So you think your greenhouse is special? Then take a look at this greenhouse complex, it’s the biggest in the world, visually spectacular, and it’s the future of your crunchy salad. Nicole Buckler reports.
The biggest-ever and most high-tech greenhouse development has been constructed by Britain’s Fresca Group Ltd, and it’s a whopper. It has come into existence to meet demand for the salad crunchies… tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. British consumers are eating more salads but most of the ingredients that make up such salads are imported from sunnier climes. Well not any more. The new and utterly massive greenhouse, called Thanet Earth, will change this paradigm: British-grown produce now jostles for space alongside imported produce. This, according to Thanet Earth, helps to reduce food miles and the time it takes to get a tomato from plant to plate.
The land under Thanet Earth was formerly a cauliflower farm, which speaks volumes about what we now like to eat. It’s yuck to the cauli and yes to salad. To construct the hi‐tech site has been an incredible feat of joint working and engineering. Faced with various extremes of weather, large teams of archaeologists had to carefully excavate every area in which the earth has been disturbed. Then there was the engineering challenges of moving National Grid supply lines, installing a new pylon and sub‐station and connecting into the gas pipeline. In addition, seven reservoirs have been dug and lined, holding a combined total of 65 million gallons of water. This is because all of the produce is grown hydroponically, using high tech systems that boggle the mind of the usual gardener. And over 2km of road have been laid. This is one big greenhouse; yours looks rather small and grubby in comparison now!
Gas-fired generators provide heat for the greenhouses, and that’s not all. They also produce electricity for the national grid, which is common model in the Netherlands, who are old hands at this kind of gardening shenanigan. The greenhouses will be computer-controlled and will produce crops 52 weeks a year. The 91-hectare complex also uses the CO2 which is emitted when burning gas. It is pumped into the greenhouse, and there the plants use it for their food. And to top that off, the complex (which has a price tag of £80 million) will supply 50,000 homes with electricity. It is hoped that the generators will eventually use biofuel, which will take the complex closer to zero carbon levels. It is a lot greener, apparently, than throwing a whole sack of tomatoes on budget flights from Spain. It makes one look at our little tomato friends a lot differently.
Thanet Earth will also be a tourist attraction, because it will also have a research and visitor Complex. It is also hoped that the research centre will produce new varieties of salad greens…which might end up being salad blues or salad pinks, but still, for those who aren’t suspicious of the technology, it is an exciting prospect. Says Chris Mack, Chairman of Fresca Group, “I doubt that there’s any other company that would have had the resources, the ambition, the persistence and the vision to make Thanet Earth more than an idea”, he said. “It’s taken a committed team over two years to turn the idea into a reality. We’ve worked closely with Thanet Council who have been very keen to attract this level of investment to help secure an agricultural future for the area.”
So what about Ireland? Could the model used in the UK would fare well here, especially considering the changeable weather? In terms of greenhouse production, whilst Thanet Earth is the biggest in the UK by far, they are in fact dwarfed by the industry in Holland. So it would the Dutch to answer our question on this, rather than the Brits. The Dutch are always expanding their glasshouse operations, and there’s a fair bit of new investment in the greenhouse arena at the moment with a particular interest from places such as the Middle East. But it does come down largely to cost – Thanet Earth is costing over £80m to build (all private investment – with no grant funding from government or the EU). And our banks are a bit wobbly at the moment, so as far as investment goes, it looks dicey. The glasshouses also need plentiful light to get the plants growing to their full economic potential. Thanet Earth is situated in a very particular setting whereby they average about 15% better light than anywhere else in England. So perhaps this is not something for Ireland, as out light is sometimes rather dim. Maybe when global warming comes to town we won’t need glasshouses at all! So for now, it’s imported peppers for us. Or we could just stick to the cauliflowers like we always have. Caulis in cheese sauce in winter…lovely!
Green Credentials on Thanet Earth
The overall sustainability of the Thanet Earth site and the supply of product to customers was assessed by independent consultants, Bidwells Agribusiness. The key findings were:
- Peppers and cucumbers grown at Thanet Earth have very low carbon emissions; they have a lower carbon footprint than those currently grown by all other alternative sources.
- Tomatoes grown without lights at Thanet Earth are more carbon efficient than the Mediterranean sources studied.
- Tomatoes grown at Thanet Earth with lights have a similar carbon footprint to UK‐grown tomatoes grown without lights or CHP.
- The use of combined heat and power (CHP) actually contributes a negative carbon emission towards the total measured Thanet Earth carbon footprint. The power is produced more efficiently than most other forms of UK power generation because it utilises both the heat and electricity produced by the fuel.
It took a dedicated teams of horticulturalists just four days to complete the planting of cucumbers, covering a massive 18 hectares, equivalent to 25 football pitches. All three greenhouses (tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers) use the latest design and technical innovations to grow the crops. The tomato glasshouse, the largest in the UK at almost 10 hectares in size, will produce eight varieties of specialty vine tomatoes, all year round. The pepper glasshouse, at just under nine hectares, will provide a full range of coloured sweet peppers for nine months of the year.
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