Bright future for UK tomatoes

With increasing consumption, a greater willingness to buy premium products, and a drive towards more home-grown production, the outlook for UK tomato production is very positive and there are opportunities to further expand domestic production, writes Richard Crowhurst.

However, at the same time the sector faces many issues which are affecting commercial horticulture in general, including labour availability, crop protection challenges, and an aging grower base.

“We currently import around 80% of the UK’s requirement for fresh tomatoes supplying in the region of 20% ourselves throughout the year. So there is a significant scope to expand UK production in coming years if the right commercial and political incentives are in place,” points out Dr Philip Morley, Technical Officer at the British Tomato Growers’ Association (TGA). He adds that the industry would like to see the government recognise the significance of protected horticulture as an employer with huge possibilities for expansion. “Such expansion would need to be supported by innovation through research and development,” he points out. “We do need to have an R&D delivery system which better delivers what growers need. Such discussions are currently underway and we hope that a positive outcome to these discussions with government and the current levy boards will re-align the hard earned monies businesses contribute to ensure growers, the people who best understand their businesses, have a primary role in decision making in that respect.”

Andrew Beeston, Tomato Sales Specialist at BASF, points out that according to Defra’s provisional figures, in 2017 the UK grew 90,600 tonnes of protected tomatoes compared to imports of 398,000 tonnes. Despite this disparity, he points out that, “Premium tomatoes are certainly doing better with significant volumes of winter UK lit production. The largest segment in the UK is for tomatoes on the vine, which alone account for nearly a third of all sales. Next are plum, loose cherry, clusters or loose salad types, each of which takes around one sixth market share per type while the remaining volume is made up from a mix of beef and speciality types.”

Rijk Zwaan Account Manager Sarah Mayne points out that the market continues to segment, and that there are different specifications in different countries.

“What counts as a large vine tomato in the UK is actually considered small to intermediate size in Holland,” she explains. “Though previously vine tomatoes were solely a premium segment, it now seems to be splitting into more commodity truss tomatoes (slightly larger fruit size with less emphasis on favour) and a more premium truss tomato dominated by high flavour varieties like Roterno.”

The production of traditional loose round types has declined, partly as other segments have grown, but also because, as Nick Bolton of Hazera suggests, UK growers can’t compete with The Netherlands and Spain in the production of large volumes of round tomatoes. “We can’t compete with their economies of scale. The Netherlands produce for the UK summer market while Spanish production, largely in Almeria, fills the winter market as they have the necessary light levels and don’t need to heat their polythene houses. Having said that, over the last few years there has been a real drive for the British flag to be on products and UK production has been increasing.”

Despite the fact that some retailers have delisted them as part of wider moves to simplify product ranges, Sarah points out that cocktail tomatoes are still popular, while some specialist varieties, such as ‘mini’ San Marzano and coloured snacking types also occupy niche markets. “Obviously novelty types always generate interest, so your different colours and shapes can be used in medley packs or marketed as ‘heritage’ or similar, but the volume of these is limited compared to the major segments,” she adds.

Flavour is king when it comes to growing UK tomatoes. “The cherry vine segment is dominated by high flavour varieties such as Piccolo,” continues Sarah. “There are some more premium loose baby plum types, such as Sweetelle, but I see increasingly a move towards higher yielding varieties for the loose segment.”

Andrew also stresses that, “The production of flavoursome tomatoes is still the key trait that the growers demand but this all must be done with a plant and a fruit type that offers advantages for the grower and the post-harvest tomato chain alike. Health is something we all associate with fresh produce, but this message could be stronger in tomatoes, especially in snacking types. Cooking with tomatoes is also something that could create demand from an alternative new use in the UK, especially in premium high flavour types.”

“Some of the varieties UK growers currently use have been around quite a while, and newer versions with equivalent or better flavours are emerging which will soon supersede these,” says Philip. While flavour and consumer experience is always top of grower’s wish lists, other improvements include better shelf life and improved disease resistance. In addition a newly expanding organic market also presents new opportunities. “Our established organic growers already carry out variety trials specific for this production system to get the best tasting product,” points out Philip.

“Speciality types often appeal to consumers who are ‘time poor and cash rich,’” says Tony Egan of Enza Zaden. “People want products that are quick and easy but they also want flavour. For example our cocktail-type variety Campari is well established, but still delivers in terms of flavour, but as well as delivering in terms of flavour, consumers buy with their eyes and so attractive varieties, such as Sunstream F1, are often used in premium packs.”

In terms of being visually attractive, coloured varieties seem to come and go according to the preference of retailers and what they understand consumers want. “The demand for coloured varieties depends on marketing longevity,” says Tony. “I have seen the desire to sell coloured varieties come and go (with the recession) and then come back again in recent years. Some coloured varieties look pretty, but they need something adding when being prepared to draw out the flavour.”

Nick Bolton says that Hazera variety Summer Sun, a yellow cherry which has been used in the Netherlands as a very sweet loose tomato, is currently on sale in retailer’s premium lines thanks to its flavour profile. “Most yellow tomatoes tend to sell better when they are mixed with red ones, such as a mixed or twin pack and Summer Sun is often packed alongside Piccolo,” he adds. When it comes to other segments, breeders tend to concentrate on premium varieties for the UK market and Nick says that two other varieties of interest are Goutine and Sensera, both of which have, “really attractive bright green jelly inside, so that when you slice it you almost have a two-tone appearance.” They also have high Brix levels and good flavour. Goutine’s 120 gram fruit is larger than the classic round tomato in the UK but not as big as a beefsteak type. Sensera is an ‘on the vine’ type which will be tested at two or three locations this summer.

In terms of production techniques, roughly 20 per cent (around 40 ha) of the area is not lit using either traditional high pressure sodium (HPS) or modern LED lights says Aurelie Lamotte of Bayer. “There is more room for a lit production programme during winter to guarantee fruit quality and consistency,” she points out. “This results in the best experience for consumers and should lead to repeat purchases.” To maximise on this suppliers need to let consumers know that they are buying local products via consistent, quality branding which differentiates from imported produce. “Consumers want to know who is growing their tomatoes,” she adds.

“Lighting allows growers to lengthen their season,” agrees Sarah. “It is possible to grow British tomatoes all year round rather than importing, and there’s the possibility that the consumer would receive a higher quality product this way, though more than likely at an increased cost. Most of the growers in the UK are very focussed on growing high quality, high flavour fruit, rather than being focussed purely on yield and I think this is one of the ways the UK market is different.”

A global tomato market also increases the risk of importing pests and diseases according to Philip. “In recent years Tuta absoluta has threatened our crops alongside regular visitor Bemisia tabacii, while new diseases such as Tomato Infectious Chlorosis and Tomato Chlorosis and virus (TiC and ToC) are on the horizon and a real concern for growers. In recent months outbreaks of the highly infectious Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (TBRFV) have been reported in mainland Europe and it is important for UK producers to be aware and prepared for the expected arrival of this and other tomato diseases into the UK.”

Faced with such risks the TGA is working closely with research and development organisations to prepare for such an eventuality. Like other sectors of commercial horticulture, growers face increasing issues around labour availability and work on automation is also important. “The availability of labour to the horticulture sector is under serious pressure and together with the rising cost of labour the desirability for more efficient plant types is also increasing,” says Andrew Beeston. “Faster crop working and harvest types are really going be part of the future of delivering taste and quality in an efficient way. The reduction of pesticide usage is also being championed by UK tomato growers and the demand for resistant varieties is increasing.”

As well as supporting technical R&D, the TGA supports consumption through initiatives such as British Tomato Fortnight and has employed PR company STAND Agency. However, despite the bright outlook for tomato consumption in the UK, some people, including Tony Egan, worry about the aging grower base. This too is something that TGA is acutely aware of: “If we are to have a thriving protected horticulture sector in the UK fit for the future demands, we must continue to engage with young people and their educators,” says Philip. “British protected cropping is the most advanced in the world. Our efficiency in energy use, water use and the systems we utilise are of the highest standard and should be an example to other sectors.”