First tomatoes ripe for picking at high-tech glasshouse

The first tomatoes are ready to be harvested at a high-tech glasshouse that should produce more than 150 million per year.

A quarter of a million plants were put inside the £15 million glasshouse at Bramford, near Ipswich, and 10 weeks on, the first baby cherry tomatoes are ready for picking.

Richard Lewis, horticultural director of Sterling Suffolk, said it is the only semi-closed glasshouse in the UK and is designed to produce more fruit using less energy.

Cooled air is piped in from the sides, instead of opening roof vents which wastes energy and carbon dioxide.

High-tech tomato glasshouse
Richard Lewis inspects vines of cherry tomatoes (Joe Giddens/PA)

Roof vents are occasionally opened to release air pressure and humidity, with levels monitored by an advanced computer system.

The glasshouse is heated by natural gas boilers, with hot water running through 62km of pipe on the ground which doubles as a rail track for trolleys used by workers tending plants.

It is 26C in the glasshouse, an “ideal temperature to maximise on the growth of the plant”, Mr Lewis said.

The plants grow around a foot per week, will reach around 15m in length, and were imported from the Netherlands as two-month-old saplings.

Each plant should produce one truss of tomatoes per week, with workers cutting trusses of 12 tomatoes to ripen on the vine.

They are planted in a natural fibre extracted from coconut husk instead of soil and are irrigated with rainwater collected from the roof in a 61 million-litre reservoir.

High-tech tomato glasshouse
The temperature in the glasshouse is 26C (Joe Giddens/PA)

A computer monitors when plants need to be watered by weighing their growbags to see how much water they have used and by monitoring the amount of light, from UV lights and sunlight.

“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.”

Bumble bees pollinate the plants, with 60 cardboard box hives and 9,000 bees in the glasshouse.

Few can be seen at ground level as they focus on the flowers.

High-tech tomato glasshouse
Richard Lewis monitors the glasshouse conditions in the control room (Joe Giddens/PA)

Mr Lewis, who started his career as an 18-year-old picker in 1984 and worked his way up, said he “stuck a sign on the gate” to advertise for workers.

The current workforce of 32 could increase to 150 by the third phase of the project, which would see the site expand from 5.6 hectares (13.8 acres) to 17 hectares (42 acres) of glasshouse.

Mr Lewis said the project was funded by individual investors, with the lowest investment at £100 and the highest at £1.5 million.

Once harvesting starts, within days it will be “perpetual”, he said.

Mr Lewis said it is too early to know the impact of Brexit, but has stocked up on fertilisers in case of transport delays.

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