Garden Centre Retail visited Somerset to meet Dan Durston of Durston Garden Products. We spoke about the vast history of the company, environmental issues, and giving back to nature.
In 1860, Aquilla Durston moved to Sharpham in Somerset to dig peat for fuel. His business remained unchanged for three generations.
Cut peat was sold from a horse and cart to local towns around Glastonbury.
By the fifth generation, a Land Rover and trailer replaced the horse and cart. The business model remained the same.
The decline of peat fuel
In 1960, Dan’s grandfather moved onto creating peat for horticulture.
“In the mid-Sixties, my grandfather sold peat to Godwins which is a local competitor now” Dan explains.
“We sold a lot of peat and made good money back in those days. My dad, Steve, and my uncle Chris used to have a little tractor and trailer and do the nine-mile trip 10 times a day.”
In 1989, Dan’s grandfather retired and his father and uncle set up a very small peat production facility. Since then, the company has grown and grown.
In its first year of production, Durston Garden Products sold 1,000 pallets. Now, it sells around 50,000 pallets per year.
As peat for horticulture became more popular, peat for fuel declined.
“We had a machine that used to cut the peat blocks. But we found that the demand for peat burning blocks was getting less and less,” Dan tells us.
“We decided to stop producing them and sold our machine back to the producer. It is now in a museum after having a refurbish.”
A family business
Dan is the sixth generation of Durston to work within the business. Although, it wasn’t his original plan to go straight into it.
“I was going to go to university and study accountancy, but I decided in the end that it wasn’t for me,” he says.
“I spoke to Dad about a job here, and he didn’t want me joining. He wanted me to further my studies and become an accountant, and come into the business later. I went away and did a few jobs that I didn’t enjoy until a job became available here.
That was in the production team. I drove a forklift and filling and stacking bags, so I started at the bottom and worked my way up. That was in 1998.”
In 2007, he became production manager, working his way up the ladder. “In 2016 there was a vacancy in sales,” says Dan.
“I was already doing one or two days a week in sales, trying to gain experience. The job that I currently do, which is national sales manager, became available, and I applied for that. It was a natural growth.”
Currently, three family members hold the position of director. Chris oversees the sales and marketing side of the business. Steve runs production and looks after the estate. Dan, who now works with uncle Chris, is the national sales manager.
The environmental impacts of peat extraction are well-known. One of the conditions now is that companies have a responsibility to the environment.
“The carbon footprint issue is a valid point on some of the raised bogs. We use blanket bogs that the abbots of Glastonbury Abbey drained thousands of years ago. There is no value left in the land,” explains Dan.
“It’s low-grade agricultural land. Farmers don’t like this area because it’s so low and liable to flooding.
“We’ve created a fantastic wildlife habitat. All the land that we exhaust, we give back to nature by building clay buns and flooding it. It creates a great wetland habitat. We have all sorts of flora, fauna, insects and butterflies around.
“Five years ago, customers would want to have lots of recycled material, so we tried to use a little less peat.
“Everybody jumped on the bandwagon and produced peat-free products. Since then, we’ve come full circle.
“Customers are now telling us they don’t want any of that recycled stuff – they want peat.”
The package bags the compost is in also has an environmental impact. But Durston thinks it has found a way around this.
“I found out that laminated films which our competitors use are not recyclable anywhere,” Dan says.
“We’ve found a product that is recyclable. We want to encourage people to reuse their bags before recycling, but you can recycle it.
“In Somerset, they’ve introduced a collection for plastic bottles, yoghurt pots and those sort of things. The bags can go into that.
“Unfortunately, there is currently no alternative to plastic for our bags. We are keeping an ear to the ground and trying to find alternatives.”
“We are different,” Dan tells us. “We are quite an unheard-of brand. Garden centres often like that because we’re not the same as Joe Bloggs down the road. Our products aren’t found cheaper in the local supermarket. We’re not everywhere, we don’t flood the market.”
Durston prides itself on its Britishness. It undertakes no importing or exporting, which gives the company a great advantage.
“It will mean that companies in the south of Ireland will struggle to compete with us in the future. We’re seeing this as a positive for us.”
Currently, the business turns over around £4m per year. It is experiencing a slow-growth period. “We currently have around 15% of the UK compost market, and it would be good to get to more than 20% in the future.”