British Tomato Conference gathers top delegates for glimpse at growing future

BRITTOMATO2

Photo courtesy of British Tomato Growers' Association

On 27 September, 200 delegates from around the UK and parts of Europe will gather in Warwickshire for the 21st-annual British Tomato Conference. The event is organized by the British Tomato Association, which represents British commercial tomato growers from around the country. Their aim is to reassure consumers that growers in the UK are using natural methods that are both complementary to the product and to the environment. They are also responsible for advising them of the health benefits of tomatoes in their diets.

The association’s motto: “We don’t want anyone to buy our tomatoes just because they are British, but because you know they are better.”

Produce Business UK sat down with Dr. Philip Morley, the Technical Officer of the British Tomato Growers' Association, to find out more about this motto, the work of the association and the upcoming conference:

First let’s talk about the British Tomato Association itself. When was it founded? What was its initial goal and how has this evolved?

The British Tomato Growers’ Association was founded in 1997 by tomato growers to bring together members into a single and more effective membership-based organisation. At that time, it was (as it is still) necessary to consolidate the views, resources (technical and commercial) and promotion of British tomato growers and their crops for the combined benefit of all, as well as to consolidate the efforts of individual members in a more coordinated and mutually beneficial way. This continues to this day where the Tomato Growers’ Association are actively involved in promoting consumption of British tomatoes, not just because they are British, but also because they are the best.

How many growers make up the association?

The BTGA currently has over 20 members, which is a little down on our original membership in 1997 primarily because businesses have consolidated, leading to fewer larger organisations in 2018. 

As a B2B publication focused on produce and trends around it, we are really interested in what you have witnessed regarding tomatoes over the years in the UK. Any new varieties? New packaging?

Since 1997, we have seen a progressive trend in the market towards better-tasting, more aesthetically-pleasing tomatoes which has indeed favoured our growers who, whilst still only supplying 20 per cent of UK demand, represent 25 per cent of that volume, by value. In recent years, we have also seen a top-end niche demand for the weird and wonderfully coloured varieties grown. At the same time, our staple cherry on the vine and cocktail and large vine cultivars are as popular as ever.

Growers continue to find the next holy grail of tomatoes and have many trial varieties each year. Working with their customers as well as seed houses, I am sure we will continue to see varietal developments in the future.

Regarding packaging, well, the move away from plastics will dominate that area of research in coming years. One tomato grower has already made significant progress, and others will follow. Other aspects of post-harvest technology to enable further minimisation of waste will also progress as new technologies come online, further enabling an increase in marketable yields of crops of all categories.

What about agri-tech solutions? Do you envision this as leading innovation in this sector?

Of course. Some of our members have taken part in the recent Agri-Tech strategy: ‘Innovate UK’ research which has in most cases provided useful additional knowledge for the industry. However, on the wider agenda, the government needs to fully appreciate the importance of protected horticulture. This, whilst relative to broad field arable, for instance, is small in size though significant in terms of production and employment and definitely should be considered as an increasingly important food production technology, which is both sustainable in its approach and highly productive per unit of input/area.

 And of course, recent labour shortages and projected future issues only speed up the need for a higher level of automation in production. Robotics and ‘big data’ seem to be gathering pace. We will help the industry direct these efforts from a TGA perspective.

The TGA also has a ‘technical’ organisation within it called the TGA technical committee. This is a committee of experts who help direct relevant research and set the agenda. It is through this organisation that most research directions are set and consulted on. I am sure this committee, chaired by Phil Pearson of APS Produce, will become increasingly important to this new world of tomato growing as we meet the technical challenges of future profitable production.

Can you explain a little about the crop cycle in the UK? Is it different from other countries? Your website contains some very insightful, comprehensive details about sowing, grafting, and watering. 

The UK tomato crop cycle is now pretty much 12 months a year. Investment in standard high-pressure sodium, as well as novel LED lighting technology, has meant that several growers now produce delicious UK tomatoes all year-round. Nevertheless, the majority of production is still seen from March to November in the UK. This is similar to other North European growers and is largely limited by sunlight hours where artificial lighting is not used. Early picks are generally seen around Valentine’s Day (pomme d’amour connection perhaps and an easy way to remember!) ; though with commercial quantities some weeks later. 

Talk about the British Tomato Conference. How did this all come about?

In 1996, our nascent BTGA then, with just a core membership, decided that if we were indeed to be a truly British Association then we needed to have a forum where the community of growers could meet and exchange ideas as well as get to know each other a little better. After all, producing tomatoes is all about people. Our first conferences were held at the then HRI Warwick and were variously hosted by some known legendary figures like Alan Parker, Gerry Hayman, Nigel Dungey, to name but three.

Our conferences were very successful and subsequently attracted a high level of interest from both commercial organisations wishing to be in the same place at the same time, as well as TGA members who were attracted as well to the range of high-level speakers there.

Then, as it is now, the conference dinner became a real focus for the event and a further opportunity to get together with colleagues and peers, old and new.

Being a tomato grower is about much more than just tomatoes, of course.

According to your website, this year’s event is said to “attract up to 200 delegates, and constitutes an excellent forum for growers to exchange ideas and discuss new and emerging technologies with other growers, scientists, fresh produce technologists and horticultural suppliers.” Can you explain a little about the makeup of constituents who attend? Do they all come from the UK or also from other parts of the world?

The conference delegates come from the UK and across Europe, although over the years we have had speakers and guests from Canada, Israel, the USA and New Zealand. As well as the conference delegates, we have a wide range of trade stands all available to give advice on new innovations and products. This year, we will have trade stands from the UK, the Netherlands and Latvia.

What have been some of the highlights of the conference over the years? 

Over 21 years, it is very difficult to pick highlights or individual speakers. We try to find a balance between technical issues and commercial and promotional matters, as well as having key speakers from government departments.

In recent years, we have also developed an educational/succession section to the conference where speakers from educational establishments as well as students themselves are invited along to facilitate engagement with the industry first-hand. This promises to be an increasingly important aspect of our conferences to inspire young people to consider our sector as part of a successful career pathway.

We have also had some inspirational and entertaining after-dinner speakers, including round-the-world sailors, mountaineers and food critics. This year, we will be entertained by John Hartson, a former Welsh international footballer who played as a striker, best known for his spells with West Ham and Celtic. John is also a survivor of testicular cancer and ambassador and fundraiser for the disease.

More broadly speaking, how does the conference help growers? Associations?

The annual tomato conference is an important time of year when the whole industry has the chance to come together to discuss the past season, look forward to the next season and exchange ideas and innovations. It is also a time when old friends can meet both at the formal presentations and at the gala dinner, and for new friends to be made and possibilities discussed.

A kind of real-life mini ‘LinkedIn’ I suppose.

The conference thus strengthens the Association and is the one day of the year when almost all our member companies get together in both a formal and informal setting. After all, that’s what the Association is all about: being together and involved in current affairs, as well as preparing for future issues (labour, etc, post-Brexit, of course) and focusing influence with respect to decision-makers.

What is the agenda for this year’s conference?

This year is our 21st anniversary conference with an overall theme inevitably looking forward to a future outside the EU. Our keynote speakers will include the National Farmer’s Union, Minette Batters. Also on the agenda include Edward Griffiths, Kantar Worldpanel, Chris Moncrieff – Head of Horticultural Relations, RHS, among many others.

In general, what can people expect from this conference in particular?

Every year the TGA receives excellent feedback from the delegates, and our Association often wonders how we can improve year on year. This year, we are hoping for the best conference yet in 2018 to celebrate the TGA’s 21st Anniversary.

Innovate UK and Agri-Tech strategy

Innovate UK is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. It partners with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish

Under this umbrella, “The Transforming Food Production Challenge” (https://www.ukri.org/news/transforming-food-production), part of the government’s modern Industrial Strategy, will bring together the UK’s world-leading agri-food sector with robotics, satellite, data and digital technologies and artificial intelligence to make the UK a world leader in the precision farming techniques needed to make sure the planet is able to feed a population of nine billion people by 2050.  

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