Guernsey tomato growers fight to survive

Embracing seasonality, niche crops and local markets may save Guernsey's growers, finds Matthew Appleby.

Guernsey used to be as well known for its tomatoes as fellow Channel Island Jersey was for its potatoes. But now there are just five commercial growers left whereas there were once 2,000.

Rob Plumley of Sarnia Seeds and Alan Nicholson of Nicholson Brothers are two of this last handful of growers.

Specialising in niche crops, cutting fuel bills by 80 per cent by only producing in warmer months and moving into local markets - as well as exporting and working together as the Guernsey Growers Co-operative - has kept them alive.

Plumley said: "There's no doubt about it — if you wanted to invest money in a growing enterprise, Guernsey is not where you would look."

But the number of growers has been steady for five years as they have adapted to sell speciality varieties such as Piccolo, Santa, Caprese and San Marzano — the premium end — to supermarkets. The crop goes to Evesham Vale Growers to be distributed. The growers can put £1,000 of produce on a pallet, which costs £90 per pallet to ship to the UK.

Plumley said: "There's no point in us growing low-value tomatoes - that's why we came out of cherry tomatoes." Plumley always has to be ready to change what he grows if the Dutch decide to make what he is growing a commodity crop.

Plumley said Guernsey is still a well-known name with the older generation and with growers' names now appearing on packets at Sainsbury's, The Co-operative and Morrisons, consumers can once again choose to buy the tomatoes that were once so prominent.

But he added: "This year has been flat and difficult. We're selling at the same price as last year."

Supermarkets are reluctant to go over the £2 mark for speciality tomatoes and have been experimenting with smaller pack sizes.

Plumley says he has pared all the costs out of the business, "but it would help if we could increase the value for our produce".

While the strong euro means imports cost 20 per cent more, Plumley said the Dutch and Spanish growers are taking a 20 per cent hit to try to keep their markets.

He said the rumours are that Spanish and Dutch growers are struggling and that some lack financing for a third crop this year.

But he added: "In our business, if someone closes, someone always emerges out of the ashes."

So, how do the islanders compete? Plumley and Nicholson have both changed to cold growing in recent years.

Plumley said heating is inefficient anyway in small blocks, so a shortened season, which goes back to the more seasonal, traditional ways, has reduced energy costs by 80 per cent. He produces from June to December with around 15 Latvian women working on six- to nine-month contracts, which is cleared by Christmas and replanted in the second week of February.

He added: "We've been doing short seasons for five years — it's just not viable to do long season."

Both Plumley and Nicholson have yet to see an impact from Thanet Earth.

Plumley, a first-generation grower who has a background in seed production, said the niche crops do not need a large acreage and so they suit his and fellow Guernsey growers' smaller glasshouses.

Nicholson built the last tomato glasshouse on the island 20 years ago, around the time Plumley started in the business. Once, six per cent of Guernsey's land was covered in glass. But much has been left to fall down after the Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, the subsidised Dutch learnt how to grow from the islanders, oil prices shot up and supermarkets got tougher on pricing.

Nicholson Brothers supplies the domestic market of hoteliers and supermarkets, as well as exporting Piccolo - which makes up one-third of its business. As such, it is the last commercial grower of round tomatoes on the island.

Both Alan Nicholson and his brother Phil have been in tomato-growing for most of their adult lives - Alan for 30 years and Phil for 45.

Alan Nicholson said: "It's a matter of funding something that no one else grows and contract managers want.

"The past few years have not been too bad financially since we concentrated on the local side. It has been better than the 10 years before that."

Nicholson Brothers runs an "almost coldhouse" operation — it heats "a bit" to get early crop. This has halved the company's oil bills in the past five years from £70,000 a year to below £30,000 — despite increases in oil prices. This process also saves labour and lowers pests and diseases, by providing a break between crops.

Ironically, the company said that having to grow year-round as retailers moved away from seasonality is what "almost killed us". Now, by not growing and heating in the colder months, the last tomato growers of Guernsey have saved themselves.

Nevertheless, the Nicholsons would like to retire — but a buyer is hard to find. If they do sell, the last of the traditional Guernsey tomato growers will go.

 

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