Gas price rise forces Suffolk tomato giant to cease production

Sterling Suffolk

The gates of Sterling Suffolk's Bramford headquarters are locked. - Credit: Paul Geater

Rocketing gas prices have forced Suffolk's largest tomato producer to cease production three years after producing its first fruit.

Sterling Suffolk went into full production in early 2019 from a massive greenhouse between Bramford and Blakenham. Last year it announced plans to increase in size by 50% and increase its workforce from 70 to 100.

But the massive increase in the price of gas which is used to heat the greenhouses and regulate the temperature has forced production to cease.

Managing director Richard Lewis said he could not talk about the future of the company but said no plants had arrived for this year's crop because of the cost of gas.

Richard Lewis at Sterling Suffolk

Richard Lewis was looking optimistically to the future when he talked about expansion plans at Sterling Suffolk last summer. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

He also said the company had no workforce - normally March would see it recruiting seasonal workers to harvest its crops during the spring, summer and autumn.

The gates to the site are now locked and there is little sign of any activity there - although there are still signs of security.

The initial greenhouse covered 5.4 hectares and cost £10m. Work on the £6m 2.7-hectare expansion started last summer and was due to be ready for this year's crop.

Sterling Suffolk

Sterling Suffolk's greenhouses produced millions of tomatoes. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brownn

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The project was initially proposed a decade ago as a way of using spare heat generated by the incinerator at Great Blakenham - but eventually it was found to be uneconomic to use that.

However, the greenhouse project went ahead and was aimed at growing tomatoes to compete with increasing numbers being imported from Holland, Spain and North Africa.

The first went on sale commercially in early 2019 and were heavily promoted. The BBC's One Show featured a visit to Ipswich market by fruit and veg expert Chris Bavin where he invited customers to try out the locally-grown salad staples.

Filming of BBC The One Show on the Cornhill

Chris Bavin gave shoppers the chance to try Sterling Suffolk tomatoes during a section of BBC's One Show. - Credit: Rachel Edge

The company had planned to build more than 17 hectares of greenhouses - but the energy crisis that first hit last autumn has caused problems for the whole industry.

With Russian gas sales stopped because of sanctions as a result of its invasion of Ukraine, it seems unlikely that the price will fall in the short term. That means most tomatoes for our summer salads this year are likely to have to be imported.