21 years of continued success

The British Tomato Growers Associations’ technical officer, Dr Phil Morley has pretty much seen it all in the sector over the past decade. Here, he talks to Adrian Tatum about the success and development of the association and some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing growers now and in the future.

This year the British Tomato Growers Association (TGA) is celebrating its 21st anniversary. It will be a year of thinking about the past, the present and perhaps more importantly, the future. That is what is so impressive about the TGA and why it has deservedly earned the reputation as being one of industries most respected and effective membership associations-its ability to consistently develop and give unique insight and perspective into the challenges and opportunities in the future.

As technical officer for the TGA, Phil Morley provides the necessary link between the work and research of the association and its grower members who he offers consultancy support and advice to on a regular basis. During his time in the role, he has seen much change, but most of it has been for the better.

“British tomato growing has come a long way over the past decade and has risen to the challenges presented as well as pursuing a vision of the future with focus on innovation and succession. Issues have arisen over new pests and diseases, commercial pressures, labour availability and many more,” he tells The Commercial Greenhouse Grower. “All are work in progress for our growers as with any type of business but the challenges simply continue rather than reach a position of resolution, so it is a constant battle as well,” he adds.

During these times British tomato growers have shown a real resilience and have always managed to continue to move forward, but what have been the main developments over the years? “The British tomato sector is one of the most innovative food production techniques in the world demanding a high level of skill, knowledge and input at all levels,” Dr Morley says, “Considering all of these, perhaps how we grow the crop and approach issues presented have been the biggest of those changes. Innovations in energy and CO2 production, pest and disease control (British tomato growers have been growing virtually pesticide free for some years), nutrition, environmental optimisation, innovative ways of growing to ensure minimum impact on the environment and best most efficient use of natural resources. LED lit crops, better utilisation of all inputs whether that be carbon dioxide on nutrients have had a positive effect. Improvements in labour utilisation and staff training and use of such systems as LEAN management of labour systems and the improved understanding of plant diseases and microbial interactions with the plant through utilisation of molecular techniques show great promise for the future ,” he adds.

But most people in business or indeed life, will gauge success by longevity. That is why the 21 years of continued success at the TGA should be applauded. “Over the past 21 years the TGA has continued to evolve and assist growers in meeting the challenges they face, whether technical or commercial, building on the early work carried out by such industry giants as Gerry Hayman who ran the organisation for many years” says Dr Morley.

Over the past decade the TGA has stepped up its activities in all aspects of technical and promotional work. Still only based out of a small office in Barnham and run by the impressive Julie Woolley who is supported by Dr Morley on a part time basis, the TGA relies on the enthusiastic voluntary input of members and an excellent board headed up by Matthew Simon from Glinwell and Brendan Gillow from Flavourfresh.

On the technical side, the TGA has a ‘committee of experts’, the BTGA Technical committee, which deals with issues around research and development and innovation as well as statutory and other issues. The BTGA Technical committee (Chaired by Phil Pearson of APS Produce and vice chairman Roly Holt from R&L Holts) sets the agendas for the industry and drives change through influencing decision makers and having a clear vision regarding future direction of innovation, and the research and development work.

“Both committees have recently enjoyed an intake of new members perhaps emphasising the crucial importance of succession planning for this organisation and more widely the industry. Perhaps the most important single component of all are people. They are the most important asset of the industry. A real drive to ensure we have a bright and vibrant future is the recognition that we need to encourage young and aspiring individuals to choose tomato growing as a future career for all the right reasons,” says Dr Morley.

Most years, the TGA has been regularly recognised for successfully boosting the sales of British tomatoes-combining excellent growing skills with well thought out marketing. But what is the secret to having a successful membership organisation like the TGA and how has the organisation thought through its different marketing messages over the years?

“The TGA is all about its members of course. The association is a collection of businesses committed to the success of the British Tomato industry and as such has an incredible team of commercial as well as technical persons to draw upon. Together we are the best grower association of its size and budget with influence far above our ‘weight’. Credit must go to the TGA Board of directors for latterly driving a promotional agenda and stimulating additional interest in our products, not simply because they are British, rather because they are the best available anywhere,” he says.

Working with a small budget, the TGA has enrolled the assistance of the marketing company STAND Agency who have been working with the organisation for two years. “STAND have done an excellent job at helping to direct the efforts of the TGA in this respect working with rather than ‘for’ the TGA and utilising the energy and enthusiasm of the grower members and the TGA office,” says Dr Morley.

Like any successful organisation, a vision is needed for the future. This, in fact, will be one of the main focuses for the annual TGA conference this year, which will include succession planning at the very heart of the conference programme.

“The next few years will face some fairly unique challenges. And of those labour availability will be a priority. The BTGA intends to continue to evolve to the ever changing commercial and technical demands placed on members and jointly help facilitate solutions, using strategic alliances where required and help continue making our industry resilient and prepared for future issues,” says Dr Morley.

More specifically, from a technical point of view, there will be an ongoing array of challenges. “There are many ongoing technical issues faced by UK tomato growers including source, costs and utilisation of energy and CO2, new pest and disease issues and with the ever decreasing suite of plant protection products available, the requirement to drive research into alternative control measures primarily in collaboration with the AHDB through involvement in projects such as SCEPTRE and AMBER. Automation of some of the tasks on growing sites has also become a major area of research. Partly stimulated by lack of labour resource and the potential for this to become an even bigger issue going forward, some of the tasks involved in production can usefully be helped by such systems. However, these still seems some way off,” he says.

“Season extension and import substitution using LED technology has already been pioneered by a handful of growers. As understanding of this technology increases and costs decrease relatively it is hoped that part of the solution to increased production can be met using such technology. Fundamentally we need more production area for protected crops in the UK. This can only come about if growers feel confident to invest in the future of UK production. Re-assurances from government and retailers is key to this. The UK currently only produces around 20% of tomatoes consumed here (25% by value emphasising the ‘point of difference of UK production’ being quality). There is a huge opportunity to increase UK supply if we have the support of government, retailers and consumers we can do that in a way that ensures the profitable expansion of existing businesses and the establishment of new, innovative businesses who can see the opportunities in this important produce market, “he adds.

He also points out that a focus also needs to be placed on post-harvest systems. “We should not forget what happens after tomatoes leave the glasshouse, post harvest systems, new plastic free packaging solutions, minimisation of fruit ‘waste’ (and utilisation of any such waste as we can see in the sauces and dried tomatoes and juices manufactured by companies such as ‘The tomato stall’ (www.thetomatostall.co.uk ) on the Isle of Wight, efficient and sustainable use of vegetative crop wastes are all high on the agenda for growers. Indeed, this is part of effectively increasing marketable yields from existing glasshouse gross yields,” he adds.

Tomato growers have also led the way in the glasshouse sector in terms of driving efficiency, making best use of new technology and implementing more sustainable growing methods, so what is left to achieve?

“Innovation and improvement never stops. The continuing development of new equipment and machinery, new possibilities mean that every single aspect of growing will continue to evolve and develop and hopefully become more and more efficient. This is where imaginative innovation comes in. The TGA, through its technical committee and with the input of members and visionary researchers, perhaps in the not so distant future, will be doing things in quite a different way,” says Dr Morley.

“Perhaps one of the most significant changes in the future will be the increased utilisation of automated systems whether for identifying pests and disease presence in the crop or indeed working and harvesting the crop itself. Many companies are now pushing these agendas hard and the potential benefits (as in medical applications) is clear,” he says.

“On the growing side of things, I personally think that the increased understanding of plant microbial interactions will have a revolutionary effect on pest and disease control and overall plant health and fruit quality. The plant biome studies, akin to those taking place in the fields of medical research (Human biome project) will revolutionise growing. Such significant developments present opportunities for conventional as well as soil grown organic production systems,” he adds.

In terms of the glasshouses and infrastructure, change has also been significant in recent years. “Several recent attempts to fully encapsulate the structure, minimising shading caused by the physical structure supporting the glass have been reasonably successful. In this respect we might look to the technology of materials science and discover new possibilities in phase change materials, storing energy when in excess and utilising when in deficit, moving away from single crop systems and integrating crops within a multi-layered system,” says Dr Morley. “Technologies that increase resource efficiency are seen as useful ways forward both to increase efficiency and gain the cost savings associated with these enabling companies to be more efficient in every respect,” he adds.

“We are now seeing increased and broadening research into the potential of introducing truly robotic systems to enhance the efficiency of glasshouse and packhouse systems whilst still relying on skilled human beings to manage and direct. Robotics will have an increasing role to play, whether that be retro fitting into existing systems or designing new growing systems around the new technology,” says Dr Morley.

It has been a very interesting past for the TGA, but the future certainly looks to be shaping up to be just as exciting and there is no doubt the association will have an even more crucial role to play in the next 21 years.