In the US we visited Eckert's Farm, a direct-to-consumer operation which includes a garden centre, restaurant, pick your own and fresh produce sales. There are several similar enterprises in the UK.
Chris Eckert explained how they started out as a smaller farming operation and have adapted to meet the changing demographics, now catering for a greater number of ‘pupsters’ (two parents and a puppy) and recently adding a stage and frozen yoghurt stand for night-time concerts to capture more customers.
Importance of migrant labour
The horticultural operations are dependent on migrant labour from Mexico on 10-month visas under the H2A program. The workers from Mexico are all men with over 90% returning year on year. The worker scheme package is comprehensive, with accommodation and a premium wage over 20% more than the state average being provided.
The long-term sustainability of dependence on primarily Mexican labour is a concern, as the Mexican economy grows stronger and more US-based businesses (including Driscoll’s) move their operations into Mexico.
Automation and innovation
So, the need for automation, along with the maintenance of supply of crop protection products, are two issues shared with UK growers. Constant innovation and breeding to supply new, improved varieties of apples into the market is delivered through the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, funded entirely by growers and retaining the trademark rights for the intellectual property.
Plant science research
While in Illinois, we also visited the Danforth Plant Science Centre which has, in just 25 years, become a leading international centre for plant science research. Key to its success has been the range of philanthropic, commercial and venture capital funding, such as Monsanto (now Bayer), not relying on government grants, and a focus on generating spin-out enterprises.
A core driver for the level of support it receives is its location in St Louis, which places it at the centre of Midwest agriculture and horticulture, plus a mission to improve the economy of one America's less prosperous regions – a sort of corporate commitment to 'levelling-up'.
This partnership between private sector businessess was heartening to see, with BioSTL being a key part of this bioscience and agfood-tech innovation ecosystem in St Louis, channelling Danforth services into start-ups and scale-ups, providing venture capital support, a talent pipeline and facilitating global collaboration.
Shared challenges and opportunities
It was a hugely busy trip with lots of insights that we can take back to the horticulture sector. It is clear to see that we have shared challenges in terms of automation, access to labour and availability of plant protection products, but also shared opportunities in terms of investment into plant breeding and private sector partnerships.