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How do you get 150m tomatoes from a Suffolk glasshouse? Just stay in the pink!

PUBLISHED: 19:00 08 January 2019 | UPDATED: 09:36 09 January 2019

The pink LED light helps to boost growth of the tomato plants. Picture: PAUL GEATER

The pink LED light helps to boost growth of the tomato plants. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Archant

The first commercially-grown tomatoes from Suffolk's newest and largest greenhouse should be in the shops by early March - and they'll be just the first of 150 million to hit Britain's stores a year.

Richard Lewis with the newly-planted tomatoes at Blakenham. Picture: PAUL GEATERRichard Lewis with the newly-planted tomatoes at Blakenham. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Plants are growing rapidly in the 5.6-hectare glasshouse built for Sterling Suffolk last year between Bramford and Great Blakenham – and new stock is arriving all the time.

By the end of next week the entire glasshouse should be full of tomato vines producing top of the range cherry tomatoes – most of which are destined for one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains.

The £15m high-tech, low energy glasshouse was the brainchild of landowner and businessman Lord Michael Blakenham. Sadly he died a year ago so did not see his dream come true – but it is quite a legacy for this part of Suffolk.

Horticultural director Richard Lewis showed off the glasshouse that is as far removed from traditional growing as it is possible to get.

The first tomatoes should be ready to be picked towards the end of February. Picture: PAUL GEATERThe first tomatoes should be ready to be picked towards the end of February. Picture: PAUL GEATER

The plants are grown hydroponically in coconut residue – known as coir – and they are irrigated directly with water full of the right nutrients to allow them to grow large and quickly.

The whole process is scientifically controlled – but ecology is at the heart of everything that happens at the plant. As well as the nutrients the plants get the extra carbon dioxide they need to grow and the heating and ventilation system encourages them to grow naturally.

There are even hives of native British bumblebees in the glasshouse to help pollination – after 13 weeks they are released into the wild to create a new queen and drones and replacement workers are brought in.

Mr Lewis, who has worked in horticulture across the country, is very enthusiastic about the new venture: “This is the first phase of the project. We have almost finished flattening the ground for phase two, and we have plans for phase three – but the timing of that depends on how things go.”

Staff members must have a head for heights - adjusting one of the supports.Picture: PAUL GEATERStaff members must have a head for heights - adjusting one of the supports.Picture: PAUL GEATER

To encourage growth there are special LED pink lights that are on four hours a day. At present there are 35 people working there, producing the tomatoes that will grow around the year, but when the third phase is complete, with 17 hectares under glass, the number should increase to 150 – and many live locally.

Mr Lewis said it was very important to the team behind the project that local people should be attracted to working there – and the working conditions are designed to make it an attractive workplace.

Inside the glasshouse the temperatures do vary during the year – from about 21C in the winter to about 26C in high summer.

It is cleaner than most glasshouses with no soil on the ground – but there is one quality all the workers need.

Mr Lewis said: “When we interview them we ask them to get on our trollies and the platform lifts them up to the top to where the vines will grow – and to enable them to carry out maintenance at the top there. You have to have a head for heights to work here!”

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