Tell us about your role with British Sugar TOPSOIL
I’ve been with British Sugar for 32 years to the day! For the last 25 years, I have been National TOPSOIL Manager and I’m responsible for the recycling of the soil which comes in with the sugar beet. Between 250,000-350,000 tonnes of prime arable topsoil is recycled into a soil product for sale to a range of users. I mange the budgets for the processing and recycling of the soil, and I manage the sale of the end product and the sales team of five who work with me.
What do you enjoy most about the role?
I’m the only person at British Sugar with this role and I can be quite inventive, try new things and I’m left to my own devices: it is like running my own business! I enjoy the challenge of managing a team too.
Is there anything you are working on at the moment that would be of interest to the PlantNetwork podcast audience?
I’ve just started some work with the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) as there is an opportunity for us and the industries we are selling to to think more about the environment. A lot of the materials put on sports turf are high in sand but sand is inert and doesn’t hold onto nutrients andwater so this often leads to addition of lots of fertiliser and irrigation requirements. But if you add materials with higher silt/clay content, they hold onto nutrients and moisture much better. So STRI are working with us on a replicated pot trial to look at the influence of adding soil to sand and what savings can be made with [fertiliser and water] inputs. The environmental sustainability approach is very much of interest to me and the British Sugar parent company.
How did you get to be National TOPSOIL Manager?
I was brought up in North Yorkshire, in Long Drax (next to what is now the biggest power station in Europe!), and all my family were farmers so I was used to working on farms and with soils from a very young age. The importance of soils were ingrained in me from an early age. My family were also very keen gardeners, especially vegetable growing, and I’ve continued with this with my two allotments as well as my garden. It demonstrates the importance of soil as the foundation for growing. When I left school, I went to agricultural college and then worked on farms: driving tractors, planting potatoes and harvesting sugar beets. Then I was lucky to get a job at British Sugar as an agronomist – I pestered them for a job! I would advise farmers on how to improve their yields and sugar beet quality. I also did R&D work on field trials (including reducing the amount of soil that comes in to the processing plant on beet), including working on trials in Poland for a couple of years. I was very practical so specialised in seed bed preparation – which is where soil was vitally important. When I came back to the UK, the business was looking to minimise waste streams so asked me to look at ways of recycling the soil waste and turning it into a product.
Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of a career in a land-based sector?
Grab every opportunity given to you – don’t dismiss anything but think things through. You never know what will come from them. I almost turned down the opportunity to go to Poland but it has proved good for my career. Similarly for the role at British Sugar TOPSOIL – I was a farmer and agronomist so doubted what I could contribute but it has opened my eyes to a range of industries I didn’t know much about.
What has been your inspiration?
My family – especially my parents as they always encouraged me to push the boundaries and try things. Once in British Sugar, I could see the opportunities there and I’ve worked with a number of people over the years who have inspired and helped me. Once I got the TOPSOIL role, I’ve not wanted to move on from that – I just wanted to develop it.
What garden/s do you recommend to visit?
The one garden I think is fantastic is RHS Garden Hyde Hall. I’ve worked with the guys there and supplied them with topsoil for a number of years – they are a fantastic team and have infectious enthusiasm. I think my wife dreads me going there as I come back with loads of ideas!
What three plants or horticulturally-related products would you take to a deserted island (your “Desert Island Plants”)?
I’d take a spade – you can’t garden very well without a spade. I love broad beans and I’d be happy to eat these every day. Lavender is a lovely smelling plant, good for the bees and brings back lots of memories of family and places I’ve lived.
Is there anything about you that might surprise people?
What has dominated most of my life is rugby union – I played it for as long as I could and it dominated my late teens and early twenties. I made some great friends and still have an interest in rugby as I’m a volunteer groundsman for the RFU in the eastern counties. It keeps me busy! This role, together with TOPSOIL, has let me visit places like Twickenham and other sports grounds. I didn’t know about groundsmanship before starting this role and now I have a passion for it. I won volunteer groundsman of the year in 2012. The smell of freshly cut grass and the stripes …. The management of the soil is so important for the pitch but also for the game and team performance.
Is there anything you are working on at the moment – any new products?
We’re not looking to develop any new products at the moment. We brought out a range of products two years ago and we’ve looked at how we sell these products – sizes and packaging – but I’m conscious I only have a small team so we’re focusing on growing sales in the products we have and providing good customer service.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve thought about retirement but I’m not ready. The business is a cost to British Sugar so I’m aiming to make it into a profit centre – I’m getting close. I want to do more with the groundsman work – I’ve been on the board of the Grounds Management Association since last year and really enjoying it. I love coaching my team and helping them to develop into first class TOPSOIL people.
Find out more about British Sugar TOPSOIL and PlantNetwork:
We are pleased that British Sugar TOPSOIL are continuing their support of PlantNetwork. British Sugar TOPSOIL are the largest UK manufacturer and supplier of environmentally sustainable topsoil and topdressing products to the landscaping, construction and sports turf/amenity sectors, supplying over 250,000 tonnes annually.
With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea