Massive tomato glasshouse expansion set to begin

A major £6m expansion of a tomato glasshouse complex on the edge of Ipswich is due to get underway.

Sterling Suffolk was planning to increase the footprint of its giant tomato growing operation at Great Blakenham in February or March last year but then the pandemic struck. It caused too many complications and the works were temporarily shelved.

Now contractors are preparing to drill holes for the foundation piles as groundworks begin on July 26. The steel framework will start to emerge in about two or three months.

Blakenham Nursery — a £10m glasshouse using sustainable technology — opened at the end of 2018. But the 5.4ha glasshouse was only the first phase of a highly ambitious plan to build a 17ha tomato nursery operation.

Sterling Suffolk is now a £4.5m turnover company that was formed in April 2014 with the aim of building a nursery across two fields, one owned by a local farmer and hop plant propagator Stephen Wright and the other by the late Lord Blakenham.

The new site — which will expand directly out from the existing building on the southern field towards a reservoir built for the operation — will measure 288m by 144m. The business currently employs around 70 staff but the expansion will take that to 100.

The firm grows predominantly high-end cherry tomatoes in a range of varieties, but the next phase enables growers to move into new territory and grow some larger varieties too.

The plants are propagated in Holland from seeds from Dutch seed houses and arrive as eight-week-old plants. These are trained up wires and replaced cyclically so that there is a seamless supply of fruit, which is then sold mainly into major supermarkets but also locally through its Suffolk Sweet Tomatoes arm.

This is supplying around 13 shops in the Ipswich areas — as well as wholesalers.

Richard, who has spent many years in the horticultural trade and is a director of the British Tomato Growers’ Association, is hugely excited by the next stage of the business’s development.

He oversaw the building work in the initial stages and will do so again. “It’s going to be massive,” he says. “When you first walk into these places they are huge — they are like glass cathedrals.”

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