‘Sustainability increased capital costs in the short-term but reduced running costs over a longer period’

Allensmore Nurseries reigned supreme at AIPH International Grower of the Year 2023 at IPM Essen, winning gold for Sustainability. FCI caught up with the company’s business development manager Geoff Caesar to discuss the challenges and opportunities that come with running an ornamental horticultural business in the UK.

Allensmore Nurseries is a family-owned grower, supplier and trader of pot bedding and a range of perennials, shrubs, climbers and Italian specimen plants to supermarkets, DIY/Box stores, garden centre chains, and independent garden centres in the UK. With over 50 years of trading experience, the business operates on 140 acres of land. It has built a reputation for exceptional product and service quality across a broad product range supplied to a diverse customer base.

The company is aligned with the four pillars of business growth (Branding. Innovating. Disruption. Success.) but with its mission: Environment, People, Community, and Customers. Sustainable production is at the heart of everything the business undertakes. Reducing the negative environmental impact and increasing the positive impact and support for the local community is fundamental to how they operate.

Geoff Caesar, Business Development Manager at Allensmore Nurseries, UK. Winners of the Sustainability Award at AIPH International Grower of the Year 2023.

FloraCulture International: You won the Sustainability Award at the AIPH International Grower of the Year 2023; what does this mean for you personally and the Allensmore team?

Geoff Caesar: “Our product is green by its very nature, and we believe we owe it to ourselves, our staff, and our customers to produce our plants in the most sustainable way possible. Winning the sustainability award is recognition for all our team for their incredible effort to achieve this.”

What ignited the spark to enter the AIPH IGOTY Awards – and would you recommend others to go through the gruelling jury process?

“We were delighted to win the UK Horticultural Trades Associations award for finished plants, and it was suggested that we may like to apply for the AIPH IGOTY Award, which we have always regarded as the most prestigious award in the industry. Completing the application process does have its demands. Still, it is an opportunity to put into writing all the work the team achieves in growing, selling, and delivering our plants to our customers.”

What do you feel is the biggest strength of Allensmore?

“I keep mentioning the team, but it really is our people who are adaptable, enjoy striving for excellence, want to see the business continue to grow, and always keep customers in mind.”

Winning the AIPH IGOTY Sustainability Award is recognition for the entire team for their incredible effort to achieve this.

I am keen to know more about the decision Allensmore made to improve its environmental performance. Why and when did it begin, and how easy was it to influence the staff, customers, suppliers, and contractors on this journey?

“As an industry, I think ornamental horticulture is relatively environmentally aware. We grow a green, living product that benefits the environment, so it comes naturally to aim to produce it sustainably. When the business began development of our Madley nursery in 2012, it made sense to look at sub-irrigation and water recycling and using electric vehicles for on-site transport. Our team embraced this approach, and introducing new ways of working became our way of working.”

Your Environmental Statement shows your mission is to ‘provide high-quality plants which cause minimum negative effect on our environment’. Tell us about your journey to create your integrated Farm Management Policy – and what were the challenges in reducing all the harmful activities?

“Reducing our environmental impact is an ongoing process; we approach the challenge from both the perspective of we have this impact and what can we do to reduce it but also from the perspective of this technology exists and how can we make use of it. For example, we learnt about biofilters, a very low-cost and effective tool for cleaning the water used for washing out spray tanks. We have built one on one of our sites and are now introducing them on all our sites.

We had not identified tank washings as a particular problem; we were spraying them over the crop, but this was time-consuming and, from a crop perspective, not always the ideal solution. Plastic pots are a big challenge, we have introduced a pot that is easy for our local authorities to recycle, but we would like to find an alternate solution to plastic use. We are working with several companies to trial potential solutions.”

Your Peat Reduction Policy states that Allensmore has been working for more than 30 years on eliminating its use. Can you let us know about the challenges involved and the positive results you are experiencing?

“Peat alternatives have been on the market for many years, but consistency, availability and affordability have always been the challenge, and to some extent, these are still challenging, particularly as demand will increase. As growers, we need to learn to work with these products. They don’t drain or retain moisture or nutrients in quite the same way as peat, and sometimes our growing practices need to be adapted to use them. We are sub-irrigating, which helps, and perennial crops are perhaps more suitable for peat-free production as they do not naturally grow in peat. We grow small peat-free batches alongside our reduced peat commercial crop, then monitor and evaluate their performance. We aim for our production to be peat free in 2026, but if this year’s trials are positive, we would like to achieve this earlier. We are also working with other growers like the Royal Horticultural Society, the Horticultural Trades Association, and our growing media suppliers to help with technical and supply challenges.”

Laying out the groundwork for a new cultivation floor.

Is it true you send zero waste to landfill? Tell us more about how you achieved this – and what are you doing with the things you can’t recycle?

“We work with a very proactive local recycling company, suppliers, and farmers. We sometimes have to store materials to make recycling effective, and it does add cost at times, but it helps us achieve our aims.”

What tools or certifications does Allensmore use in its sustainability approach?

“Our changes have not been driven by using tools, initiatives or third parties, nor were customers making demands ten years ago. That is, however, changing, and customers are now increasing their expectations and requiring that we use third-party organisations. We hope this proves to be a positive change and results in positive, further change for Allensmore and others in our industry.”

Has being focused on sustainability undermined or improved the financial results of Allensmore?

“It has increased capital costs in the short term but reduced running costs in the long term. For example, sub-irrigated beds cost more than conventional beds to build, but they result in less water being used and overall watering being more, even reducing waste. Payback periods can vary, and at times they can be long.”

In what way does politics or global events influence the business, for example, with supplies of your Italian specimen plants and Mediterranean Plants?

“No one in business wants an increase in costs or administrative burden. At an international or national level, one small business like Allensmore is unlikely to be able to find solutions or perhaps even see what is coming down the road, so we work with our trade bodies to help in these areas. Most governments want to see business flourish, but they don’t always understand the impact of policies or decisions, so working with our trade bodies helps us communicate with the government.”

How have you managed seasonal labour since Brexit?

“Our returning seasonal staff applied for ‘Settled Status’, and we are making use of the ‘Seasonal Workers’ Scheme’ that enables us to bring staff in for six months per year. We have good quality accommodation on our sites and pay reasonable rates. There are increased levels of administration, but we are finding good quality staff.”

Aerial view of Allensmore Nurseries, UK,

What is your view of today’s global ornamental horticulture trade compared to when you began?

“Allensmore has been in business for just over 50 years, and as you would expect, things have changed over the years, be it greater globalisation or indeed, at times, reduced global trade which perhaps is the result of Brexit in the UK. However, sales of ornamental plants have flourished, helped by growers and retailers focusing on impulse sales, making selection easier for consumers, and using the improved breeding in ornamental plants.”

Tell me about your background in horticulture. When did you start at Allensmore, and what was the path you took to get to where you are today?

“I have worked in the industry since leaving school at 16, mostly in the hardy plant sector, but also a stint in young plants for the protected (bedding) plant sector. We are lucky to have such a diverse and fascinating industry and dedicated and committed people working in the industry. I have only been with Allensmore for just over a year, but I knew many of the management team before I started, and they are a great team to be working with.”

Aside from winning AIPH IGOTY23, what for you has been the most satisfying moment in your organisation’s history?

“I am sure there have been many satisfying moments for Allensmore over the years, but as I have only been with the business for a year, I would say that starting our current cohort of five apprentices is the most thing I have been involved with. These guys are the future for Allensmore and the industry.”

This article was first published in the July 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.

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