East of England Co-op Producer of the Year: Tomato growers scoop top prize

Patrick Harte, Steve Simpson and Jonny Lambert of Cornerways receive their Producer of the Year Awa

Patrick Harte, Steve Simpson and Jonny Lambert of Cornerways receive their Producer of the Year Award from Lady Caroline Cranbrook OBE. Copyright Anglia Picture Agency www.angliapictureagency.co.uk - Credit: Ashley Pickering/Anglia Picture

The UK’s ‘greenest greenhouse’ operation, based in East Anglia, scooped the top accolade at an awards event celebrating some of the region’s top food producers.

Cornerways Nursery of Stoke Ferry near Kings Lynn, Norfolk, home to the UK’s largest single glasshouse exclusively growing tomatoes, was crowned Producer of the Year 2015 by the East of England Co-operative Society.

The award was presented by rural campaigner and president of the Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival, Lady Caroline Cranbrook at the society’s annual ‘Celebrate Local’ event at the co-op’s headquarters at Wherstead, Ipswich, on Thursday night.

Lady Caroline was joined by fellow judges Galton Blackiston owner and chef patron of the Michelin-starred Morston Hall in Norfolk, editor of the East Anglian Daily Times Terry Hunt and Ken Crowther, BBC Essex presenter and gardening expert, to present this year’s awards.

Cornerways saw off tough competition for the top accolade from The Taste of Suffolk of Bury St Edmunds and Fairfields Farm of Wormingford, Essex.

All three were crowned county champions on the night, after securing the most votes from Co-op customers. This year, a record-breaking 13,500 votes were cast by shoppers from a shortlist of ‘Sourced Locally’ favourites which also included Ken Green Fish of Clacton, Hadleigh Maid of Hadleigh and The Norfolk Brewhouse of Hindringham, Norfolk.

“I know judges always say they had a tough job – but this really was,” said Mr Hunt.

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“We made our selection after considering quality of products, green credentials, staff training – and the elusive ‘wow’ factor. We heard brilliant stories from people who are passionate about their business, their products and their people.”

Lady Caroline said: “Each of the three finalists was very special – Cornerways Nursery from Norfolk, the largest single glasshouse in the UK, producing 140 million tomatoes each year, Fairfields Farm from Essex whose potatoes and crisps are all grown, processed and made on farm, and Taste of Suffolk, a traditional family butcher making really great sausages and cooked meats from local pigs.

“What impressed us about Cornerways was not simply the size of the enterprise but also the extraordinary high quality and variety of the tomatoes and the sustainability of the business. We felt that Cornerways was really outstanding and deserved the recognition that this award provides.”

She added that with all the efforts employed by the business to recycle energy and keep its CO2 emissions low: “It really does deserve the title of the greenest greenhouse.”

Mr Blackiston, a key-note speaker on night, added: “I’ve been totally blown away with the story of Cornerways. As a Norfolk man, I’m so proud of their business and how in 15 years they’ve become the largest producers in the country. Above all for me it’s all about quality and taste and their varieties and flavours really excelled.”

Cornerways produces 140 million tomatoes every year – all hand-picked and packed on site. It became a Sourced Locally supplier in 2013 and now supplies almost fifty East of England Co-op food stores.

Thanks to its unique location beside British Sugar’s factory at Wissington, the tomatoes make the most of the warmth and extra CO2 to gain size and flavour. More than 240 miles of piping carries waste hot water from the factory’s Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant around the glasshouse, and carbon dioxide is pumped into the glasshouses to be absorbed by the plants. The site also harvests the rainwater from the giant glasshouse roof. Mor than 115 million litres are collected annually to irrigate the plants.

General manager Patrick Harte said: “We are so delighted to have won Producer of the Year – it’s still sinking in. It’s great when customers tell you they like your product and to also get recognition from such an esteemed panel of judges gives an incredible boost to the whole team who put such pride, passion and hard work into growing our wonderful tomatoes.”

Roger Grosvenor, Executive – Retail at the East of England Co-op said: “Well done to Cornerways – last year so many of our customers told us they really valued the opportunity to buy sweet, juicy tomatoes which are picked ripe and ready to go direct to our stores from the glasshouse. Cornerways is now picking its first tomatoes of the year and I’m sure customers will be excited that they will soon be available in even more stores.”

New retail figures from the East of England Co-op show that its Sourced Locally range has grown in just seven years from a few suppliers to 140 bringing around 2,750 local products into stores.

It has ploughed £34million back into the regional economy, created more than 300 local jobs and protected many more.

In the year to January 2015, its turnover from the Sourced Locally range soared by 22% to £14.6m. The co-op’s ambition not is to grow the business still further to £16m next year.

Lady Caroline added: “The East of England Co-operative Society’s local food policy is a credit to the organisation, to their staff and their stores, to the local food producers they support – and above all to the thousands of customers who buy our wonderful local food in their shops and who voted for the competition in such numbers. It gives me great pleasure to be associated with such an admirable and successful enterprise.”

The winners received a commemorative plaque hand-crafted by the East of England Co-op’s stone masonry business H.L Perfitts of Diss.