Round Table - The state of the turfcare industry

Peter Brittonin Industry News

So, how is it out there? Are you getting the quality of staff coming through, is current training doing its job and are the associations representing the industry? These questions, and many more, we put to leading turfcare professionals across all sectors. Their answers make for very interesting reading

First, let's introduce the participants. Adam King is Head of Grounds and Gardens at Radley College in Oxfordshire. It is an independent boarding school of 690 boys, set in a rural location within a beautiful 800-acre campus, comprising a multi-sports site that includes, fourteen rugby pitches, twelve football pitches, three hockey astros, ten cricket squares and a nine-hole golf course.

Next up is Andy Mackay, Head Groundsman at Sussex County Cricket Club who looks after the 1st Central county ground - and its impressive slope - in Hove, along with the academy and outgrounds.

Andy Gray, Grounds Manager at Premier League Southampton Football Club has overall responsibility of the St Mary's stadium pitch, along with the club's extensive facilities at their Staplewood training ground.

Minchinhampton Golf Club is where our next contributor plies his trade. Golf Courses Manager Paul Worster looks after three courses; The Avening and The Cherington, situated near the village of Avening, and The Old Course set upon Minchinhampton Common. The Avening frequently hosts National Championships and County and Regional Events, and The Cherington course hosted the Open Championship Regional Qualifying between 2002 and 2007. Paul was BIGGA Chairman as recently as 2010 and is a current FEGGA board member.

And, last but not least, we have James Mead, Head Groundsman at the world famous Rugby School. The school grounds and vast sporting facilities total 250 acres and host students and professional teams from the local area.

The purpose of this first article in a series is to gauge the state of the industry at the highest level. So, without further ado, lets make a start.

What has been the biggest technological advancement in the past ten years?

"Where to start?" begins Adam King. "Too many to pick just one, but certainly all the modern machinery, surface planing, linear aeration equipment and, now plant health products are getting better and better, there's a lot of good things in the locker to make life easier."

"I would say the pitch grow lights," says Andy Gray. "They have been around properly now for about ten years and I believe they are still the single most advanced tool to take your pitch to the next level. Especially with advancements in the last couple of years within them."

Andy Mackay agrees. "The lighting technology that is widely used in football. Unfortunately this has not made it into cricket yet, at least in any serious way. The SeeGrow tunnels look particularly excellent and it is not difficult to imagine a covering system whereby 'perfect' pitch preparation conditions were artificially created inside. The tunnel could be positioned over the pitch and left there for however long it took, whilst mowing and rolling continued inside of it (my guess would be five to seven days). The same tunnel could then be set up to renovate the pitch. This would be a game changer but, unfortunately, few clubs have the money to buy the kit ... if I did, then I would, but I don't!"

"The other technological advancement that has really been picked up in a big way is the Koro Fieldtopmaker. This is something that all major clubs should own, but again the cost seems to be deterring people. I think we will one day see all major cricket clubs fraise mowing at the end of each season."

James Mead picks up on machinery. "And you can add the Verti-Drain, the Toro ProCore, the new ATT INFiNiSystem™ and TMSystem™ cassettes and the improvements in stadium mowers in general. They've all helped to make our lives easier."

"For me," says Paul Worster, "it's the accurate and objective monitoring and measuring of conditions which allow reasoned and economic maintenance and response. In short, it is possible to measure and understand levels of organic material, moisture, greens smoothness, speed and quality. This enables us to quantify and justify the effect (and value for money) that the various processes provide, both on and under the playing surfaces."

Has education advanced with the technology?

"Most certainly," continues Paul. "Education is there for anyone who wishes to look for and engage in it, regardless of age, creed or sex. In fact, there is no excuse for not being fully trained in this modern day."

James concurs: "There's been a steady increase in training courses to complement most of what is required to be successful in our industry, from online through to college and day release."

"Formal education is becoming ever more desirable for those wanting a top job," says Andy Mackay. "Quite rightly too in my opinion. There are some excellent courses on offer and, since Myerscough started offering their online courses, a top level education has become even more accessible. What we need to do, as an industry, is to be able to drive the content of these courses, which are still obviously golf-orientated. There are some excellent individuals teaching/lecturing, but the colleges will only respond to the market and what we ask for."

Adam is not so sure. "Yes, and no. I think all the machinery manufacturers do a good job of keeping us educated but, as far as plant and soil science go, I still think we are some way behind our American cousins; but we are learning more than ever."

But does a college education provide you with the skill sets you require in your staff or do you prefer 'hands-on' training?

"I'm a believer in learning in and on the job," states Andy Gray. "If you have someone to learn from, then great. But, if not, sometimes it is just as good to teach yourself and learn from your own mistakes as you go. I don't believe you can be taught in a classroom what you can learn out on the field. Especially when each and every pitch is different from one to the next."

"I believe the hands on approach is far superior. I understand that college and courses are still vitally important for a qualification for your CV. A prospective employer has to start somewhere when recruiting, and this usually starts with a CV and qualifications."

Adam shares this view. "A big part of the college issue now is that, with all the online training courses, students no longer have time to share their issues at college, thereby missing out on interaction with others so, although the technical work is good, there are important things missing. This makes the workplace much more important, not only hands on work but learning from experienced colleagues."

Paul's opinion differs. "College education has improved tremendously in recent years. Underpinning knowledge is made available whilst new practical skills are taught and existing skills verified. Anyone completing the Level 2 Diploma in Greenkeeping can regard him or herself as a fully competent greenkeeper. This is of huge importance to the employer as well as to the employee, in terms of safety, effficiency and value. Further to this, many of these skills and competencies copy over into allied or other industries. This is of national importance in ensuring a competent labour-force."

James believes there should be a mix of hands-on and college, and Andy Mackay agrees. "Whatever we have as an acceptable standard of education must not replace or stifle the sort of talent that we have in individuals who may not be particularly academic or who have simply come into the industry through other routes. The best example of this in my particular sector would be someone like Mick Hunt at Lord's. Does he have a formal education? No. Is he qualified? I can't think of anyone more qualified!"

"Whatever we have as an acceptable standard of education must not replace or stifle the sort of talent that we have in individuals who may not be particularly academic or who have simply come into the industry through other routes"

"Whatever level of formal qualification someone has, or wherever they might have worked previously, you will always want them doing things your way, but hopefully they will bring something of their own to the table. The most useful member of staff to me is the person who can confidently question and challenge what I am doing/suggesting, have his/her own suggestions, can have a healthy debate ... then buttons their lip and do it my way! But the debate has been had and, one day, they will have their own ground and will do it their way. I've never wanted to turn out groundsmen who just do things the way I do them, what would be the point of that?"

Is the apprenticeship scheme one you have embraced and how is it working for you?

"Yes, we do have an apprentice on our books," confirms Paul. "The Diploma qualification is paid for by Government funding and we are able to claim other expenses. We would also be able to claim a level of wages if we were to prove that, without a wage-subsidy, the position would not be affordable for us."

"Absolutely!" states Andy Mackay. "We started taking apprenticeships in 2009 and it has been a breath of fresh air. Not only has it effectively allowed us to increase our numbers due to the low costs, but it has given me confidence in succession planning, saves on recruitment costs and limits recruitment failures. It has proved to be refreshing and helps us keep a sense of vitality about our operations."

"To date, we have had twelve groundsmen graduate from this process and move on to full time, permanent jobs, with three more currently in the pipeline. In this time, we have had very smooth transitions when natural staff losses have occurred - even mid-season - and some of our original apprentices are now senior groundsmen within our ranks and are in charge of their own ground."

"Others have left for different sports - deputy head groundsman at a football training ground, championship golf course, the Ageas Bowl, the Oval and Brighton College. No matter where they end up, it is great to know that we are helping to create a pool of talent for the future on which we can call should we need to in the future. So long as we are creating meaningful apprenticeships, then it's a win-win."

"We have had a mixed success rate with them, I must say. Overall though, I like the idea and process which is why we continue to do it. It was how I started and I feel it is important to give the opportunity I had to other young people today."

Over the last four years, Andy Gray has taken on five apprentices. "We have had a mixed success rate with them, I must say. Overall though, I like the idea and process which is why we continue to do it. It was how I started and I feel it is important to give the opportunity I had to other young people today."

Adam says that Radley College has embraced the system and took on two apprentices, both of whom, he is pleased to say, are now part of the team.

Meanwhile, James says that he uses college day release to complement his permanent staff. "As we move forward, we will have to look at other schemes and apprenticeships may well be the way we will go to assist in staff levels."

Do you find it difficult to recruit and retain staff?

Andy Mackay again: "Not at all. Apprenticeships have made sure of this because there is always someone waiting for a job. I work hard to make sure that my team feel valued and enjoy their work and this hopefully means that people work here because they want to."

"Recruitment is becoming easier as there are many more multi-skilled people around in the amenity and landscaping industries," reckons Paul. "Retention, in my area certainly, is not a major issue as there are limited rival opportunities, and we try to look after our staff, seeing them as a critical investment in the future of the company."

Andy Gray says that the bigger his team has grown over the last three years, the harder it has become to recruit. "To find the right people who want to learn, progress and work hard for their future is becoming more and more difficult, I have found. Where we have a bigger team now, higher turnover in staff will naturally happen. We have lost a few people over the past year, but all for different reasons."

James has the reverse situation. "We have had the same staff for over ten years. Creating a solid work base, full of creativity and enthusiasm, helps keep all the staff invigorated."

"Retaining staff at Radley has not been a problem," says Adam, "but recruiting when needed is getting more difficult due to the low pay scales within our industry, especially around big cities where there are plenty of jobs paying more."

How would you encourage young people to consider a career in turfcare?

Our man from Sussex is first up. "As a body of people, we should start to be more proactive with this. I have been ruminating on this for some time and think that perhaps school visits during careers fairs might be a positive move, perhaps in conjunction with the local agricultural college."

"I have been particularly impressed with the impact that some individuals are having on the public's perception of our industry. In particular, John Ledwidge at Leicester City, who has probably done more to capture young people's imagination in one season than the IOG has managed in ten years. This is not meant as a pop at the IOG by the way but, wow, you rock John!"

"Real Madrid's Paul Burgess is also doing a great job in bridging the gap between us and the public/media, as are some of the other guys. My own sport hasn't managed it in quite the same way yet, but perhaps cricket will never be that sexy."

"I'd encourage youngsters to talk to people from within the profession who can demonstrate, through their own experiences, what good prospects the sector holds," suggests Paul. "Gain some local experience through volunteering - this is good for the CV, gets you known locally and creates an entry-path into the industry that might not otherwise exist."

james mead rugby school
We have to show off our talent at every opportunity. The Olympics employed groundsmen, but did you hear of it? And what a success London and Rio were for Team GB. We have to show the general public just how much we contribute to international and national events. Gardening and cookery shows have completely altered the perception of those industries. Can we at least try to do the same, please!"

James reckons that we need to glamourise the industry in schools and career centres. "Show them the best we have across all sports. We have to show off our talent at every opportunity. The Olympics employed groundsmen, but did you hear of it? And what a success London and Rio were for Team GB. We have to show the general public just how much we contribute to international and national events. Gardening and cookery shows have completely altered the perception of those industries. Can we at least try to do the same, please!"

Adam shares this view. "I don't think we spend enough time going to schools and career events and telling young people how they could get involved and how good the industry is. I would say that most youngsters still get involved through family members or from the volunteer side."

Yet Andy Gray thinks it is something they've got to want to do to start with. "It is not a nine to five job; it is your life. The opportunity of working outdoors is a big factor. In the summer, there is no better job, but then not so much in the winter!"

"For me, it is about being responsible for something that plays a major part in the most popular sport around the world. To constantly strive to achieve better results and standards than those reached yesterday. There is no limit in what you can achieve and progress to. There is always a challenge or two in the way, so you are always thinking and on your toes. That would be how I would sell it to a young person. Asking them, do you want to be challenged every day for your entire career?"

Could your sport's governing body do more to highlight our sector?

"Yes, very much so," comments Adam. "I think the standard of pitches and golf courses at the top end is at an all-time high, but most of the media still seem to pick holes in the surfaces, so more needs to be done by the governing bodies to ensure the groundsman or greenkeeper has a voice before, during and after matches."

"The Premier League have done things in recent years to help promote our work and help to try and protect pitches in warm ups," offers Andy Gray. "I don't really have the opinion of needing to highlight our industry in our sector as we are there to provide a service for the players to perform on. It is their stage. We just provide it."

Paul says that, in the case of golf, the R&A and England Golf do good work in promoting the sector. "National media gives good coverage, although many are dismayed at live TV coverage of many of the leading events - The Open, BMW PGA Championship, Ryder Cup, US Open, USPGA, Players Championship and so on - switching from terrestrial to pay-per-view TV."

Andy Mackay believes that they are doing a good job. "In conjunction with the IOG, Jason Booth is a man with a vision, and he's really making a difference. But, when push comes to shove, it's us that need to drive things forward rather than sit back and wait for someone to do it for us. Ten years ago I felt very disillusioned by the IOG. Now I feel enthused."

Membership associations - do they still have a role in today's industry?

First up Paul, the man with 'hands-on' experience. "Having devoted a significant amount of my spare time to volunteering in this sector over thirty years, through South West BIGGA, the BIGGA Ltd Board and now, in Europe, as a Board member of FEGGA, I certainly hope so."

"Like everything else; that which does not change or move with the times will wither and even risk becoming defunct. Working with the many Greenkeeper Associations in Europe, it is great to see this process underway. Associations continually have to look for new ways to engage their members, new ways of supporting their members and ways of easing issues and conflicts between greenkeeper and employer. In short, associations need to continually evolve and adapt to the needs of their members, whilst also generating the funds to do so."

"This may be something as simple as improved communication networks, right through to restructuring to bring meaningful membership support and benefits to an increasingly modern-thinking, but pressurised, workforce."

Andy Gray is of the view that they benefit the lower levels more. "In my opinion, the groundsmen at the grassroots end of our industry need membership associations more than the guys working at the higher end. The volunteers and self-taught groundsmen who look after their local village pitch would find them of benefit. Somewhere for them to find and attend one day courses, forums and make contacts with people in similar positions to themselves. At the top end of the industry, everyone knows everyone anyway, so there is an endless list of very knowledgeable and experienced groundsmen for each to call."

Adam believes that the industry would like to see one association and one show. "But, saying that, what we have now works in very different ways, BIGGA now seem to do the best education programme - set around Harrogate and aimed at all levels - whereas the IOG seem to aim most of their education and courses at the volunteer side with very little education at Saltex."

"As far as raising the profile of groundsmaship and greenkeeping, both could do better. The IOG just seem to promote Premier League football pitches, whilst BIGGA don't seem worried about how people look at the industry from the outside."

"The IOG needs to lobby the Government more," reckons James, "to show them how we, as groundsmen, can assist in the fitness of the nation at school and grassroots level by providing quality grass surfaces for all. Then we might keep obesity at lower levels across all age groups."

How have your budgets changed in the past ten years?

James continues; "Due to strong marketing and having a quality brand, Rugby School has always weathered any storm in testing times, which has enabled our budgets to stay healthy."

Similarly, the recent rise through the leagues for Southampton FC means that Andy Gray's budget has grown year on year. "At the stadium, each time we have been promoted, the budgets have followed suit. We strive to have the best pitch in whichever division we may be in. In today's world, the standard in the Premier League is so high that this a massive challenge, but I am happy with the budget I have to try and achieve our goals."

"It is at the training ground where I have seen the biggest change. Five years ago, we had five natural soil pitches. We now have nine sand based pitches and again the budgets have changed to suit this. Having more pitches obviously ups the amount of money needed, but the construction of them also plays a huge part in what is required to maintain them properly and efficiently. Being sand-based, the fertiliser and water bills are much higher alone."

"Over this time though, the club has always backed my needs and recommendations. This has included the training ground budget more than doubling a couple of years ago."

"In my sector, realism in budgeting is a key attribute," states Paul. "It is no longer enough to simply multiply last year's budget by inflation and hope that will be sufficient for the discerning financial director, because it probably won't!"

"In my sector, realism in budgeting is a key attribute," states Paul. "It is no longer enough to simply multiply last year's budget by inflation and hope that will be sufficient for the discerning financial director, because it probably won't!"

"Budgets need to be justified and credible against expectations in the modern day. For example, my club operates three golf courses with a staff of twelve. With that resource, we can triplex-mow greens, triplex-mow tees, and black and white cut fairways. We cannot walk-mow greens, walk mow tees or stripe fairways in multiple directions. In order to accomplish that, we have calculated that we would require £140K of additional investment in year one, reducing to £90K in subsequent years on staff, resources and infrastructure. This would add significantly to the cost of playing golf - and our mission statement is to supply good quality golf to local people at affordable prices. It is not to provide championship standard golf whatever the weather."

Andy Mackay, meanwhile, comments that 2009 was his first full year as Head Groundsman. "If you adjust my budget for inflation from then to now via the Retail Price Index, then next year I will be spending 32% less. This has all been driven by me, i.e. rather than the club looking to squeeze me, I have been squeezing myself. The upshot is that I am actually far better provisioned than ever before and we are doing much more with less. Not so much austerity, but a positive growth mindset. Buy cheap, buy twice and all that!"

Do you have to jump through hoops to get what you need or are you well supported by management?

According to Andy Mackay, sound planning helps enormously. "For example, I always have a rolling five-year capital expenditure programme. I can't always get what I want and have to be realistic, especially during the current climate, but generally I'm well supported, and have had a couple of excellent and really supportive Chief Execs who have kept in touch without actually interfering unnecessarily."

"I work better when I'm left to my own devices to a large extent, and it's when people who don't understand what I do try to interfere too much that I start having to deal with the 'hoops'. Though, personally, I prefer to bat them gently out of the way rather than try and fit my bulky frame through them. See that 32% saving above? Well, that didn't happen because someone with no clue of how to run a grounds department was trying to put their fingers in the pie."

Andy cites a scenario from the beginning of the cricket season just finished. "At the start of the season, we had a County Championship game against Derbyshire. The weather had been atrocious leading up to the match, and then we had nearly 50mm of rain between midnight and the start of the match. Everyone in the crowd, as well as the team and umpires, thought that there would be no chance of play but, an hour after the last drop of rain, the field was fit for play. People were telling us that we were amazing and a fans forum even voted us 'man of the match'.

The reality of it was that we did what we have always done, and nothing special at all, but the difference between this year and two years ago was that the club had allowed me to invest in resurfacing the outfield."

"In my time at the club, I have been able to relay pretty much all of the cricket square, reshape the practice nets and rebuild the run-ups, install a superb irrigation system and redesign the outfield. At the academy ground, we have been able to install £60,000 worth of drainage, build a dedicated off-field grass net facility and various other projects. We have new sheds, our own grinding facilities and a reasonable level of staffing. I don't have any complaints about the odd hoop!"

Andy Gray agrees: "My line manager leaves me to run the department as I see fit and doesn't interfere or get involved, unless I ask him to. Then, moving onto the board level, they take my word on how it is. I feel I have 100% trust and confidence from everybody that is above me within the club."

"The support and help we receive from all the coaches is very good too. On a daily basis we will liaise with them all to fulfil their training requirements, but all the while trying to protect the pitches to ensure they will last the full eleven months that they are needed for at the training ground."

"I am currently very happy with the support I receive from management within the club. This not only includes my line manager and the board, but all the coaches from all of our teams that we house on site at the training ground."

"Like most things, making a strong business plan for all that we do helps the management understand the need for investment in all areas of the department. Of course, there are times when they don't, which can be frustrating, but generally we are well supported from above."

Adam appears to be generally satisfied with his lot, too. "Like most things, making a strong business plan for all that we do helps the management understand the need for investment in all areas of the department. Of course, there are times when they don't, which can be frustrating, but generally we are well supported from above."

Back to golf, and Paul says that he is fully supported by the board as long as the case is made properly. "I have learnt to base my case not simply on cost-savings going forward (as these are often difficult to prove) but more on the benefits of upgrading a machine and, importantly, the risks run in not upgrading."

Do you have any views on the prospect of a chemical-free amenity sector?

Paul recently asked a very similar question at a Dutch Golf Club Owners Conference. (Holland have a 'Green Deal' with their Government where they are currently allowed to continue to use pesticides, but they must be phased out by 2020). "I asked whether the delegates thought it would be more difficult to sell golf club memberships when there were no pesticides available, or perhaps whether such a circumstance might actually make it easier to sell golf to the public. The initial quick response was that it would be far more difficult - but then the conference really started to think about attracting families to golf."

"We should all think about how we could use such an eventuality to our advantage. There is huge and undeniable public concern about the safety of chemical products in agriculture, horticulture, the amenity sector, even in our own homes, and I can't see this changing anytime soon."

"The problem at the moment is that, if a club in isolation embarks down a non-chemical route, there is likely to be a degree of reputational damage, at least for a while before things settle out. It would need a very robust business case to be able to do this. I do manage a chemical-free golf course and, take it from me, this is not particularly easy. Whilst many members like and understand it, there are an equal number of people who do not and there is no question this costs us memberships. The trick is to integrate ethics and price with objectives."

Andy Mackay offers, perhaps, a surprising opinion. "I don't think that this is likely, although it is almost certain that, as time passes, the chemicals we have available to us will become fewer. We'll deal with it one way or another, even if it means that we need to change our perceptions as to what is an acceptable standard of turf."

"I'm very pro-EU so, given the option of having not one single chemical available for my precious turf or remaining in the union, I would rather have stayed in."

His compatriot along the coast does not agree. "I believe that, one day, a total ban will happen, so we must be as prepared as we can be for when it does."

"At Southampton, we only tend to use fungicides; no herbicides or pesticides. We also try to keep the use of fungicide to a minimum by making the grass as strong and as healthy as possible and more tolerant to any disease. Sometimes, we have to spray, but I would suggest two to three applications at most for each pitch per year. I do see it as a challenge to not use them at all, by making the pitches as healthy as possible using cultural and natural methods and other products."

Adam doesn't believe there will ever be a blanket ban on all chemicals, but expects to lose a percentage across the board. "If we can find alternatives now, then we will ease the pain in years to come," he suggests.

James believes it will be inevitable; "or perhaps not, after Brexit! "We've adopted a near chemical free programme over the past ten years anyway, so would only have a little way to go to comply."

Sports surfaces - is the future synthetic?

"One day, like most things," offers Paul, "the future probably will be a type of synthetic product. There will be a competitively priced, safe development, which will enable synthetics to reinforce natural surfaces so that the two are indistinguishable, yet cheaper to maintain. Once that happens attitudes will change."

"Not in professional football, no," comments Andy Gray. "Football has always been played on grass and should always be. I think artificials have a large part to play in the game, but only for the younger age groups when training. Matches should still be on grass, whatever age group."

Andy Mackay, agrees. "Synthetics, if well installed and properly maintained, offer great solutions to situations where a turf pitch would not be practicable, but they are not a panacea for sports surfaces in most sports that are traditionally played on natural turf (hockey being the obvious exception). Studies amply demonstrate that many artificial surfaces fail to meet PQS criteria within twelve months of being installed, presumably due to improper maintenance. Artificial pitches have, generally speaking, been improperly sold to Joe Public."

"The future will eventually tell us that artificial pitches are a second rate alternative to a good turf pitch, that the cost benefits of artificial pitches are massively outweighed by the installation and renovation costs and that it is far more cost effective, environmentally sound and better for participation in sport to provide the necessary level of investment on say ten turf pitches than it is to install, maintain and replace just one artificial pitch. It's just a shame that, in the meantime, we have to go through all of this palaver about artificial vs turf and watch our once great public open spaces diminish."

"That said, in my own sport, a good artificial pitch is far preferable to a poor grass one, especially in state schools."

"We need to embrace certain aspects of synthetic pitches," suggests Adam. "With hockey, it has changed the game entirely, which is a good thing. 3G pitches have a place in local communities and Astro cricket pitches are better than nothing. Beyond that, a well-kept natural pitch wins every day, but we are slightly biased, I think!"

And, on that note, we come to the end of this first Round Table discussion. We hope you have found the comments made by the contributors thought provoking. Whether you agree or disagree with their views, it is good to talk.

We'll leave you with one final comment from Adam King; "Having been in the industry for over thirty years, I have seen massive changes in all areas - machinery, methods of renovations, the way we prepare surfaces for play."

"Unfortunately, the one thing we still need to work on is how employers see what we do - soil scientist, plant scientist, manager, politician, accountant, to name just a few."

"I think, with modern media, we all have a duty, alongside the associations, of getting away from the 'grasscutter' tag and moving forward. In the future, this could mean better pay and working conditions for all."

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