunnels, which is “lower than average,” she says. Network hard, she advises, and join organisations such as the Organic Growers Alliance, to hear of similar openings.

    Hydroponic or aquaponic farms, which can be run from a basement, shipping container or even underground tunnels, are another option. Whatever your space, growing for a profit takes things to a new level, however experienced you are.

    “The hardest thing was getting the right growing conditions going,” says Lorna Cunningham of Flourish Perennials, who grows garden plants and trees from her Perthshire plot and sells at a weekly community market and a pop-up at a farm in the Angus Glens. “We got cuttings wrong until we started growing them in sand and installed an automated misting system,” she remembers.

    Having enough stock in flower each week through her April to October season also takes careful planning, as customers are loath to buy plants ‘in the green’. “In your own garden you don't really care if something fails but when you're doing plant sales you really have to crank it up,” she says.

    And although a few caterpillar holes in a plant don't bother you as an amateur, this won't cut it in retail. Collyns describes pest control as an “ongoing battle” for both organic and non-organic growers. 

    She recommends getting horticultural experience either by volunteering or working part time, and doing practical training before you start to get the know-how for dealing with this and other challenges.

    Although you're working with the variables of climate and nature, at least there’s relatively little red tape to deal with. You'll need to register your business with your local council and if you're on agricultural land there are rules that relate to selling direct to the public, so check with the planning department to see whether permission is required. If you sell from a trailer or stall you need street trading consent, but organised markets usually sort this for you. 

    Public liability insurance is standard, as if product liability for edibles, and if you take fruit or veg to market, you must follow quality and labelling rules, comply with trading standards and tell the council about any venue you use for storing, selling or distributing food.

    A lot of agricultural work is labour-intensive and so things get more complicated if you have to start employing staff. Picking is a major job, for example, and if people work regular set days for you, they have to come onto the payroll “which whacks up the costs,” says Waters.

    The physical work can be hard and the hours long, but the opportunities are exciting if you like the outdoor life. To make the best living, Waters advises: “Find your own niche. Don't try to be all things to all people. Target everything towards what you're good at.”