European Plant Raisers Visit

by Julia Hall-Jones

Last week we hosted a group of European plant raisers on a tour around various horticulture businesses on the south coast.

Our first visit was to Vitacress VHB. Their Runcton Nursery is an impressive 34 acre site dedicated to fresh herb production and packing. In total their nurseries produce over 14 million fresh potted herbs per year and their packhouse supplies over 23 million packs of fresh cut herbs per year, sourced from their own production and selected other British and overseas growers. They are also supported by a first class logistics network, meaning they can distribute their products 52 weeks of the year.

Next was Tinwood Estates vineyard for a spot of lunch and wine tasting. Situated in the heart of West Sussex at the foot of the South Downs National Park the 65 acre estate has established a reputation for producing the very finest English sparkling wines. The 48,000 vines came from France and were planted with laser guided machinery by a German company in just two days. The vines are planted North West to South East so the sun ripens one side in the morning and the other in the afternoon. All grapes are picked by hand. Their sparkling wine certainly went down well with our guests!

Tangmere Airfield Nursery was the next stop. Located on the former ‘Battle of Britain airfield the nursery specialises in growing sweet peppers and is one of Europe's largest pepper nurseries with 30 hectares (equivalent to 60 football pitches) of the most modern glasshouse facilities in the UK. All of their produce is graded and packed to the highest standards and they have invested heavily in a state-of-the-art Packhouse facility.

Back down the road to Hills we got to see a how ornamentals are produced. Hills produce on average 2 million indoor and outdoor ornamental flowering plants a year, with core lines including Mini Orchids, Begonias, Summer Patio Products and Poinsettias. Now on the 4th generation of Hills, Hill Brothers has an excellent understanding of the UK market and since the 1980’s have been supplying direct to the UK supermarkets. Our tour included a walk through their latest facility, a small production house using the latest ebb and flood floor designs with a new twin walled structure.

Friday morning started with a trip to Sainsbury’s distribution depot at Basingstoke. The depot employs nearly 1000 people and has the ability to supply up to 200 of the countries Sainsbury’s stores. Products are stored in three different sections of the warehouse; ambient, chilled and fresh produce. Teams of pickers are employed on a 24/7 shift rota basis. There is a fleet of 450 reach trucks which are used to pick the products. All trucks and workers watches are programmed to know where in the warehouse the products are, how many they need, how long it will take to pick them and which despatch lane they need to be dropped off at. The trucks are battery operated and so a charging station runs full time, as does a repair centre for any trucks that break down. It’s a highly impressive and efficient distribution centre with a dedicated team of staff ensuring that the products are despatched to stores on time.

Our last stop was Syngenta’s International Research Centre at Jealotts Hill. The site was founded in 1927 and employs nearly 800 scientists and staff who are continuing an 80 year tradition of innovation in agriculture. Many of the world’s most important crop protection products have been developed there. Key activities include research into discovery of new active ingredients, new formulation technologies to develop products from existing AIs and technical support of their product range. The site also houses a number of centres of excellence such as analytical science, protein science and bioscience that support their worldwide R&D activities. Jealott’s Hill is also the site of the biggest glasshouse research complex in Europe, a £8.5 million development covering 4,000 square metres!

A jam packed couple of days ensured that our guest left having had access to some of the largest and most modern horticulture businesses in the UK. May we thank everyone who kindly hosted us for what was an extremely enjoyable trip.