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Farming feature: Giant new glasshouse operation at Ipswich gets ready for arrival of first tomato plants

PUBLISHED: 15:53 03 December 2018 | UPDATED: 08:36 04 December 2018

Workers putting equipment into place at Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Workers putting equipment into place at Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

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Blakenham Nursery, a glasshouse growing scheme which began just four years ago on the outskirts of Ipswich, is now about to become a reality as the first tomato plants arrive in December 2018, ready to be cultivated and harvested.

The first thing that strikes you as you pass the new waste incinerator plant at Great Blakenham near Ipswich and head down Lorraine Way is the sheer size of the new tomato growing enterprise.

Acres of spanking new, state-of-the art glasshouses rise up before you, immense and shining in the winter sunshine.

Impressive though they are, there are even bigger UK glasshouses - but none, thinks Richard Lewis, operations director at Sterling Suffolk, the firm behind the project, quite match the carefully considered, sustainable technology which underpins this particular £10m project.

Richard is not only overseeing the building works on site, but is also set to preside over the growing operation too.

Richard Lewis at Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSRichard Lewis at Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

He’s a horticultural veteran with a career’s worth of growing experience under his belt. The Suffolk scheme represents the culmination of those many years of knowledge and research, spanning operations from Kent to Cardiff, and incorporating the kind of kit that he might well have wanted at previous sites, but which was too late to build in.

“I’m excited - even three or four years ago it was an exciting project. Now it blows me away, the speed it’s happening,” he says.

Landowners collaborate on project

Sterling Suffolk Ltd was formed in April 2014, with the aim of building a 17ha tomato nursery straddling two fields, one owned by local farmer Stephen Wright, who propagates hop plants nearby, and the other by the late Lord Blakenham.

Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

“The opportunity of this came up several years ago and bearing in mind I’m a horticulturalist, I felt it’s got to be,” says Stephen. He admits, though, that learning about tomato cropping has been “a very steep learning curve”. “I’m still on the bottom rung - that’s why we’ve got Richard, because we needed experience of greenhouse growing. I’m just a wee little cog in a very big gearbox.”

Stephen owns the land and has a small shareholding in the business. The funding company behind the business, Amberside ALP, resides in London, and anyone can invest in the project through an ISA, explains Richard.

Glasshouse scheme steps up a gear in 2017/18

By early 2017, the project had a team represented by the two landowners, a marketing company, a finance company, a head of construction and a grower and from there. things have moved quickly.

Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

“In mid-2017 we started levelling the southern field owned by Stephen Wright, ready for the construction of phase 1 and 2,” explains Richard.

Then, on April 3, 2018, following a very wet Easter, work began on the 5.6ha phase 1 scheme. Within just six weeks, the steel frame and glazing was complete.

Water for the heating system, comprising of 65,000m of heating pipes and a 2,500,000 litre tank of hot water feeding it, is heated by two very large 6,000kW boilers.

How the growing regime will work

Landowner Stephen Wright at Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSLandowner Stephen Wright at Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

The tomato crop, due to arrive as small plants this month (December), will be watered by captured roof water which flows into a 61,000,000 litre purpose-built reservoir: no water on the site goes to waste, as it is sterilised using UV light, and fully recirculated via the irrigation system. Air and CO2 is distributed via climate chambers along the glasshouse sides, which can cool the glasshouses as required.

The main inputs are the plants, propagated in Holland from seeds from Dutch seedhouses, which arrive as eight weeks old, and the coir in which they grow, which comes from Sri Lanka.

One of Richard’s aims is to use as few chemicals treatments as possible for pests and disease, while new plants will grow next to mature ones, creating a seamless supply of crop. The ultimate aim is to produce a high flavour product all year round, and all will be premium varieties.

What kind of technology will it use?

Sterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSterling Suffolk's glasshouses at Great Blakenham Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Blakenham Nursery is the first ModulAir semi-closed glasshouse in the UK, designed to gain increased production while using less energy. It’s that which makes it an attractive proposition, explains Richard.

Phase 1 has 1.3ha of very expensive LED lighting enabling it to grow top quality tomatoes 52 weeks a year: lighting is an essential part of the growing process, and the ability to supply customers seamlessly, all year round a big selling point.

Much of the glasshouse operation will be run by PC, ipad or mobile phone, but there will still be manual elements such as planting and - for now - picking. However, the business is being future-proofed so new robotic technology can be introduced.

Jobs creation

The Sterling Suffolk site at Blakenham before the glasshouses were built  Picture: RICHARD LEWISThe Sterling Suffolk site at Blakenham before the glasshouses were built Picture: RICHARD LEWIS

At the moment, the nursery has about 20 staff, but this will rise to 35 in January, and 50 by June next year. Eventually, by June 2020, there will be 75 staff on site and is expected to reach up to 150 when Phase 3 is complete.

Currently, the UK produces around 15 to 18% of the tomato crop it consumes, and 60% of its premium tomatoes. Richard hopes to make some inroads into that market.

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