Massive tomato glasshouse expansion set to begin

Sterling Suffolk Ltd is expanding its Blakenham Nursery by 50%. Managing Director Richard Lewis out

Sterling Suffolk Ltd is expanding its Blakenham Nursery by 50%. Managing Director Richard Lewis outside the glasshouses. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown - Credit: Archant

A major £6m expansion of a tomato glasshouse complex on the edge of Ipswich is due to get under way.

Sterling Suffolk was planning to increase the footprint of its giant tomato growing operation at Great Blakenham February or March last year — but then the pandemic struck. It caused too many complications and the works were temporarily shelved.

Now contractors are preparing to drill holes for the foundation piles as groundworks begin on July 26. The steel framework will start to emerge in about two or three months.

Blakenham Nursery — a £10m glasshouse using sustainable technology — opened at the end of 2018.

But the 5.4ha glasshouse was only the first phase of a highly ambitious plan to build a 17ha tomato nursery operation.

Sterling Suffolk is now a £4.5m turnover company which was formed in April 2014 with the aim of building a nursery across two fields — one owned by local farmer and hop plant propagator Stephen Wright and the other by the late Lord Blakenham.

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The funding company behind the scheme, Amberside ALP, opened it up for anyone to invest in the project through an ISA, the first glasshouse complex was built and the business went from strength to strength.

Now the glasshouse area is set to increase by 50% as the next phase begins on a 2.7ha complex (27,000sq m) next door.

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The new site — which will expand directly out from the existing building on the southern field towards a reservoir built for the operation — will measure 288m by 144m. 

The business currently employs around 70 staff but the expansion will take that to 100.

The firm grows predominantly high end cherry tomatoes in a range of varieties, but the next phase enables growers to move into new territory and grow some larger varieties too.

The plants are propagated in Holland from seeds from Dutch seedhouses and arrive as eight-week-old plants.

These are trained up wires and replaced cyclically so that there is a seamless supply of fruit, which is then sold mainly into major supermarkets but also locally through its Suffolk Sweet Tomatoes arm. This is supplying around 13 shops in the Ipswich areas — as well as wholesalers. 

Boss Richard Lewis explains: “The supermarkets are the backbone of what we do here — there are three we supply.”

Richard, who has spent many years in the horticultural trade and is a director of the British Tomato Growers’ Association, is hugely excited by the next stage of the business’s development. He oversaw the building work in the initial stages and will do so again.

“It’s going to be massive,” he says. “When you first walk into these places they are huge — they are like glass cathedrals.”

The work should be completed around mid-February of next year.

“That becomes critical that point because I’ll need to order my plants for the day we complete. I have to give the propagators eight weeks’ notice,” says Richard.

Sterling Suffolk Ltd is expanding its Blakenham Nursery by 50%. Managing Director Richard Lewis in

Sterling Suffolk Ltd is expanding its Blakenham Nursery by 50%. Managing Director Richard Lewis in the glasshouses. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown - Credit: Archant

Part of the first phase is lit in order to maximise fruit production in the winter months — but that’s hugely expensive to install so the new part will have the capacity for artificial lighting but will rely on natural light.

The business has adjusted to the challenges of Brexit and Covid and Richard is now feeling optimistic about the future.

“It’s a good time to build. I think people have got to wanting more local produce,” he says. 

And it doesn’t stop there — more expansion is on the cards at a date to be decided.

“We still have planning consent for a further 9ha on the other side of Pound Lane. This completes this section — our southern field.”

This build will be easier that the last. All the services are in. The irrigation, the boilers, the pumps and other pieces of equipment are already in place.

And there is plenty more scope for growth, Richard believes, as UK tomato growers still only produce a small proportion — around 15% — of fresh tomatoes sold in the UK and a market is worth around £925m.

“There’s room for UK growers,” he says. “Tomato sales are increasing.”

By the end of next year, Richard hopes to see turnover double.

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