The Flavourfresh Solfresh group has the unwavering mission to be the most innovative and flavoursome tomato grower in the UK and beyond. The company has been supplying to leading nationwide grocery retailers including Marks & Spencer and Asda for more than 25 years, as well as to manufacturers of prepared salads, ready-meals, pizzas and sandwiches.
Based in Southport in Lancashire, the company currently has nine different varieties of tomatoes in commercial production, spread across 14 individual greenhouses on 125,000 square metres, generating around 2.8 million kilos of tomatoes a year. In addition the company produces 60,000 square metres of strawberries in seven individual greenhouses. The workforce in all the greenhouses plus the packhouses totals around 350 employees.
In charge of growing the tomato crop including R&D and trial material is Production Manager Andy Roe, who was named ‘Best Production Manager 2017’ at this year’s Grower of the Year awards in London. He has been at this nursery since the very start and truly embodies the company’s motto: ‘Getting flavour into fresh produce’.
“I’m continually scouring the world to find the ‘holy grail’,” states Roe. “The flavour is king. My personal number-one priority is to produce the best flavours, but of course with an economic ‘business head’ on. I will travel, explore and trial anything to find the absolute, very best flavour for the more discerning customer on the British high street.”
Striking the balance
Hence, Flavourfresh works with almost all seed producers and many different varieties, including Piccolo (cherry vine), Delisher (baby plum on vine), Amoroso, Edioso and Nebula – which is one of Roe’s personal favourites. “We have exclusivity on Nebula in the UK and supply it to Marks & Spencer and Asda, although I think I’m one of the only fools crazy enough to try to grow it. It’s very strong. To get the flavour that I want, I have to dominate and restrict the growth of the plant until it obeys me; I almost beat it into submission. It’s like ‘Fifty Shades of Lycopene’. In fact, my nickname is the Christian Grey of tomato growing”, he laughs. “But when you win the battle, it produces superb flavour and quality – although there is a yield penalty to pay for that. It’s about striking the balance.”
Developments in LED light
Traditionally, the seeds for the tomato season are sown from mid-October onwards. The majority of the plants are raised in Yorkshire, before being delivered for planting at the start of December. They are then harvested from mid-February through until the third week of November. However, this approach left with a gap in production from December to late February and the company was keen to extend its activities to an all-year-round season.
Roe explains: “High pressure sodium lights has been the standard technique for growing through winter for the past decade or so. However, our greenhouse doesn’t have sufficient height for the plants to be able to cope with the hot, aggressive light produced by these lights. Several years ago, we heard about the early developments in LED light. We tried several different light units from various suppliers from around the world, and that evolved into a commercial trial 18 months later. We discovered that this light is cooler, softer and more generative, plus the energy consumption and running costs are much lower. The trials proved conclusively that we had to do it.”
“The Philips Lighting solution stood out as being the most advanced, plus there were extra benefits in terms of technical input, back-up, support and professionalism,” recalls Roe. He ran comparisons with other solutions but the yield was so much higher that he calls the ultimate decision a ‘no-brainer’. “It also generated flavour, which I was initially sceptical about,” he adds. “The spectrum of mainly red plus a few percent of blue light that Philips has designed is spot on for tomato production,” he comments. “The results are quite astonishing, especially bearing in mind that the winters can be pretty dark in the northwest of England.”
Therefore, in August 2016, a 100% LED solution with two lines of horticultural inter-lighting and top lighting was installed on a full 4,500-square-metre block of the greenhouse at the Lansdale site.
“The effect on the plants was mind-blowing, astonishing; words almost can’t describe it,” exclaims Roe. “The flavour, quality, size, plant balance, generative growth, everything was absolutely optimum for tomato growth during those winter months. We now take delivery of 50-day old plants for LED production in mid-September. We can start harvesting in early December and it takes us right through until the last few days of August. Then we stop harvesting, remove the crop and replant it within seven days,” says the production manager. So the company is now able to produce tomatoes all year round, currently of the Delisher variety, which has increased yield of its tomato crop by around 30%.
The results have been so impressive that Flavourfresh is keen to expand its use of LEDs, and is also trialling Nebula and other varieties to understand what else will perform well as a lit crop for the winter. But first, the company needs to complete installation of an additional 8 MW of CHP engines. “The current LED solution is at the Lansdale site, where a CHP engine was installed 14 months ago, so that dovetailed in nicely,” explains Roe. “We reclaim the CO2 from the flue gas and reuse the heat produced in electricity generation. A 3 MW CHP will be installed at our Melrose site by November this year. Once that’s in, we can build a new 16,300-square-metre greenhouse there – planning permission is already in place – taking our LED activities to 20,000 square metres from September 2018 onwards.”
Grow whatever you want
Over the past few years, many UK grocery retailers have significantly expanded the top-tier range in their tomato category to capitalise on consumer willingness to pay more for a superior taste. Underlining this trend, Roe says: “My wife is prepared to pay almost any price for her favourite chocolate, and the same applies to tomatoes in my mind. And that’s what LED lighting brings to the tomato market, a much better and more distinctive flavour. Many tomatoes in the premium range are being grown under lights throughout winter, and that’s accelerating now as other retailers join in.” In view of these market forces, the company believes that LED-based all-year-round production will become standard in the next five years, and growers who fail to keep pace with this development will simply be left behind.
In fact, Roe calls LEDs the ‘greatest horticultural innovation since the invention of the tractor’. “Just look how far we’ve come in the relatively short time that I’ve been growing tomatoes. Combined with today’s computer technology and automation, LEDs enable you to grow whatever you want in a dark room all year round, with perfect consistency and quality, and pesticide-free – and you can even control everything remotely on your iPad at home. The next evolution beyond LED will be incredible – and I’m looking forward to it.”
The UK-based Flavourfresh Solfresh group has an outstanding reputation for innovation and flavour, and has been supplying world-class fresh produce to British grocery retailers for more than 25 years. In a move to extend its tomato season throughout the winter months and achieve all-year-round production, the company has recently installed a 100% horticultural LED solution. The results have surpassed all expectations.
Text: Lynn Radford. Images: Flavourfresh.