New facilities offer research boost to sector

Crop-pest and LED research to gain as Harper Adams University and Stockbridge Technology Centre facilities formally open.

Facility: staff at refitted building
Facility: staff at refitted building

The opening of two very different research facilities in recent weeks has provided a ray of hope for an otherwise diminished horticultural research community.

The first, a new facility that aims to put Harper Adams University at the forefront of crop pest research was opened on 27 January by the university's chancellor Princess Anne.

"It is worrying to know there are so few entomologists so congratulations on this move, which is going to make such a difference," said the princess.

The Jean Jackson Entomology Building was refitted for the purpose partly using a £200,000 donation from the local Jean Jackson Charitable Trust.

It includes three controlled temperature and lighting rooms, allowing students and staff to assess plant-pest interactions throughout the year, as well as gas chromatography mass spectrometry equipment for isolating volatile compounds such as insect pheromones and plant semiochemicals.

Course leader Professor Simon Leather said: "Here we can do small consultancy up to major field trials. The whole ethos is that we can work from field to lab."

He added: "Harper Adams is well aware of the shortage of skills in these areas. But we now have the largest group of entomologists of any university - and as for field-based nematologists, this is it, so we have the market at the applied end."

Research entomologist Dr Tom Pope said: "We are also the only UK university teaching integrated pest management, plant pathology and weed science, though we are not able to supply as many as the country needs."

Meanwhile, former MP and National Fruit Show president Michael Jack formally opened Stockbridge Technology Centre's high-wire LED-lit tomato glasshouse on 10 February.

The research facility is currently being used to compare the effect on the crop of four different formats, with each housed within a separate compartment of the glasshouse at the centre.

One zone has a hybrid system of sodium high-lights but LED inter-lights; another compartment boasts all LED lights; and the final section has LEDs but diffused roof glass to scatter daylight.

Science director Dr Martin McPherson said the initiative was prompted by big interest from the British Tomato Growers' Association. Partners include Philips Lighting, glasshouse builder CambridgeHOK and Cornerways Nursery.

The crop went in last October and teams started picking the fruit before Christmas. Delifresh and East Yorkshire Local Food Network are marketing the tomatoes.

"Feedback has been fantastic on fruit quality and taste," said McPherson. "It's too early to judge the outcome because we have to go through a large part of the season to get a true picture.

"We are working with a consortium of growers and results are confidential. But in all compartments fruit quality is excellent. There is no comparison to Spanish production, for example.

"But one of the big questions we need to answer is what are the economics? These aren't going to be cheap tomatoes; they will be at the higher end of the market to cover investment and running costs.

"But it gives us an opportunity to look at season-round production and, going forward, LEDs are much more effective than conventional high-pressure sodium lights. LEDs are being picked up across sectors, which is driving down prices."

Harper Adams Projects in new facility

- Jordan Ryder assessing bumblebee nutrition, as well as their ability to withstand pesticides, in work funded by the BBSRC and Syngenta.

- Joseph Roberts is funded by BBSRC and Certis to research the mass rearing of the predatory mite Phytoseiulus persimilis for glasshouse pest control.

- Frans Sconce investigating the role of springtails in improving soil quality and their effect on different cultivation regimes.

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