LEDs light way for British tomato advances

R&L Holt_tomatoes in new glasshouse

Tomatoes grown under LED lighting

Grower R&L Holt believes technological advances will facilitate greater winter-grown British supply to domestic customers, to substitute imports

R&L Holt made history in 2014 by becoming the first commercial greenhouse grower in the UK to harvest a crop of tomatoes during Christmas and New Year. The Vale of Evesham, Worcestershire-based, family business achieved the milestone by building a state-of-the-art glasshouse facility, featuring the latest artificial light and glass technologies. Grower Roly Holt, who runs the business with his parents Laura and Rick and sister Felicity, talks to Produce Business UK about his excitement at being able to pick tomatoes in December.

How does it feel to have grown and picked tomatoes in December?

Roly Holt: It’s very exciting. Our family business has been growing tomatoes for more than 30 years and this is really our first real go at producing tomatoes around Christmas and New Year. We were always confident that with the right set-up and the latest technology we could make it work – that is, producing a consistent, good tasting tomato which is viable at this time of year.

We feel that many years of hard work, development and improvement have helped create this opportunity to really grow a winter crop. Our customers also needed to know that we could produce a good quality tomato in the winter months. So far, some of our local customers, such as farm shops, have been really impressed by the quality. They are amazed they can offer this to their customers in December.

What has it been like working with such state-of-the-art technology, including diffuse glass (which spreads light evenly through the glasshouse), LEDs (light-emitting diodes) inter lighting and sodium SON-T lights?

RH: Working with the latest technology only helps to give you the opportunity to produce an efficient and uniform product. Diffuse glass has been the easiest to adjust to, especially in the spring and summer months because the uniformity of [plant] growth is so good and in hot spells, during the summer, the heads of the crop cope better. There are no shadows in the crop – the diffuse glass creates a uniform array of light over the crop canopy. It feels brighter in there on dull days during spring when we compare it with standard roof glass.

The LED inter-lights have virtually no maintenance. They should hopefully last at least 10 years before a noticeable reduction of light input, whereas the SON-T lamps need bulbs replacing probably every 18 months. The LEDs can be used during the whole season if it’s necessary during a dull summer’s day, as they do not emit much heat – whereas the SON-T lamps would not really be used between April and September because they emit too much heat on to the growing points. The only thing we expect to do with the LED components is clean them with a cloth once a year.

Working with artificial lighting is a challenge but the opportunity to use LED lighting has made it easy to give the whole crop the right lighting conditions.

Are more British growers likely to invest in these technologies over the next decade?

RH: I would expect that, as costs to build new areas of glass are likely to increase, you might see more investments in technology like LED lighting to maximise the return per square metre.

I think LED technology will increase if more growers decide that producing over the winter months is important to their businesses. Imported fruit has increased transportation costs and this, combined with the fact that the climate is now more variable in southern and eastern Europe, means that now has never been a better time for UK growers to give it a go.

At the moment I only see the specialty crops being produced during the winter months because of returns on investments. So, more Jubilee, Vittoria, mini plum types and possibly cocktail types.

What varieties are growing this winter in your new glasshouse?

RH: Vittoria, a cherry tomato on the vine, and Jubilee (Elegance), a large vine tomato. These have mainly been supplied to Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range, although some of the Jubilee is going to Morrisons. Across our sites, the main variety we grow is Vittoria (13 acres). This has been our number one crop (in terms of area) for the last 10 years.

Why do you think these specialty tomatoes are so popular with consumers?

RH: Specialty tomatoes, including baby plum, mini plum, cocktail, cherry on the vine and loose cherry types, are popular because the taste is different to a standard round tomato. They all have their own unique flavour. Customers now realise that tomatoes can be tasty. If you go back 20 years the only tomatoes available were standard round tomatoes and no one could differentiate between varieties. So the taste has improved because of better variation and also growing techniques have improved. The sweet cherry type varieties are popular with children because they are snack-shaped size and are easy to incorporate with other foods.

What varieties do you expect to be growing more of in the future?

RH: At the moment the baby plum varieties are getting more popular so this is an area that might increase. However, there is still a demand for all varieties, whether it is a large vine, round or cherry type.

How do you see the British tomato industry in 10 to 15 years' time?

RH: You would think that, with an increasing population and a need to produce more secure food, the UK tomato industry would grow. The area of tomatoes grown has not really expanded in the last 20 years. Old glass has been replaced by new and the industry still supplies just 20% of the tomatoes we eat. However, our productivity has doubled due to improved growing techniques and efficiencies.

British growers are growing great tomatoes that can be in the shops within 24 hours, full of freshness and flavour. We just need to collectively – as growers, marketing groups and especially the multiples – shout about it. If the customers can differentiate between UK tomatoes and imports then there is definitely a strong future.

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