The dullest start to the year in Cornerways' history has significantly delayed this season's tomato crop compared to previous years' nursery production. But there is no sign of a dull outlook at the 10-year-old nursery incorporated on to the British Sugar refinery site in Wissington, near King's Lynn.
Plans are afoot to expand the largest single tomato-growing glasshouse in the country and little can dampen the enthusiasm about the sustainable project's future.
Nursery manager Nigel Bartle, who is serving his third year as British Tomato Growers' Association (BTGA) chairman, says by early March last year they had sold £60,000 worth of tomatoes. This year it was just £6,000. He resigns himself to the fact that: "This is just how the seasons work. We monitor the light levels so we know we have had the least we have ever had here. But there's plenty of things to keep us going."
The British Sugar refinery is always a busy place. Thousands come every year for tours, keen to see its sustainable credentials in action. In refining sugar from sugar beet, nothing is wasted. Top soil, stones, animal feed, limex, bioethanol and electricity are all by-products of the process turned back into profit.
The glasshouse containing the tomatoes gets free heat and carbon dioxide from the plant, which doubles the tomato plants' yield, making it an unrivalled and possibly even carbon-negative growing process. This claim is being tested by Bangor University and the Horticultural Development Company
Last year, the nursery, which has never advertised for workers, had a waiting list of more than 200 people hoping to gain work at the site that already employs 200 in the summer.
A planning application has been submitted to add another 7.5ha to the glasshouse site. This will take it up to 18.2ha of glass and could create 150 jobs. If the plans are approved, all the new space will house tomatoes.
Bartle claims it is impossible to saturate the market with too many tomatoes, even with grower competitors like Kent's Thanet Earth. "Of the tomatoes sold in this country, 80 per cent are imported and 20 per cent are British-grown. We already supply about 10 per cent of that 20 per cent, but that means we only supply two per cent of the market and Thanet Earth supply less," he notes.
"There is lots of room for British tomatoes and Thanet Earth just replaced older growers that were disappearing so far. We can't have too much and we need to compete with these imports." So far £10m has been invested in the nursery and Bartle admits it took a while to make that kind of outlay profitable. "We are there now though," he says.
British Sugar sites in Bury St Edmunds, Newark and Cantley all have challenges that make building nurseries on those sites unlikely. Cornerways, by its nature, is inherently sustainable and striving to become more so. But Bartle's major "bugbear" is that rockwool is not seen as organic by the Soil Association. Last year, the nursery trialled pine wood fibre based substrate Ekofibre and this year it has 1.6ha growing in it. His frustrations continue because he sees it as more sustainable than the alternative coco fibres, from husks, used by many growers.
"The Soil Association thinks we should all be growing in soil but this doesn't suit the tomato plant from South America, which grows on a ski-slope, and soil uses more water and energy. How can that be sustainable?" he asks.
Assurance of terms
Bartle, wearing his BTGA hat, admits he would love it if tomato growers could get the same assurance of returns as agreed last month between the NFU and British Sugar in the form of the sugar beet permanent quota. After two years of negotiations, sugar beet growers will have a guaranteed price before contracting, so they will always at least break even.
"We are still so disparate as growers," says Bartle. "When you think there are basically only 34 tomato growing businesses in the country. That is how many are in the BTGA, and that does include almost all of them apart from some very small ones."
Thanet Earth, however, is yet to join - something that Bartle is keen to change. "It's great that it has invested," he says. "The industry needs glass but I'm hopeful now that it is established we will see it get more involved in the institutions of the tomato growing industry. We all need to work together to improve everything we can."
This year looks set to be a positive one for tomatoes. With imports particularly poor due to bad weather in the Canaries and Morocco, British growers have everything to play for.
BTGA executive officer Gerry Hayman says: "The British crop will have a very strong demand with the challenging imported crops from overseas. We (BTGA) are going to do everything we can to promote food security and growing locally but we still need the sun."
The dull start to this year has had little effect on Bartle though. "As tomato growers, we have a lot to be positive about," he maintains. "We have a phenomenal product here in the UK and a lot to build on."