Benjamin Tea: Technical Manager in Agronomy & Plant Health


Meet Ben, a technical manager at the Park Farm Site for the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge, where he has been contributing his expertise since 2017. In this Q&A session, we delve into Ben's role and journey into the field of Horticulture. 

What does the business do?

NIAB is the fastest-growing crop science group in the country and is at the forefront of the application of genetics, physiology, soil science, precision agronomy and, data science to improve the yield, efficiency, and resilience of crop production across the arable, forage and horticulture sectors. 

What do you do in your job each day?

As part of the wider glasshouse team, my work is primarily based in and around NIAB’s park farm glasshouse facility where we grow several different plants in our 18 environmentally controlled compartments. Crops you would typically find growing in the fields across the UK and even non-natives are grown for a range of projects. My role as Technical Manager is primarily agronomy, so working out how to grow unusual or broadacre crops under glass. My current role varies depending on the season and the projects I’m working on.

My role also includes developing commercial businesses. Having a commercial growing background allows me to work between commercial and research which helps guide new businesses with project proposals.

What courses or qualifications have you completed?

Having a commercial horticultural background, I thought I was very knowledgeable in my area, but I didn’t have any recognised qualifications in the industry. Commercial horticulture wasn’t something I trained to do, I never had a direction growing up, I just knew that I wanted to work the land, be around tractors and, drive an old Land Rover!

As my love for the industry grew and I began to see a future I knew that I needed to develop my skills and attend training courses. Having funded myself to attend pesticide application training and having trained to drive a counterbalance forklift truck, I felt my experience and training were enough for me to be desirable to other businesses and develop my career.

Since joining NIAB I have been fortunate to have had the company’s backing for several in-house and external training courses including another pesticide training course, telehandler training as well as BASIS Commercial Hort and FACTs Hort. I have also undertaken management, manual handling, and health & safety training in-house.

What skills do you use in your job?

As a grower, your primary concern is always the health of the crop. You’re always on the lookout for pests and diseases and constantly working to produce a better crop. You’re constantly asking yourself, how can I increase yield, and how can I reduce my cost, my staff inputs, and my carbon footprint. As a grower and from what I learned during my training is that, an eye for detail and continuous development lead to improved processes. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the perfect ideology for the grower, looking at everything, and how can I make changes and improvements to help me further down the line. Training and personal development are crucial to spotting problems in a crop. Being able to spot pest damage or early signs of disease or deficiencies is critical and understanding how to combat and prevent them leads to healthier crops. 

What’s the best thing about your job?

Your focus as a commercial grower is to help build a thriving business, to make money by producing a saleable crop. Working in research, I’m able to work on projects that have a real-world impact, to assist growers improve processes and transfer research into usable skills and knowledge. Perhaps the biggest “buzz” I get is from the knowledge transfer side of our work. It’s been a long journey to acquire the knowledge I have, and that should be shared with younger growers. My aim next year is to ensure NIAB hosts at least one knowledge exchange seminar in person, aimed at the younger growers looking to develop their skills.

Have you had to deal with any challenges in your career?

I suppose career progression and diversity, were the biggest limiting factors to my professional development. Being able to attend training courses and knowledge exchange seminars wasn’t something I was presented with very often. Learning my trade in a small business allowed me to build practical skills and develop procedures, but external training would have been beneficial earlier in my career.

Is there anything you are particularly proud of?

Passing BASIS Hort, during the COVID lockdowns of 2020 was the proudest I’ve been at work. It was a long slog and wait for the results, I thought my heart was going to burst through my chest when opening the envelope from BASIS.

What parts of your job or industry are green/sustainable?

Our glasshouse facility is heated by a biomass boiler which burns wood pellets. We also use taupe-coloured plastic pots/containers, that, unlike black plastic, can be processed by local councils. NIAB also carries out growing media projects for commercial customers looking to help reduce the amount of peat used in horticulture and to reduce the number of fertilisers that are used to prevent leaching into the environment. Every process we have has some form of waste reduction associated with it.

Do you work with any technology in your role?

Every day, all day in some cases! Our glasshouse facility is controlled by a PRIVA building management system (BMS) that controls the environment of our 18 compartments. Once configured the BMS system can create Summer in the middle of winter if required. We also use a range of handheld sensors such as spectrometers, humidity sensors and, the grower's most important tool, the pH and EC meter. Using technology gives you valuable information to assist decision-making.

Ben is very happy with the position he is currently in, and he is passionate about his career. “I’d like to think I have a few years still left in me, and I have never been one to sit still, I am always looking to progress onto other things. Increasing knowledge exchange across the industry and becoming a basis approved trainer are future goals.”

We have learned from Ben to take change as a positive and explore any chances you get to progress further in your chosen career. “Don’t ever sit down and think this is all you’re good for, take a chance and change, it’s the best thing I did.”