What a Long Strange Trip It's Been
This New Year more than most I've found myself reflecting on the way the world is turning. Like everyone, I suppose. We're through the dead time of the Winter Solstice, but yet to see the spring. The light here is flat and grey, and we're chilled by an odd northeasterly. Although we're pillowed in deep Somerset countryside and used to the quiet, like last lockdown it's eerily silent.
It's a good time to take stock.
We've Come a Long Way... or Maybe Not
When we set the business up in 2008 we had clear aims. I'd say in some ways the rest of the world has caught up with us - but in others we still need to work harder. We haven't changed much.
I think people are less surprised now to find companies like us walking the walk rather than just talking the talk when it comes to green issues. When we started off they were puzzled we weren't a charity or Community Interest Company. Now CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is - hoorah! - all the rage.
Some of the key messages we have been banging on about are now orthodoxy too - the extent of biodiversity loss and the importance of habitat restoration.
People also understand the importance of native plants in local ecosystems. Rather than things, it's plants we need. This is annoying for retailers in terms of their P&L - "things" are easy to ship and don't go wrong, and can command much higher margins. It's why the more commercially successful garden centres - online and actual - try to get us to buy so many of them.
Consumers are also becoming more picky about their origin and provenance - i.e. where they were grown but also where the seed they were grown from originated. Weirdly, this is a relatively new idea. When we started up and I was doing my research, a friend in the nursery trade told me our insistence on UK origin stock was completely bonkers. Now he advertises the fact his plants are (at least to some degree) UK grown.
It's weird because this seems so obvious - not just in terms of biosecurity, but also to preserve genetic variation and local ecosystems. Further, there's the joy of local distinctiveness in fruit tree varieties. This is weird squared, as it's a commercially attractive proposition to sell these too. Unsurprisingly, it's a movement which has gathered unstoppable momentum.
It's Hard to Do the Right Thing
The description of many plant and seed mixes is still misleading for well meaning consumers to make this choice, though. The majority of "native" plants sold here have originated in Europe, for example, and wildflower seed is either harvested abroard or - worse - consists of species only wild in places like the U.S.. Retailers can describe a plant as "UK grown" if it has been here for a minimum of... 6 months. The same is true for fruit trees. Brexit might sort some of this out (where DEFRA have failed), incidentally, as it's suddenly much more expensive to import plant material to the UK.
I do hope all this leads to a renaissance in the UK nurseries. As with the food industry, it's surely right that going forward growers become more price makers than takers, at the expense of retailers (like us!).
Many of the few remaining UK growers are small and short of systems. The quality of their plants can be excellent, but the quality of their delivery... not so much. Growing nurseries have made so little money over the years as consumers have demanded ever cheaper prices that they haven't been able to build any resilience or efficencies into their businesses. Counter-intuitively, several are consequently having a pretty ropey time at the moment, struggling with weight of demand and shortage of supply.
One of our main aims has been to promote good small UK growers and harvesters. They've needed help to give them a reasonable online presence. When we started trading some of our partners didn't have websites at all (come to think of it, some still don't!). Even now, the chances of stumbling across those that do using a search engine are slim. The internet has turned out to be - sadly - very undemocratic. Too many plant and seed consumers buy (rubbish) on Amazon.
Like most SMEs we just can't afford to employ someone to do our Search Engine Optimisation and Social Media stuff (I know I'm too grumpy to be any good on social media, but there's no-one else!). It's meant that a few large horticultural companies dominate the virtual marketplace, sometimes under different brand names. At least our online presence is ok and, I hope, benefits our partners.
What Difference Have We Made?
It's difficult to make an objective assessment of the impact we might have had over the years. On a bad day we can seem small and irrelevant, caught between idealists and the commercial mainstream. Idealists can be unreasonable and the commercial world deplorable. Everyone can be badly informed. I think my most depressing moments have been the abusive emails we - very occasionally - get from people who seem to think we're some kind of rip-off greenwashing commercial behemoth. I'd laugh if I didn't get so upset!
On a good day I think about the support and money we've donated to conservation NGOs over the years, as well as thinking about the millions of plants growing around the UK which have come from us. I've loved working with our suppliers to help make rare old fruit trees like perry pears and mazzards more available, for example. I hope we've also helped drive follow-up sales at our suppliers, and do a little educating through the website, blog and at shows etc.. I've tried to make sure everything we do has a good scientific rationale, and we've been quick on some key issues - neonics and peatfree come to mind - but probably slow on others, like glyphosates. We have more to do on plastic, too, when we can.
I'm unshakeable in my belief that we can all do our bit for biodiversity and that - like our response to COVID - individuals' actions have real consequences. And, like dealing with COVID, our actions are effective if they're well informed.
I'm afraid we'll grow old waiting for government to pull its finger out to help. The gulf between rhetoric and action on the natural enviornment has never been so apparent. The electorate is getting keener on environmental issues, but politicians have been slow to reflect that or educate themselves. Most recently they've been talking about tree planting as if it's a universal panacea - and in any case successive governments have been missing tree planting targets. As they're planting the wrong trees in the wrong places perhaps it's just as well.
New Year's Wish
What would my fondest wish for 2021 be? To see more good quality producers of wildflower seed here. If we did, then it would mean they were making more money than the tiny number of masochists who do it currently. If they were making more money, that would mean consumers understood the importance of buying good quality native meadow mixes rather than some of the stuff peddled online at the moment. Wildflower meadows - like country hedges - are staggeringly undervalued resources and deserve much, much more attention.
I'd also like to see many more growers of woodland bulbs and trees, and hedge plants too. Natural regen has been undervalued for many years and has a really important role to play. We do also need lots and lots more seed to sow and plants to plant. There's a practical as well as economic issue here too; most growers in the UK are - how can I put it - rather long in the tooth. It's time for the young to pick up the baton in this brave new world. The time is right.