Worried Carolyn Spray, director of Edinburgh's Pentland Plants
Worried Carolyn Spray, director of Edinburgh's Pentland Plants

Scotland’s horticultural firms on the brink

A major part of Scotland’s horticultural commercial grower industry could be destroyed following the UK coronavirus shutdown.

The Horticultural Trades Association say the sector is worth up to £50 million, which supports a total sector worth £1.2 billion, including family businesses up and down the country.

Peak season has only a matter of weeks left for the horticulture sector which has formed an essential part of Scottish and British life for over 350 years. It includes the ornamental crop sector, which grows bulbs, bedding plants, cut flowers, pot plants and stock mostly sold through garden centres, supermarkets, florists and DIY stores.

These businesses across Scotland produce ornamental crops, contributing up to £50 million in total to the country’s GDP annually and creating up to 700 jobs. Many of these form a vital lifeline for rural communities.

The perishability and seasonality of plants means that an estimated £200million of seasonal plants will have to be scrapped across the UK ornamental horticulture grower industry.

Since Mother’s Day weekend when demand is typically high but people were beginning to self-isolate, sales dwindled dramatically, while lockdown means that there is unlikely to be any sales through to the May bank holiday, the busiest trading period of the year.

Alan Titchmarsh MBE said: ‘This spring could well bring about the end of British horticulture as we know it. Hundreds of nursery owners and growers are facing huge losses of plants and revenue simply because the stock they have spent many months nurturing for the spring market – their peak season – will have to be destroyed since garden centres and other outlets are closed for business. Businesses will disappear overnight in a situation that will take many years to reverse.

Worried Carolyn Spray, director of Edinburgh’s Pentland Plants

‘I urge the government to put in place a rescue package which will enable British horticulture to survive. Without it, our gardens and open spaces – a vital source of solace and nutrition to those at home – will suffer irreparable damage.’

Speaking on behalf of the HTA, chairman James Barnes said: ‘We have hit a perfect storm in the UK. The seasonality and perishability that is unique to our industry means that growers are potentially facing stock losses on an ever-rising scale as each day passes. Stock is one of the biggest components of asset value in the sector – stock write offs will destroy the balance sheets of many and make it impossible for them to continue.

“We are calling for the government to work with the HTA as industry’s representative body to come up with a financial support scheme to help those businesses which have had to scrap perishable stock and are facing a huge financial crisis.’

Around 70% of bedding plant sales are made between March and the end of May. Many of these growers are facing huge difficulties and a near complete loss of income due to the coronavirus.

McLaren’s Nurseries, a third-generation family business established in 1973 in Barrhead, near Paisley, is faced with the impossible decision to pay off loyal staff members and cancel orders from suppliers, or risk losing the business altogether.

General manager Andrew McGowan said: ‘Despite the next three months being our key trading period for the whole year, we are anticipating a minimum 50% drop in annual turnover. We have already had to bin half of our bedding plant stock and been forced to pay off 19 members of staff. At this point we have just five employees attempting to keep on top of our 50-acre plot.

‘In the current situation we are seeking additional funding from the bank however, despite frequently courting our business in the past, we do not seem to be able to secure additional funding from them now.

‘The Scottish horticulture industry may seem small but is has a huge beneficial impact on local communities and is a major seasonal employer. We are very close to having to close the doors and assistance is needed urgently.’

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At the Reynard Nursery, in the Clyde Valley, Andrew Scott is one of only five major growers of bedding in Scotland and fears that the 6-acre business he built from scratch will be gone forever if urgent action isn’t taken.

Andrew said: ‘I anticipate worst case scenario – £400k for my nursery and probably the same for my sister’s nursery. This could wipe us all out.

‘The short-term effect of the virus has been to try every avenue and then find it closed, but it has brought a group of growers and retailers together with a common goal – survival. The long-term effects of the virus will see investment slashed, equipment not replaced and no future for new growers.’

Andrew, who came under the global spotlight with fellow growers after re-creating van Gogh’s Sunflowers using bedding plants in a field, prides his produce and is desperately seeking support such as rates holiday, layoff supplement and deferred VAT. He doesn’t believe a grant of around £50,000 will save his business.

He added: ‘Thirty years ago, I was involved with many of the same growers to highlight our industry. Thirty years on and another worldwide story – this time, I see all my years effort and work building up this business rapidly fall around me.’