A Borders dairy farmer has become Scotland's only commercial tomato grower thanks to expertise in on-site energy generation. Fifth-generation farmer Jim Shanks of Standhill Farm near Hawick has built a £2m 15,000sq m glasshouse heated using biomass from locally sourced woodchip, with electricity from two anaerobic digestion tanks fed by cow slurry and silage - techniques Shanks studied in his 2009-10 Nuffield scholarship.
Having researched the industries in northern Europe and North America, he concluded: "As farmers we can play the role of energy producer as well as food producer. The greatest potential will come in the form of biogas and wind." The AD plant provides heat to dry the woodchip and also CO2 to enrich the growing climate in the glasshouse, while digestate is returned to the surrounding fields. Built for high light transmission - above 95% - and using diffuse glass, the glasshouse also features thermal screens.
Water from the roof is also stored for irrigation in two further tanks. Planners had expressed concern about greater extraction from the farm's borehole, but Shanks said rainfall figures for the past 40 years indicated that harvested rainwater could be expected to fully meet the glasshouse's needs.
The newly established Sweet Red Balls company employs live-in tomato expert Mark Wilkinson, who has more than 28 years' experience of glasshouse growing. The firm has been working with Airdrie-based food supplier Scotty Brand on two dedicated branded specialist tomato lines that will be available from this month - cocktail-on-the-vine variety Annamay and the baby plum Sweetelle.
"People lead different lives now and they no longer want the classic round tomato," says Shanks. "They want tasty, on-the-vine, small tomatoes they can put in their lunchbox and they want local. I have already picked the first crop and they taste fresh and full of flavour."
Scotty Brand head of marketing Michael Jarvis adds: "We are always looking for new and exciting seasonal products to add to its portfolio and we have been searching for a suitable commercial tomato growing partner for a while."
Harvesting has already begun, with Scotty Brand tomatoes available shortly in Wholefoods, selected Morrison and Waitrose stores, and in all Lidl stores in Scotland, until early November.
Michelin-starred chef Andrew Fairlie demonstrated the versatility of the tomatoes at the press launch of the glasshouse last Wednesday. "Scotland was once famous for growing tomatoes and it's good to see the industry back in production," he said. "What makes them especially attractive to me is that they're local and grown in such an environmentally friendly and sustainable way."
A previous effort to revive the Scottish industry in its former Clyde Valley heartland failed some two years ago. But Shanks explains that energy self-sufficiency makes the business sustainable economically as well as environmentally.