On a lovely sunny day in June 2016, we took a group of young farmers from Norfolk Young Farmer’s club, and young scientists from The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) and John Innes Centre, to visit Cornerways Nursery, a large tomato producer growing a number of varieties in their glasshouse in Norfolk. Growing around 140 million tomatoes each year (which sounds a lot, but is about 2% of the UK tomato market!) in their 18 hectare glasshouse, they have adopted a number of practices to help reduce their environmental impact and improve their yield and quality of tomato.
Matt Ware, director of operations, was our tour guide for the day, who handily has a plant sciences background – he easily fielded all of the questions our scientists and farmers could throw at him! Based next to a sugar factory, Cornerways is able to use the CO2 produced by the processor to improve their tomato yield by about 50%. They are also able to utilise the heat produced by the factory to keep their glasshouses at the optimum temperature year round (28oC in daytime, and 16oC at night), with sophisticated systems able to detect the current temperature and reduce or increase it with automated roof screens and windows, as well as monitoring CO2 levels and regulating them to provide the perfect growing environment. They’re also able to harvest rainwater and recycle their drainage, resulting in next to no additional water being drawn – an astounding feat when each of the 750,000 plants can use an average of 2 litres a day!
At Cornerways, they also try to use biocontrol where they can. Matt showed us the eggs they bring in of various insects on a tiny card, used to keep away other little nasties. They also have about 300 bumblebee hives, used to pollinate the flowers – a task once done by hand. I think it’s quite important to bear in mind that nature has evolved to make processes efficient and effective – sometimes, employing nature to do our work can be both time and cost saving.
What really astounded me was the amount of knowledge that the staff have. Matt talked about the difficulties that need to be overcome if they were to ever use robotic pickers. Their employees can read a plant like a book – knowing if the plant needs water by the way the top leaves look, or judging if green tomatoes on a picked vine will ripen before the riper ones split. This kind of knowledge and ability to make informed decisions can only be learned through years of experience. How we would ever be able to build a robot capable of making those judgements is beyond me – but perhaps the scientists on the tour will be the first ones to work it out!
Touring Cornerways was fantastic, and it certainly piqued everyone’s curiosity – there were no end of questions on anything from why green tomatoes were picked, to why the waste organic matter wasn’t used in the local area (in the Fens, farmers simply don’t need it) to how their robot trolley trains were guided (the robots brought about much excitement from everyone in the group!). Many of the scientists present were working on tomatoes in the lab, so I hope that they will be able to see how their research could be practically applied in the future, and some of the challenges of growing tomatoes on a commercial scale. It was also great to see a different way of thinking; how we can use waste products to help improve our crops, and how we can think progressively to help foster benefits for all. I think it got everyone, farmer and scientist alike, thinking about how we can help make the industry achieve long term sustainability.
Young Innovator’s Forum Norwich is an Agri-Tech East event kindly sponsored by The Morley Agricultural Foundation, and run in partnership with Norfolk Young Farmer’s Club and John Innes Centre and The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC). Find out more: https://agri-tech-e.co.uk/yif/