Family business looks to the future - Filipo and Tino Schembri, F&T Schembri

Champagne glasses were raised at the start of this year when family business F&T Schembri was crowned the overall winner at the annual Grower of the Year Awards.

The salad producer, based in the Lea Valley on the Essex and Hertfordshire border, is run by father and son Filipo and Tino Schembri.

The company has been growing cucumbers since the 1950s, when Filipo moved to England from Italy and joined his wife's family trade. For decades, F&T Schembri had been producing cucumbers inside the same wooden-framed wide-span greenhouses it had owned before its current 3.5ha site was bought in 1991.

However, the past couple of years have seen the family gradually replace several of its old glasshouses with a £1m state-of-the-art facility. Tino says: "These new glasshouses are something like a dream come true. I've gone from working in wooden greenhouses to ones with thermal screens and a new Priva Connext environmental computer that controls everything from my irrigation system to my CO2 input and my heating."

The transformation impressed the panel of judges to such an extent that it also awarded the Schembri family business with the Salad Grower of the Year award. "It was a great achievement winning the Grower of the Year Awards," says Tino.
With its double win at the awards and its new technology, the father and son team should be on cloud nine at the moment. Unfortunately, there is a large dark cloud spoiling the mood — gas prices.

Tino explains: "This year the gas prices have crippled us. So far it has been even worse than last year because of the very bad weather we have had. Now that we have a good bit of weather again our business has picked up a bit, but we are not going to recover what we have lost."

He points out that in February gas prices reached £1.10 per therm. "With that sort of price you cannot afford to grow. Nothing was being produced as the plants cropped a bit later than usual because of the bad weather — and we cannot afford to heat [our glasshouse] with nothing."

"A good gas price would be 20/30p per therm, but we are not going to see that anymore. There was a time when it was as low as 6p. On average, we have seen it just rising. Today [May 2013] it's about 64p per therm."

He puts the gas prices down to high oil prices and the fact that the economy is going through a tough time. "We have to use so much of it and we are not getting enough money back for our produce for what we are spending on fuel — and last year it was like that as well." He jokes: "If

I did not have to pay so much for gas I would be a millionaire by now."

As is the case with many sectors of production horticulture, the growers rarely get adequate returns on their investment. Tino says: "All I hear is that because of this weather food prices are going up, but it does not affect us, the growers.

"It's also difficult for our packers. In Holland, the packers can afford to put their prices down as it's a bigger industry over there, but in England we are fairly small as an industry."

Few people would still be upbeat in such circumstances, but Tino remains positive about the future. "If I did not I would not have invested. I still want to replace an old greenhouse I have that's 6,000sq m with another state-of-the-art greenhouse. I would have liked it to happen this year but I still have to get planning consent for it so I will probably do it in the next couple of years."

The future is also likely to see the firm broaden its product range and grow crops other than just cucumbers. It has already started growing a striped aubergine for Sainsbury's after a successful 1ha trial last year.

The new glass gave the aubergines a longer growing season and a better cosmetic appearance than similar products grown in polytunnels. "Maybe next year they might go into a whole greenhouse," says Tino.

He also reveals that the company is considering how it might be able to incorporate renewable energy into its business. It is also a "big user" of biological control and will continue to invest in its integrated pest-management programme. "Growing is what I do," says Tino. "We may not be making lots of money, but we are at least paying for our investment."

Rachel Anderson

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