Two weeks, four countries, dozens of high-profile nurseries and some of Europe’s horticultural highlights have all provided a life-changing experience for Tom Ferguson.
The 24 year-old Nursery Production Manager at Headford Propagators in South Canterbury has just returned home from a dream tour organised by the International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS).
“A lot of industry leaders from around the world were on the tour with me,” Tom explains. “We visited a lot of liner nurseries (growing small plants) as well as big tree nurseries where multi-millionaires shop. There were huge specimen trees that sell for €35,000.
“One highlight was a nursery in Germany that had a contract with the city of Paris. If any street tree in Paris is damaged, they can replace it straight away. The scale of it, and their attention to detail, was amazing and very different to anything you see here in New Zealand.”
In addition to the tour through England, Belgium and the Netherlands, Tom also visited the Bayer headquarters in Germany to see where their range of agrichemicals are produced. This leg of his trip was a prize for Tom having won the Sustainability Award at the Young Horticulturalist of the Year back in 2015. He placed second in the overall competition, having previously won the Nursery Garden Industry New Zealand (NGINZ) Young Achiever Award.
Tom says he’s glad he saved extra money to extend his trip through Europe and join the IPPS tour. And being able to see the different techniques and approaches taken overseas has inspired him to try new things upon returning home to Headford Propagators.
“One of the key things I’ve been pushing since I got back is biological controls. I want to move towards a more organic approach, installing more sticky traps to monitor insects and releasing predatory mites that will attack insects that cause damage to our crops.
“In Europe, because of the EU regulations, they’re a lot stricter with chemicals than we are here in New Zealand so biological controls are very common place.”
Since winning the nursery industry’s Young Achiever Award two years ago, Tom has changed employers and moved into a managerial role. He’s now in charge of 13 staff who collectively grow over 1 million plants a year to on-sell to nurseries, landscapers and the re-vegetation industry.
“We grow up to 500 different species. About 60% of those are grown from seed, and 40% grow from cuttings. The most rewarding part is seeing your crops go out the door looking good, seeing your seeds germinate and your cuttings take root.”
Tom says many nursery owners and employees are nearing retirement and there’s huge opportunity for skilled young workers to forge a successful career.
“The nursery production industry is definitely looking to the next generation to take over but education is key. There’s a misconception that horticulture isn’t skilled but the nursery sector relies on skilled workers. Knowing how to propagate hundreds of different species and grow a healthy crop requires a huge amount of knowledge. It takes years of training and experience to get good at it.”
Primary ITO provides on-the-job training and qualifications up to Level 4 in Nursery Production, and Tom says all nursery employees should be looking to upskill themselves wherever possible.
“It’s a career more young people should definitely consider. You can’t beat the lifestyle, working outside with plants,” he says. “It’s a lucrative industry too if you get into the right parts.”
Tom has packed away his suitcase for now and is focussing on improving operations at Headford Propagators as much as possible. “I really want to put my mark on this nursery and I’m enjoying the challenge ahead.”