The study, in conjunction with the industry's Tomato Working Party, will monitor the performance of the cherry Piccolo and mid-sized Brioso, using the latest growing technology including Philips LED topand inter-lighting. The first fruits, grown in Grodan's Grotop substrate, were picked last month. "The crop is building up quite well," said horticulture lecturer Ashley Brown. He hopes the tomatoes will be used commercially.
The tomato production unit is one of four in the 768sq m glasshouse, the others being a general growing area featuring an ebb-and-flow bench system, a propagation unit and another production area being used to research light "recipes" for winter-grown strawberries.
Head of horticulture Sarah Hopkinson said: "This new facility provides students with hands-on experience of the most up-to-date technology in a commercial setting." A new horticulture BSc course, now in its first year, was developed with industry support to help plug the current skills gap.
"The message we got was that (graduates) have a lot of knowledge about science and theory but not commercial experience," said Hopkinson. "They told us they want students who can carry out first aid and who have spray certificates, for example."
The tomato project has also arisen from industry engagement, she explained, adding that future trials in the glasshouse may include experiments on other salad crops and ornamental crops because these also feature in the new horticulture courses. The curriculum has been modified to include a technical baccalaureate in crop production, while level 2 production horticulture apprenticeships are also offered.
This April the college is inviting school pupils in the region to design a robotic tomato-picking arm. "We feel that this competition is a really useful way of helping schools to better understand the science and technology within horticulture," said Hopkinson. "It's all about how much they can go beyond the brief - for example, can they create sensors that help detect whether or not the fruit is ripe?"
The industry-backed Brightcrop campaign, which publicises the breadth of career opportunities in the food and farming sectors, is helping the college to market the "Cropbotics" competition.
Reaseheath's head of commercial services and project development Annette McDonald said the college would welcome sponsorship from the horticulture industry. The imminent introduction of the National Living Wage will increase the need for automation. With suitable backing, the competition final will take place next spring at a commercial glasshouse, whose growers would sit on the judging panel. The college will also host a conference on robotics and other emerging technologies in horticulture in June.