Looming out of the fenland mist north of Cambridge is the new and literally dazzling sight of a 1,800sq m glasshouse complex. But even more striking is the fact that the research body it belongs to has financed the entire £3.5m project, of which this is only phase one, itself.
The National Institute of Agricultural Biology (NIAB) has long established itself in the unflashy but steady field of crop trialling, both agricultural and ornamental. "We work with new plant material - it's not something you can trumpet," says head of ornamental crops Elizabeth Scott.
But the former Government agency is a major employer in the sector, with around 250 employees including more than 80 researchers dealing predominantly with cereal crops. It conducts research and development as well as the more traditional business of trials to establish new varieties.
"The Government was a major source of work for the NIAB, but that was dying away," says Scott. "Though it's still a significant part of what we do here, we have had to stand on our own two feet and take on other work too.
"We have been talking for years about developing a new site. Our facilities were coming to the end of their natural life and this will provide for new aspects of our work. It will be more flexibly used and we will be able to bid for work that we couldn't before. It will bring together different people doing different work and in the medium term we will take on more people. It's about the NIAB investing in its future."
Ornamental crops specialist Hilary Papworth adds: "The nature of the NIAB's work has changed and needs have moved on. The facilities have to keep one step ahead."
Known as the MacLeod Complex after a former director and chair of the NIAB's governing trust Professor John MacLeod, the project has been funded largely from the sale of land adjoining the main site for housing development. "It used to feel like a working farm but the city has grown around us," says Scott. "We thought about moving out altogether. But our location in Cambridge is one of our strengths - there's a synergy with the city and the university."
Having evaluated a number of sites, the NIAB settled on Park Farm, a 150ha site near Histon 5km out from its main site in the north of the city, which was already used for open-air trialling. After what Scott describes as "a lengthy competitive tendering process", the contract for the turnkey build including biomass boiler (see box, p22), was awarded to specialist installer Cambridge HOK.
According to Papworth: "When people hear 'research', they think it's something highly specialised. But it's a standard commercial glasshouse because it has to mimic commercial conditions."
The three separate five metre-high houses contain a total of eight discreet units whose heating and lighting regimes can be tailored separately. The first house is lit by mains-powered 6,000-lux sodium lighting while one smaller unit, where wheat can be grown in winter, goes up to 10,000 lux.
A third house without lighting serves to mimic a basic commercial glasshouse while a standing-out area will host outdoor trials. Our requirement is to be able to grow the plants as they are grown in commerce and so show how they will look on the market," says Papworth.
The lighting allows day length to be manipulated and houses can be blacked out, again to meet planning requirements. "We have to be able both to keep light in and keep it out," says Scott. "We have also had to do quite a lot of landscaping to mitigate the views across the fields."
The use of chemical agents in the houses will be minimal. Insect netting around vents ensures that integrated pest management agents stay inside and no other insects get in. Neither are plant growth regulators used. "We need to see what varieties look like without manipulation," Scott explains.
Water from roofs and hardstandings will not be harvested on-site but instead will be channelled into an adjoining swale planted with native plants, ensuring a measured rate into the drainage system.
"We need absolute repeatability," Scott explains. "We have our own borehole but it triggers plant sensitivities so it will have to be mains water. But up-to-date technology will keep its use down."
Regulated by an on-site weather station, the computer-controlled climate can be monitored and adjusted remotely via a web connection. "It mitigates the effect of being on two different sites," Scott adds.
The first house is benched, while the second is open ground - though soil to replace the heavy Cambridgeshire clay has been trucked in from Lincolnshire. This glasshouse is currently being used to grow batches of 12 established varieties of Chrysanthemum to check climate controls and to ensure consistency across the surface. Trial cropping will begin in earnest in May and will continue at a rate of three or four crops a year.
Papworth explains the significance of Chrysanthemum as a trial crop. "It's bred and grown all over the world and it is the second largest crop in Europe for Plant Breeders' Rights after roses," she points out. "But it depends - things go in and out of fashion."
Scott adds: "A crop such as wheat is always going forward. But with ornamentals it's more cyclical. When eastern Europe opened up, everyone wanted big blooming Chrysanthemums - the sort that we last tested back in the 1950s and 1960s."
Dahlias, too, were neglected for some time. She explains: "We tested six in 20 years then got 40 at once. You just don't know. But I can't imagine that the plant breeding industry will stop."
Breeders submitting varieties for testing can range from multinationals to small British independents.
Scott adds that, while the criteria for a new variety may sound exacting - it has to be proven to be distinct, uniform and stable - superficial differences may be slight. "It may simply be an improvement in response time. Varieties that used to take nine weeks have been bred to crop at six or even five weeks. For the big Dutch growers, timing is very important," she says.
Such specialist work relies on economies of scale and benefits from the now global nature of plant breeding and registering. "We have built up a good network internationally," says Papworth. "It would be crazy for each individual country to have its own network."
The NIAB conducts trials for national rights bodies as far away as Colombia. But the majority of the ornamental trials work is done for the Community Plant Variety Office, an agency of the EU based in Angers, France. This implements the EU's commitments under the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, known by its French acronym UPOV.
A group in which the NIAB is involved meets every year to ensure consistency across the trialling network. For example, the standard size of a trial crop is laid down at 48 specimens.
Scott believes this investment shows that plant-based science has a viable future. "The evaluation of varieties is morphological - in other words, you have to recognise things at plant level. We need botanists and taxonomists and it isn't easy to find them, but people tend to have a passion for the work so they stay here," she says.
"People say: 'Horticultural research is dead - there's no-one left to do it.' But I don't think that's true. New people are coming on-stream. Rather than disappearing, we are investing."
NIAB: A HISTORY
Founded in 1919 to tackle food shortages following the First World War, the NIAB has continued to support the development of improved varieties and seeds.
Since 1982 it has been the sole tester for Chrysanthemum varieties whose breeders are seeking Plant Breeders' Rights. It was privatised in 1996 and has recently considerably expanded its plant genetic research with investment in dedicated facilities.
The institute strengthened its cereal crop research following a merger with applied research body the Arable Group last year. It currently tests more than 1,000 new agricultural and ornamental varieties each year and is expanding work on medicinal herb crops.
In a cedar-clad outhouse beside the glasshouses sits their main fuel source - a 300kW biomass boiler part-funded by a Government grant.
Site manager Gary Bignell has overseen its design and installation. "We had a team of specialists to provide the initial specification, then various companies tendered for the work," he says. "We had to be convinced that biomass was reliably available, sustainable and met our needs. But fossil fuels will only increase in price, and we hope for a saving over time."
He believes that the industry is now better able to ensure the facility's fuel supply. "You pay more for wood pellets but they're cleaner burning and mean that the boiler requires less maintenance," he adds.
Pellets are blown directly into the hopper by pipe from the delivery lorry, but the boiler has to be shut down while this takes place. "You also have to check it every month for ash build-up, but otherwise maintenance is minimal," he says.
The German-made boiler has already been running for around six weeks. "It has been well tested this winter," Bignell adds.
Space has been left for a second biomass boiler - an option for a later date. However, an oil-burning boiler has also been installed as a backup and to deal with peak demand. Bignell admits: "It would be folly to say that the wood boiler will never break down."