Clare Hogan and Nathaniel Oliver were responsible for trialling 168 tomato varieties, of which 14 have been selected for commercial production. "We looked at how suitable each was for this growing environment as well as pest and disease monitoring, measured yield, size, weight, Brix and consistency, and forwarded promising candidates to a taste panel," said Oliver, who previously worked in design.
"Nathaniel and I got practical experience but also got paid for it. We couldn't believe our luck," said Hogan, a former newspaper production editor now in the third year of a commercial horticulture degree at programme partner Hadlow College. She urged attendees: "You know where your local college or university is but their students don't know about you. If they did - if they knew what was on offer - you would have a better response. Introduce yourselves to your college."
Thanet Earth technical director Robert James said: "Without graduates, UK horticulture will falter in the face of increasing competition from abroad. We are spoilt with the most amazing facilities and for us not to share them with those coming into the industry would be madness."
Explaining the value of the trial, he added: "The Discovery Fellowship has been key in deciding what we plant commercially. The students have helped us build mutually beneficial relationships with trainers, breeders and the rest of the industry. In our market we have to fight for the value that British-grown represents against other cheaper alternatives. Part of that added value comes from exciting new varieties. We need to give consumers reasons to buy our products."
The event marked the fifth year of the relationship between Thanet Earth and Hadlow College. James said: "We have watched students grow through it and forge rewarding careers," including Sally Chapman, who remained at Thanet Earth to become new product development co-ordinator.
Hadlow media and PR manager Phillip Orrell said: "Thanet Earth is a key partner for us and the Discovery Fellowship is our flagship project. It's massively credible for us. The course requires colossal dedication and commitment from the students and the work is a hefty responsibility though also very rewarding. A genuine experience like this is hard to find."
NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper said: "For all of horticulture and farming, encouraging students coming through is so important." On the breeding work carried out by the students, she added: "Consumers want things that are new and different. It can drive us mad but innovation is what makes our businesses successful. The work I do for the NFU is exciting because it's a modern, innovative, forward-thinking industry with a lot of talent."
On a tour of Thanet Earth's three-year-old 8.5ha tomato glasshouse, James explained: "We grow 52 weeks a year here so we need lighting. There are 80 staff here and every plant is tended a couple of times a week - tying in, deleafing and ensuring the ripening fruit is at picking height."
To ensure constant production, "summer" and "winter" plants are grown side by side in the gutter, with the younger plants being trained up while the older ones are still in harvest. "It's twice the cost and labour but twice the yield, and ensures a consistent product for the consumer," said James. "It's not just about being British-grown."
The glasshouse is "pretty much pesticide-free", he added. "If the plant is happy it's better able to deal with a problem. Biologicals are our first line of defence and staff are trained to spot any early signs." A bacterial and fungal mix is also added to the root zone to strengthen plants, he pointed out.
Each Thanet Earth glasshouse has its own plant room with a combined heat and power unit and a hot water tank. "The price of gas has gone up faster than the price of the crop," James explained. "With this we are protected to an extent. It's not free energy but it reduces our risk. The Dutch have taught us how to trade the energy we generate. The priority is always the crop though and the margin of error is small, so every grower is responsible for his own energy generation. You still need someone with green fingers to manage the glasshouse, even if they're doing it via their smartphone."
On the glasshouse staff, he added: "They are skilled so we need to retain them. We recruit locally, though we have all sorts of nationalities. They have grown with us and the cars in the car park have got better every year."