Gamble and Grow – Barry Lupton Interviews John Murphy

John Murphy

John Murphy, Annaveigh Plants

Barry Lupton interviews one of Ireland’s best known and respected nursery owners, John Murphy of Annaveigh Plants.

B. What motivated you to pursue a career in horticulture?
I grew up in the 70s, was a bit of a hippie and developed a great interest in self sufficiency. I was growing vegetables in our garden in Dublin and it went on from that. Also, my father was big into gardening and was an avid gardener and it shows in that three of the four children ended up in horticulture or agriculture careers.

B. Looking back at your experiences, which ones stand out as being the most significant in terms of influencing the direction you took?
Meeting Grainne in UCD was probably the most significant. Being unable to support ourselves doing our Masters Degrees in Horticulture made us travel to work in German nurseries, where we learned our basic skills of budding and grafting trees. Paddy Gleeson put us in touch with Chris Byrne who was starting Coilog Nurseries. He gave us our first break in Ireland and free reign to show what we could do. Later, when working for SAP, I learned how to trade plants and discovered a wide range of producers throughout Europe, with whom I still trade.

B. What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
J. I find working with landscape contractors and architects who take quality seriously rewarding. Also, being able to see the finished product develop into maturity is great. Loading trees for export to some of the most quality conscious nurseries in Germany and the UK is very satisfying. Having these nurseries buy trees from Annaveigh is a credit to our staff as the nurseries in question only buy the best product possible to grow on into mature specimens. Another aspect of my work I particularly like is cutting the grass between the rows of trees. There is nothing like spending a weekend day driving the tractor and seeing the trees individually and watching their progress, or lack of!

B. Besides remuneration, what aspects of your job would you most like to change?
When you enter a career like this you are attracted to working with the trees, but as time has gone by my work has been with a computer and the phone. I would like to be working outside again.

B. What do you see as the primary strengths of Ireland’s amenity production sector?
J. We have plenty of land and wages are not that high compared to the rest of the production countries in Europe, so we should be able to build a good export market. The problems have always been the lack of investment in improved facilities and growers not wanting to take the gamble.

B. What were the key lessons you took from the impact of the economic crash on your business?
That our credit control was not tight enough. Nowadays we don’t sell unless we’re sure of payment. We’ve either weeded out the bad payers or they have disappeared with our money.

B. How do you think relevant government bodies could better represent the interests of your business?
J. Well as you know, recently we have been trying to get some compensation for the impact of ash dieback and we have met with a blank “NO” from the Minister of Horticulture. If it were farm livelihoods being threatened payment would have been forthcoming. Every other sector including the poultry growers has received some form of compensation over the past decade amounting to hundreds of millions – horticulture has had nothing and you should all remember this at the next election.

B. Following from that question, what do you think nurseries owners could be doing to better represent their interests?
J. We need to form a single body which represents the interests of nurseries, landscape contractors, landscape architects and garden centres. Until we do this our lobbying power will always be useless.

B. Issues relating to plant specification – poor or incorrect species choice, substitutions, wrong sizes and lack of oversight and checking – have been the subject of much debate. In your opinion, what role if any should nursery operators play in ensuring specifications are met?
J. It’s not our role to implement this; it’s the role of the landscape architect. The recent problems we have seen have been caused by a landscape architect only being employed up to the planning stage and leaving a situation where the building contractor has a free hand in what happens to the landscape. This is very prevalent in the schools building program, but even after much communication with the Department of Education by the ALCI and individuals, nothing has changed. It needs to be written into every contract that a competent landscape architect has to be retained to the end of the project.

“It beggars belief that a decision like this could be taken without talking to the people involved in the sector”

B. Horticultural education remains a fractious subject in Ireland. How do you think educational institutions could better engage with you to strengthen the sector?
J. For our sector we need an apprentice type system like that in Germany and Holland. Our students see little or no practical work and as an employer I need people with nursery training, not just book training. I feel that over the past 20 years the situation has got worse instead of better.

B. It has been said before that efforts to combat Chalara by restricting ash sale and production are a nonsense given the free movement of plants across Europe (which may act as hosts). How do you feel Chalara and other similar outbreaks could be more sustainably addressed?
J. If you read the literature about Chalara you will find the Department were ‘Monitoring the situation since 2008’. Why then did it take until the 12 October 2012 to bring in a ban? Once a perceived threat exists stop imports, or at least talk to the producers about the threat. The first we knew about it was a phone call banning ash sales on the above date. We could have stopped the importation of ash in 2008 and we would now have an indigenous ash production program in place.

B. Significant changes are being implemented under the umbrella of the RDP (Rural Development Programme) which are likely to have a big impact on Irish growers. Can you outline the potential impacts?
We have been lobbying hard to have hedgerow planting included in the new RDP and I hope we have made the authorities see sense. I was told in a recent meeting that we had enough hedgerows and it was left out on that basis. No consultation with the growers took place and if excluded this could send at least six producers to the wall. It beggars belief that a decision like this could be taken without talking to the people involved in the sector. I wonder why we pay to be in Bord Bia led quality schemes etc when we are totally ignored by the Department of Agriculture.

“The problem has always been the lack of investment in improved facilities and growers not wanting to take the gamble”

B. Following on from the previous questions, when is a native plant really native? For instance, is it legitimate to plant an imported Crataegus monogyna and call it a native?
J. There would be no need to import Crataegus if the planners took into account the production time involved. The new RDP scheme will start next year and if planting is included will start immediately, giving the Irish producers little time to react to an increase in demand. The same thing happened with the massive motorway building during the boom, with a little planning ALL plants could have been produced in Ireland.

B. There has been a lot of work done to develop an online plant portal to facilitate ease of Irish plant purchase, and to afford greater cooperation between growers. Are you in favour of such a portal and if it were realised, how do you think it might impact your business?
J. I am always in favour of anything that will promote the sale of Irish plants. As large traders of plants the main problems we encounter are the price, speed of quoting and delivery. Unfortunately the supply of the amenity sector is very price sensitive and we need to get the best deal as margins on trading are very tight. Even if a portal were to be set up, I would still look for quotes as the portal price would be set to high. It may work for the garden centre market as demonstrated by a number of the Dutch traders who specialise in this area.

B. The cooperative work undertaken in relation to Chalara and RDP illustrates that Irish nurseries have the ability to work closely together on shared interests. Are there any plans to build on this spirit of cooperation?
J. Some talks have taken place and more are planned once this planting season is finished, I would love to see something come of this as I am convinced this is the way forward for furthering Irish plant sales.

B. What do you feel are the key factors that will contribute to the success and/or failure of the Irish nursery sector over the next ten years?
J. The nursery industry is in a bad place at the moment given everything we have gone through with weather, economics and disease. We need to continue planting as already a lack of stock in the tree area is pushing up imports again. Obviously the housing market in Dublin will have a big effect and already we see a little activity in this sector but it needs to grow significantly. As I am always saying, proper control over landscape contracts would push out the cowboys and increase the quality demanded by the architects, and also see the proper landscape companies getting a larger slice of the work available. When I examine where the money comes from to pay for landscape work it boils down to 65% from the government and the remainder from the private sector. So the answer is simple: we need more government funded projects going forward. This was the major driving factor in the boom. I am not suggesting we go back to the early 2000s as that was not sustainable but we need to see a little loosening of the government purse strings over the coming years.

B. If you could wave a wand and change three things about Irish horticulture, what would they be and why?
J. 1. That what is demanded in the landscape specification is what actually ends up in the ground.
2. That landscaping on commercial developments be seen as an integral part of the project and not just as a necessary evil imposed by planning.
3. That the growers get a fair price for their product and we all stop undervaluing our skill and the beautiful items we all grow.

B. What plans do you have for Annaveigh Plants for the coming years?
J. To survive! But more seriously I would like to increase the production of 10-14cm trees for the export market. I feel we have a great opportunity in Ireland to have a real impact in this area as we can grow a very good product with fibrous roots that would be aimed at the production nurseries in Europe.

B. What advice would you give to a young student wishing to pursue a career in amenity production?
J. Travel, travel, travel and when doing that work in the dispatch operations of as many nurseries as possible as it’s there you will see the major selling items. Try and work for a Dutch trading company and see how they operate. One of the best pieces of advice we got and ignored was from the late Jim Kelleher. On our return from Germany he told us to grow large numbers of Potentilla, Spirea, Euonymus and Hypericum. If we had listened we would now be retired. Those opportunities still exist as we import thousands of basic plants each year and if we had Irish producers selling at the same price we would buy from them.