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News > CAFRE students attend Horticulture Careers Fair


CAFRE students attend Horticulture Careers Fair

February 22, 2023

The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) recently hosted its 12th annual Horticulture Careers Fair at Greenmount Campus. The event was attended by horticulture students, along with local companies and organisations all seeking skilled new workers in horticulture.

Head of Horticulture at CAFRE, Paul Mooney, welcomed everyone to the event and introduced four speakers to the students.

Stephen Mackle, of Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, spoke about his love of horticulture from school age and how he’d used his studies at Greenmount to give him a foothold in the industry, moving from Cork to Kildare and on into Northern Ireland.  He described how his many achievements in local and national greenspace competitions have been driven by an attention to detail, and a passion to create a team ethos within the parks department at Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council. Stephen emphasised that he tried to develop staff within each team so that the parks leaders of tomorrow grow within the organisation. 

Stephen outlined his advice for the budding CAFRE horticulturists. These were to, “Step out of your comfort zone to try new challenges”, “not to fear making mistakes, but learn from them”, and to “dream big” about what can be achieved with hard work and passion.

Alex Lyttle of AJL Produce Ltd, a fresh vegetable grower from the Ards Peninsula, had studied for the Foundation Degree in Horticulture at Greenmount and after graduating travelled to New Zealand and Australia to work on large farms, including one of the largest onion producers in the world. This invaluable experience encouraged him to start specialist vegetable production on his return to the family business.  Alex outlined how the business has expanded to include innovative practices such as using heat from an anaerobic digester to heat crops growing in polytunnels and using specialist machines to harvest cabbage. Alex also spoke about how he and other young growers from all over the UK and Europe collaborated in developing training and development events as part of a Young Horticultural Growers Association. Alex’s advice to the students was to be innovative, make and value professional contacts, and to invest in technology to make a sustainable business.

Sarah Want from MorePeople Recruitment also addressed the students. Sarah works with the Young People in Horticulture Association to promote the industry as a rewarding and satisfying career for young people. This organisation was created to provide a network for horticulturists under the age of 35, facilitating collaboration, education and innovation among its 400 members. She reminded students that a CV (curriculum vitae) was “just to get you to interview”, and encouraged the students to make their applications “stand out from the rest” by researching  the business that they want to work for and even the staff who would be on the interview panel.

The final speaker for the morning was Mike Buffin AOH RHS who is currently the Head Gardener for Mount Stewart Garden, Co. Down. Mike gave an impressive resume of his education and career journey in horticulture. He outlined how he started off working in commercial production on a nursery and a subsequent opportunity to work at a National Trust gardens at Dyffryn in Wales really set him on his education journey. He moved and advanced through vocational qualifications at craft level, college qualifications at a local further education college and then a further three years to study at the world famous Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, all the time gaining confidence, qualifications along with Knowledge and experience.  Having moved into arboriculture, Mike found himself working in the Morris Arboretum at Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia USA. He came back to the UK to begin working as a horticultural technician for Hilliers Arboretum in Hampshire, before becoming the curator of these prestigious gardens much to his own surprise.

Mike’s horticultural career kept going from strength to strength. He became one of a handful of senior garden advisors to the National Trust, before being invited to become head gardener for Waddesdon Manor; one of the most visited properties in the Trust.  Mike fell in love with Mount Stewart on an earlier visit and leaped at the opportunity to become Head Gardener there in 2022. 

Mike Buffin was an inspirational speaker for the students at the CAFRE careers event, and he finished with words of wisdom for his audience, “plants are the easy bit”, and  “people management is the hardest bit” for head gardeners and horticultural managers.

After the formal presentations, the students moved to the jobs fair, where nearly 20 industry employers were exhibiting.  The exhibitors all had vacancies for trained staff, and were keen to meet the students; some of whom would become their next workers and managers.  The students engaged with the employers. perhaps pondering a point made by Paul Mooney earlier in the day, “today’s conversation could be tomorrow’s job”.