British Sugar owns a large site in Wissington, Norfolk. It has been described as a power station, a sugar refinery or an ethanol factory. But to many growers, it represents the future of their industry.
Over the past couple of years fuel prices have soared. As a result, growers are increasingly looking for new sources of cheap heat. The solution adopted by British Sugar is being seen as one possible answer to this problem.
The site incorporates the Cornerways Nursery, which is wholly owned by British Sugar and which is the largest single tomato glasshouse in the UK. By linking the nursery to the factory, the nursery effectively gets free heat.
The nursery manager is Nigel Bartle, who is also chairman of the British Tomato Growers' Association. He explains: "The whole ethos of this place is about reuse. We want to eliminate the need for fuel and cut our carbon footprint to nil."
Until eight years ago, the area was just grassland. British Sugar, realising the potential for using its waste heat, made the decision to invest in a tomato nursery. The nursery was to be built on land next to the sugar refinery.
Initially the nursery occupied 5ha of land. In 2007 it was further expanded to take up 11ha of land. The nursery is now the UK's largest producer of classic round tomatoes.
A great deal of planning has gone into the site. Bartle is keen to stress that the nursery is not just an add-on: it is an integral part of the whole set up. At one time British Sugar was refining sugar for part of the year only. However, it realised that if it refined sugar throughout the year, it could install a combined heat and power (CHP) plant and generate large quantities of electricity, which could be sold on to the National Grid.
Bartle explains: "Effectively, we've built a large regional power station, which puts out 70MW." Gas is fed to a single giant gas turbine, which creates the electricty. The steam from the heat is then used to boil the sugar beet. "To make sugar you just have to boil it, until all the water is boiled away. It's just a huge vat of boiling vegetables," he says.Once the steam has cooled down, it condenses into hot water. This is pumped to the nursery, where it provides the heat for growing the tomatoes. "We have a load of heat exchangers and a mass of pipes - about 113km in all. The factory is across the river from the nursery, so we've put pipes on an old railway bridge to take the hot water and bring back the cold. I see this as the nursery's umbilical chord. It's our lifeline."
Bartle stresses the system's efficiency. "Most power stations would have a cooling tower to take away the heat: we've got a tomato nursery." He points out that there is an extremely efficient system of blinds, which also helps regulate the temperature. The site is also used to produce bio-ethanol from sugar.
British Sugar sees the site as a showcase for its commitment to the environment: waste is cut down to a minimum. Carbon dioxide, required by the tomatoes, is supplied by pumping the exhaust gas from the turbines into the nursery.
Water is obtained from the run-off of the nursery roof and from the water used to wash the beet, as well from the steam that comes off the sugar beet. The nursery uses relatively little water from any other source. "This is very valuable in times of drought," says Bartle.
The whole system is pollinated using hives of bees, situated in the nursery itself. "We use bumblebees rather than honeybees because they are more docile and less likely to swarm or sting our workers," says Bartle. Most pests are controlled with natural predators rather than pesticides.
Despite this natural approach, the site is not organic. The plants are grown in bags of rockwool - a system which, much to the dismay of Bartle, is not approved by the Soil Association. However, Bartle stresses that even the rockwool is not wasted. Although it cannot be used for more than one season, it is ground down and added to the soil to help condition it.
This sort of system is extremely capital-intensive: the nursery cost a total of £10m to build. And, even with the high costs of fuel, there are still questions about its profitabilty.
But Bartle, along with many others in the industry, believes that using waste heat could be the way forward for growers. He explains: "British Sugar is a business and it is looking for a return on its money. Over the life of the investment, we should make money. Let's just say that we're getting there."
British Sugar is looking at the possibility of creating other nurseries at other sites. However, there are problems. The company has four factories, and only two - including Wissington - have CHP plants. The other factory with CHP is not on a flat site and is unsuitable for a large glasshouse complex. However, Bartle believes that, over the next few years, more nurseries along these lines are a distinct possibility. "We're very interested," he says.
This year has been a difficult one for producers of protected crops. Over the past year gas prices have more than doubled and continue to rise. And there are genuine fears that some companies will simply go to the wall.
Under these circumstances, it is likely that many more growers will be looking for friendly factory owners with whom they can link up.
BARTLE: CAREER HISTORY
Cornerways Nursery is run by Nigel Bartle, the current chairman of the British Tomato Growers' Assocation (BTGA) - a man who is seen as one of the industry's most dynamic figures.
Bartle is only 33 and yet runs the largest glasshouse in Britain. His horticultural career started at the age of 10, when he used to grow bedding plants and tomato plants to add to his pocket money.
He undertook a BSc in horticultural science at the University of Nottingham, graduating in 1995. He started working as trainee assistant for a firm which became part of Melrow Salads.
By 1997 he was working as a nursery manager for Humber Growers, growing tomatoes and peppers in Britain and Spain. In 2001 he won the Young Grower of the Year Award for his efforts.
Also in 2001, Humber Salads was approached by British Sugar, which was looking into the possibility of setting up its own tomato nursery. Bartle was initially sent to Wissington for two weeks to offer advice. At the end of that period, British Sugar offered him the job of nursery manager.
"It's a great job," says Bartle. "I have the freedom to make my own decisions. Yet we've got the backing of a blue-chip business, so we have the funds that we need."
Bartle was later appointed as chairman of the BTGA. According to BTGA executive officer Gerry Hayman, he is one of the most active and positive chairmen that the organisation has ever had. "He works very hard and gives a positive message about prices, expansion and the quality of our product."
This year he represented the BTGA at the Royal Norfolk Show, talking to Prince Harry among other guests. He also organised a stall in the Houses of Parliament to showcase British Tomato Week - through his work at the stall, the BTGA was able to make many positive contacts with MPs and government ministers.
Bartle believes that the industry faces many challenges - not least the fact that costs are constantly rising, while retail prices for tomatoes have remained static for several years. However, he feels that it is important to be upbeat. "I'm very positive. As far as I'm concerned, the glass is always half full. We need to stand up and shout about the good things. We have a great product and we have to get that message across."
TOMATO GROWERS GET READY TO FACE THE FUTURE
NFU president Peter Kendall will give a speech at this year's Tomato Conference, which takes place on 2 October at the Royal Court Hotel, in Coventry.
Kendall is to give a talk at the conference on the price of food - as tomato growers facing colossal inflation call for greater returns on their produce.
Bartle says: "The fact that we are having the president of the NFU speaking at our event reflects the weight and importance of the tomato conference and the British tomato industry. This is a very high-profile event - the agenda has a technical and market focus - and is a great social opportunity for growers."
The theme of this year's conference, which is sponsored by the BTGA, HDC and Warwick HRI, is "Facing the Future". Bartle says: "British tomato growers have been excellent at innovating and continue to do so - but the number of challenges never reduces.
"Whether they have found a novel energy solution or not, there are still lots of others costs out there - be it fertlisers, growing bags, packaging or transportation ... Tomato growers need to understand that these (costs) will be recognised."
The conference's morning session will be chaired by Philip Pearson of tomato supplier A Pearson & Sons in Cheshire.
Pearson, whose farm's CHP unit heats the glasshouses while any surplus electricity is sold to the National Grid to provide electricity for local town Alderley Edge, will give a talk on the current climate from a grower's perspective.
Other speakers in the morning include Pieter Niekus of Rabobank International, who will discuss how growers in Holland are faring.
The afternoon session, chaired by Bernard Sparkes of Melrow Salads in Lincolnshire, will feature a talk on tomatoes and human health by Gordon Lowe of Liverpool John Moores University. He is taking part in the European Lycocard project - a five-year study that began two years ago. It looks into the health benefits of lycopene - a carotenoid (pigment) found in tomatoes that is thought to have cancer and cardiovascular disease-preventing properties.
- To register or for more information contact the British Tomato Growers' Association before 19 September on 01243 554859 or email email@example.com.