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Challenging the gardener stereotype of the nursery industry

Publication date: 2 March 2016

Grower profile – Ken Bevan, Alpine Nurseries, NSW

Growing up in Berowra Heights, a bushland suburb on the outskirts of Sydney, Ken Bevan’s best childhood memories were playing in the bush with his mates and his parents. This cultivated a love of the outdoors and nature.

During his junior high school years, Ken took a job with his neighbour, an engineer, which translated his love of the outdoors into the beginnings of a career. He then moved on to an apprenticeship and his career path took off.

Today, Ken is the Business Development Manager at Alpine Nurseries, one of Australia’s largest nurseries. The company sells to, and works on small to large projects, for local councils, developers, landscapers, schools, government, retail and other wholesale nurseries, as well as chain stores. Alpine Nurseries operates 52 hectares of productive space over five sites; Dural, Arcadia and Annangrove in Sydney, Alstonville in the Northern Rivers region of NSW and at Impact Grasses in Brisbane.

“The best part of my job is being a man of many hats and working on things that are outside the stereotype of the industry. We’re not just gardeners. There’s so much more to what we do.”

“I oversee the marketing and communications, social media, customer seminars. I’ve also overseen the evolution of proprietary software GrowScope which supports all facets of the business.   As part of our broader profit improvement program I’ve undertaken a cost benefit analysis for converting our facilities to solar power, which has seen Alstonville and Dural convert saving about 60 per cent in energy costs and reducing our carbon emissions” he said.

Alpine Nurseries is relatively large operation, which has the capacity to respond to tenders for significant public projects. The most recent is the Darling Harbour Live project where they obtained an exclusive supply agreement for all the trees in the area around the Darling Harbour precinct stretching from Haymarket down to the International Convention Centre on the waterfront. The project required large trees to be delivered, so they’re being grown to size at the Nursery prior to being transported and planted.

“We’ve put a lot into working out how to grow trees that are ready at a large size for projects – the custom mix needed to grow them and the potting process itself,” said Ken.

Ken believes that the nursery industry, over the longer term, has benefited from R&D and marketing programs.

“The project by UWS to evaluate the validity of the size index contained in the Australian Standard for Tree stock for landscape use is a current example.

Being accredited through the Nursery Production Farm Management System Program from NIASA [Nursery Industry Accreditation Scheme Australia] is a great benefit – we can market that we’re accredited annually to our customers, especially in terms of showing quality in tenders. The scheme brings a lot of research under one umbrella – irrigation, growing techniques, soils, etc., all packaged into industry best practice.”

“There’s lots of research around the benefits of plants, but that sat on a shelf. We in the industry know the benefits of our products but outside of the industry no one knew why we were doing this work. This is where The 202020 Vision comes into play. It’s moving in the right direction to help inform planning policies for future development and creates a dialogue with government and developers more generally. It’s also doing a great job of informing the public about what we do and why it’s important. And getting public buy-in. Public greenspaces are important and the community is getting on board with that.”

Ken sees attracting, retaining and training talented people as a major challenge for the industry.

“We need to develop the next generation of leaders and to do that we need to change the perception that it’s just a gardening job. We need to demonstrate the options in career pathways.

“When I left school 20 years ago, like most trade industries, you did an apprenticeship and went to TAFE weekly over 3 or 4 years. Those days are gone. We have responded by tailoring courses in house where the teacher comes to the students. We have put people through Cert 3, 4 and Diploma in Horticulture along with Diploma of Front Line Management and a number of other courses to develop core competencies. The next evolution of that is the virtual classroom, we need to look at how to utilise that technology. We need that across the industry. “

So what does Ken see for the future of the industry?

“Growing the pie would have to be on the top of the list. Growth will help maintain a sustainable prosperous industry and allow businesses to continue to innovate, invest in facilities and people.”

“I see access to Australia by Asian markets as a future challenge. At the moment the quarantine laws are protecting us. Their cost of production is much lower and their markets are broader so they can invest more in product development and be competitive.”

“Biosecurity is an issue too. There’s no real prominent threat for us but that can easily change. For example, the Myrtle Rust outbreak could have done a lot of damage to the industry in the longer term but it was prepared and reacted well. Our Impact Grasses site deals with quarantine regulations relating to Red Fire Ants, we’ve invested in treating products, particularly the growing media, for interstate movement,” says Ken.

“But we’re a strong industry and people in the industry are in it because they’re passionate about it. We love it. Growing that passion will help the industry thrive.”


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