Horticultural consultants advise a wide range of commercial businesses and public sector organisations on aspects relating to the development and maintenance of their crops, parklands and other public spaces such as gardens.
As well as technical advice, the role may involve business consultancy on issues regarding the successful development of products and resources and on finding effective solutions to problems.
Clients may include:
- commercial growers specialising in protected growing and field crops, or flowers;
- plant and tree nurseries;
- leisure and conservation organisations or public bodies involved in the restoration, operation and maintenance of parks,
- botanical and public gardens and other public spaces.
A horticultural consultant may be a business specialist, experienced in the business problems of the horticultural industry, or a technical specialist, focusing on commercial or amenity horticulture.
There is an increasing emphasis on considering the environmental aspects of horticulture and technology transfer, such as sustainability, and on quality assurance in the growing of crops and plants.
Typical activities include:
- visiting horticultural clients on site, identifying their business or technical problems and investigating causes;
- analysing yields and the financial returns of existing commercial horticultural operations;
- preparing new or modified operational strategies and business plans;
- analysing horticultural and operational costs and the benefits resulting from existing or proposed public amenities and leisure locations;
- conducting environmental assessments and taking into consideration the environmental impact of any developments;
- visiting historical sites, researching old plans and documents, and planning restoration programmes;
- designing layouts and planning planting programmes for ornamental gardens or tree planting programmes with local authority officers;
- designing produce supply chain systems and supporting the infrastructure for processing, storage and transport;
- formulating solutions, planning and organising trials to assess their effectiveness;
- organising presentations, technical visits and demonstrations;
- helping clients meet the requirements of legislative regulations concerning quality, hygiene and employment;
- providing expert opinion for planning appeals and litigation;
- communicating with clients, colleagues and professional groups, through briefings, technical and operational reports and presentations;
- writing advisory leaflets, specifications and technical manuals;
- marketing the consultancy and carrying out essential administration, including records, budgets and accounts;
- keeping up to date in specialist areas and with developments in land-based sectors.
- Starting salaries in this profession are usually around £18,000 to £21,000. More experienced entrants may start on a higher salary depending on individual ability.
- Horticultural managers can earn from £22,000 to £45,000+.
- Range of typical salaries for independent consultants employed by agricultural and horticultural management consultancy firms after 10 to 15 years in the role is £35,000 to £65,000. Salaries may be higher for those who reach partnership level.
- Consultants working independently, running their own businesses, may initially appear to earn higher salaries, but, after the deduction of administrative and operational expenses, a take-home salary of £30,000 to £40,000 is probably more realistic as only the hours worked directly on behalf of the client generate income.
Much horticultural consultancy is project-based, with fees calculated according to time spent. Usually either a daily rate or an agreed fee is negotiated for advice given and reports produced within a time frame. However, agronomists or crop specialists may charge per hectare or acre of land.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours vary with client demand and may be long and unsocial. Part-time work and career breaks are possible once a strong client base has been established.
What to expect
- Workloads may vary according to the season.
- This is currently a male-dominated profession although the balance is starting to change.
- Many consultants are self-employed. Considerable experience is required to set up a consultancy business, so opportunities for self-employment tend to occur later in a career.
- Horticultural consultancy is a demanding job requiring dedication and mobility. Many consultants work from home and report to an office, which is usually based in an urban centre. Home is the office for most independent consultants.
- Travel within a working day is common; up to 75% of working time may be spent out of the office, travelling and on site.
- It is probable that horticultural consultants will often be exposed to the extremes of the season - wind, rain, sun, etc.
The main areas of horticultural consultancy are:
- business consultancy;
- technical consultancy in commercial horticulture, e.g. offering specialist advice on crop management;
- technical consultancy in amenity horticulture, e.g. offering suggestions for the maintenance of public parks;
- sports turf consultancy;
- landscaping and interior landscaping.
It is common for a horticultural consultant to specialise in one of these areas.
The following degree and HND subjects are considered the most relevant for this career:
- agricultural engineering;
- crop and plant science;
- soil science;
- environmental science.
For business consultancy, in addition to those subjects listed above, any business degree with a strong horticultural or agricultural background is acceptable. For technical consultancy, a directly relevant MSc or PhD is advantageous.
An HND in agricultural and horticultural sciences plus substantial work experience will be acceptable for some posts.
Entry into consultancy without significant practical experience of the horticultural industry is difficult, so opportunities for new graduates are less common. In many cases, at least ten years' practical experience is needed. Many people enter this career area after developing their own business as a grower or acquiring much needed technical expertise in industry or research.
Occasionally, however, agricultural or horticultural consultancies may advertise posts open to graduates without direct relevant experience; these are usually at technical assistant or assistant consultant level.
In addition, colleges and university schools of agriculture and horticulture that also offer advisory services sometimes employ postgraduate students as assistants on client-based projects.
Some group training programmes exist, such as the Management Development Services (MDS) scheme, which recruits and trains new graduates on behalf of a consortium of employers in the fresh food and produce sector.
The consortium includes growers, suppliers and retailers and offers a two or three year fast-track programme of management training, leading to a Postgraduate Certificate in Food and Fresh Produce Management.
You will need:
- excellent communication skills, selling ability, initiative and tact;
- a high level of competence in project management, to meet agreed deadlines and operate within agreed budgets;
- business awareness and a practical approach to problem-solving;
- an awareness of the problems encountered in commercial horticulture and/or the leisure and amenity industry;
- knowledge of practical solutions to environmental and conservation issues;
- an interest in, and awareness of, the environmental and sustainability agenda and its implications.
A full driving licence is essential and new entrants should be prepared to work anywhere in the UK.
Horticulture work is available overseas, though it is generally competitive so it is helpful to have language skills, where relevant, and a professional qualification.
Post-qualification experience will increase your chances of finding employment, especially with specialist posts with foreign governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), development agencies and consultancies.
Try to obtain a work experience placement or vacation work within the industry. Do not underestimate the value of short-term contracts as these may provide a way of gaining a good range of relevant experience.
Horticulture offers a diverse range of employment opportunities and job satisfaction and staff retention levels are high. Although there have been cutbacks due to the economic difficulties of the past few years, a good number of employment opportunities continue to arise around the UK and abroad.
The likelihood of finding employment will be greatly enhanced by geographical mobility.
Typical employers include:
- local authorities (county, metropolitan borough and district councils);
- national park authorities;
- environmental and conservation bodies;
- farming and horticultural co-operatives;
- food companies processing packaging and distributing fresh and processed fruit and vegetables;
- commercial companies supplying products, equipment and services to the industry.
Significant numbers of horticultural consultants are self-employed. The membership directories of relevant institutes and associations may be useful for establishing contacts and finding freelance work.
The following each have several hundred members:
- The British Institute of Agricultural Consultants (BIAC) Directory Search
- Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC) Find Members
Look for job vacancies at:
- DEFRA Recruitment
- English Heritage Jobs
- Farmers Weekly
- The Highways Agency (HA)
- Horticulture Week
- National Parks
- National Trust Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs - mainly research-based posts.
- Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) - also has information about voluntary internships.
- Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) - associated agency of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
- The Wildlife Trusts
- National and local press.
Most consultancies only have a small number of vacancies each year. Many do not recruit on a regular basis and vacancies are advertised as they arise, if at all.
Speculative contact with consultancies can be useful as many posts are filled by informal networking.
Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.
The training offered by agricultural and horticultural consultancies involves a mixture of short courses and project work, supervised by a senior and more experienced colleague. The structure and duration of any training programme will depend upon the size of the consultancy and the pressures of business.
Graduates aiming to become technical consultants should look for employers who will provide the training necessary to obtain Basis (Registration) Ltd qualifications or equivalent.
BASIS is an independent organisation set up by the agricultural and horticultural industries to provide training and maintain professional standards in areas including plant nutrition, pesticides and fertilisers.
It publishes a register of practitioners qualified to give professional advice in these subject areas. The organisation offers a range of courses, from one-to-two day short courses to intensive long-term ones, such as the BASIS Certificate in Crop Protection.
To be included on the register, members must demonstrate that they keep their technical knowledge up to date through a range of recognised and assessed training activities.
If you are an independent consultant, it will be your own responsibility to keep up to date both in your specialist area and in the horticultural sector overall. This is done mainly through personal contacts, short courses and attendance at conferences and will be at your own expense.
A range of training and networking opportunities are offered by the key professional bodies, such as the:
On first joining a consultancy, graduates tend to work in a general role and it is only later, with some experience, they will specialise.
In commercial consultancies, progress is from junior consultant via senior consultant to team leader, with a possible invitation to become a partner or director.
In manufacturing-based consultancies and the public sector, promotion from team leader will be to manager, either within the consultancy itself or in other areas of activity within the business or local authority.
Promotion for horticultural consultants and advisers, as in any form of consultancy, is based on performance and, in commercial consultancies, revenue earned. The career pathway followed will depend on the size and structure of the employing organisation and may require you to relocate.
You may combine consultancy work with running your own commercial growing business or teaching or conducting research in a university.
For independent consultants there is no set career structure, although setting up your own business may be the ultimate aim in a horticultural career. Career structure and pathways will depend upon a number of factors including successful networking, luck, dedication and hard work.