Inside 'tomato kingdom' near Ipswich as first plants ready for picking
PUBLISHED: 08:41 27 February 2019 | UPDATED: 13:20 27 February 2019
Tomatoes at a high-tech Suffolk greenhouse the size of 11 football pitches are ripe for picking - 10 weeks after the first seed was sown.
A quarter of a million plants were put inside the ‘tomato kingdom’ between Great Blakenham and Bramford, near Ipswich, back in December.
Now the first ever baby tomatoes to be grown at Sterling Suffolk Ltd are ripe for picking.
With the dimensions of an aircraft hangar, the facility’s huge Dutch-style glasshouse should cultivate more than 150 million plants per year – putting Suffolk on the map as a major producer of vine tomatoes.
Horticultural director Richard Lewis said it is the only semi-closed glasshouse in the UK, and is designed to produce more fruit using less energy.
“Part of the ethos of this nursery was ecology,” said Mr Lewis.
“The land that we’re on was very low agricultural land, it was poorly producing, not great soil.
“What we’ve done is taken that and built a high-tech glasshouse on it and moved it to being very intensive and very, very productive.”
Cool air is pumped in from the sides, instead of traditional methods of opening roof vents – which wastes energy, and carbon dioxide.
Air pressure and humidity levels are monitored by a high-tech computer system and roof vents are occasionally opened to maintain optimum growing conditions.
It is 26C in the glasshouse – which Mr Lewis said it an “ideal temperature to maximise on the growth of the plant”.
Imported from the Netherlands as two-month-old saplings, the plants grow around a foot per week and will reach around 15 metres in length.
Each of the plants should produce one truss of tomatoes per week.
Natural fibres, extracted from coconut husk instead of soil, are used for planting – and these are irrigated using rainwater collected from the roof in a 61 million-litre reservoir.
Bumble bees pollinate them, with the glasshouse containing 60 cardboard box hives and 9,000 bees.
Mr Lewis – who kicked off his career as an 18-year-old picker in 1984 – thinks the workforce will soon grow from 32 to 150 by the third phase of the project.
He said he pinned a sign on the gate to advertise for workers to begin with.
This third phase would see the site expand from 5.6 hectares (13.8 acres) to 17 hectares (42 acres) of glasshouse.
It is too early to know the impact of Brexit on the glasshouse, Mr Lewis added, who has stocked up on fertiliser in case of transport delays.