You might recognise the name Gareth Austin from BBC Radio Foyle, or maybe you attended one of his community gardening workshops, or know someone he teaches, or have taken part in one of his many events. Maybe you’ve eaten some of his artisan produce, read his newspaper column, sought his advice for a horticulture project, or visited a heritage garden that he worked on.
Gareth completed his HNC Landscape Management in Oatridge in 2000. He then completed his Postgraduate Diploma in Organic Farming in 2016, and is now continuing study through to his final year of the MSc Organic Farming course, as a distance learning student. The course is run by SRUC Aberdeen.
With so much experience, we were very excited to find out more about Gareth’s background, his time at SRUC, his advice for alumni and students, and about the infamous Davys Bruckburn Chipper in Aberdeen.
“As Alumni we carry responsibilities to help others up the ladder, don’t lift the ladder away to stop others reaching your heights.” Gareth Austin
What inspired you to get into gardening? Did you get your green thumbs from an early age?
From an early age I had an interest in science, devouring books on dinosaurs, animals and plants (I had one of them Aunts who gave great books as presents!). A great friend of mine was working in a nearby garden centre and he recommended me for a Saturday job, I was 14 at the time. I loved working with nature, tending to plants and the camaraderie of working in the garden centre. I read every plant label that was going, every package and every leaflet I could get. Growing up we had a very small council house garden, which mum kept in great shape. Having a son working in a garden centre opened her up to staff discount on plants.I was never allowed to leave that job!!
What attracted you to SRUC, and why did you choose the courses that you did?
I had left school and started to work full time in the garden centre and a customer one day told me about an Open Day coming up at Oatridge Agricultural College (now SRUC Oatridge). I initially dismissed the idea, after all, here I was a young guy, money in my pocket, stable employment. Why would I want to give this up to go college? But then the same customer said to me, “Who’s going to vouch for you without your papers?” The idea of getting a qualification to validate my knowledge sparked something in me.
I went along to the Oatridge Open Day, met lecturer John Smith, and I found his enthusiasm for the subject infectious. I thought to myself, “I need to listen to this man!” So I finished up my job, sold my car and joined the HNC Landscape Management course that Autumn. I had been away from education for four years by this time, which was enough to qualify me as a mature student.
I graduated and then went to work in Ireland, continuing my career in garden centres, moving from plant area manager to garden centre manager and then owner over the next eight years. Alongside I was growing a career in local radio and press as a gardening columnist. Through my career I had developed a keen interest in Grow Your Own and food security, having fallen in love with the show River Cottage. This had led me to stock an ever increasing range of seeds, plants and organic products in every garden centre I worked in, and indeed transforming every garden into some kind of urban farm!
After the great recession of 2008 I closed our garden centre and went into teaching, delivering City & Guilds Horticulture courses in the local technical college. I worked with many community groups building and maintaining community gardens and with schools on building school gardens. During this time I had also started to research the history of Scots who came to Ireland, referred to as Ulster Scots. My interest was always about their estates and specifically their walled garden – what they grew, how much they grew and how they grew it. Back in the period of 1600-1900 it was all what we would now call organic growing. So I looked about for a course that I could learn more about the science behind organic agriculture, that I could study as well as retain my teaching job (married with kids prevents the ‘sell all’ attitude I adopted in my earlier years!). SRUC’s PgDip/MSc in Organic Farming seemed attractive. I enquired and had some phone calls with Dr Lou Ralph and I had the same vibe from her as I got from John Smith. I knew this was the course for me!
We understand that Organic Farming PG students have to do a work placement and you maintained contact with the business you worked with. We heard that you may have started a new enterprise together. Can you tell us about it?
Yes, during my course I looked about for a ‘project’ for my work placement module. Many in my class and others before me had carried this part of the course on their own enterprises, but I wanted to use my time to learn more. So after some research I approached a local commercial grower of field vegetables to see if there was anything I could help with. My phone rang right away and within an hour I was in their kitchen having tea and plans were hatched. They wanted to develop a direct sales strategy. This meaty project was what I was after.
After initially developing a marketing plan for the enterprise this turned into part-time employment (yes I was still working fulltime, studying, being a parent and now I had a part-time farming job too!!). My role was focussed on selling the produce at markets, general marketing and helping out with harvesting, planting, crop walks etc. This developed onwards and now we have a joint organic vegetable venture.
Also my thesis work was again focussed on something I had no previous knowledge of, tillage farming. As a result of the growing trials I carried out and the relationship built up with one farmer, I also have a joint venture producing organic produce there too. And yes- I still have a fulltime teaching job too!!
Generally speaking, can you tell us about the things you’ve learnt over and above the actual course material at SRUC?
For me the fusion of different people coming together from different backgrounds was vital to my enjoyment of the course. On the Organic Farming course there were students from the Middle East, South Africa, Netherlands, England, Scotland and Ireland coming together, sharing stories, ambitions, techniques and more. As a result of the courses I have 100% become more confident in my own abilities, and developed greater awareness of farming issues and social issues affecting the food delivery system worldwide.
Gareth, you’re a tremendously busy person. Can you tell us a little about how you manage the expected study time for your courses?
This was a big ‘could I’ when I signed up for the course. My employer offered no study time support so I knew it was going to have to be at my family’s expense. I set the alarm for 5.45 every morning and did an hour’s reading in the morning before the kids got up. The radio in the car went and in came farming podcasts on the commute, and also while walking the dog. Even my time spent with the kids I was something ‘missing’. On numerous instances I was participating in Go-to-meetings whilst supervising hockey or the likes! Every evening from 7-9 was study time where I could carry out some work on assignments and projects. I knew that I would have to find 750 hours a year from somewhere, but the goal was there. I was fortunate to have a great group of classmates. We were communicating back and forth on email and keeping each other motivated.
We hear that Davys Bruckburn chipper has become legendary to your class- can you tell us why?
Davys has become a must-go every time we are in Aberdeen. We go and do ‘menu roulette’ where people order for other people. In my time I’ve had battered spare ribs, mock chops, pizza with vinegar on it, spicy haggis and so much more glorious cuisine. The local transport links in Aberdeen are brilliant. Many a great night was had in Aberdeen city centre, including memorable sessions in Irish Bars, pole dancing in near empty nightclubs and hurried exists from pool halls. For distance learning students the entertainment provided was crucial in the development of our class friendships, from the ceilidhs to the barbecues, all were brilliant.
To find out more about Gareth's workshops and horticultural services, visit www.garethaustin.com