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Innovation Blog August - September 2013

Hello everyone, Richard here and I'm undertaking this year's Discovery Fellowship. Boy oh boy what an exciting but busy start! There's been a lot to juggle between Uni work, exams, preparing my research greenhouse and training at Kaaij UK (the tomato grower at Thanet Earth that produces quality British tomatoes 52 weeks of the year).

The training has been great and a real insight into how a commercial tomato crop is managed, the vast scale of production that is required to supply all us hungry punters with tasty tomatoes and the amount of hard work it takes to keep that quality produce flowing.

Did you know as a nation we consume around 500,000 tonnes of tomatoes each year! It's the 4th most popular fruit consumed in the UK (as tomatoes are technically a fruit), only surpassed by bananas, apples and oranges, in that order.

Anyway, back to my experiences, whilst the college course has covered some of the more basic underlying knowledge and requirements of hydroponics and tomato production, a few one on one sessions with Gert van Straalen showed me how finely the glasshouse environment needs to be controlled (aided by a computer programme ). The environmental parameters required to keep tomatoes growing in optimal condition change several times in a 24-hour period and need to be monitored closely. As a grower you also need to be aware of the weather for the coming week and adjust the glasshouse environment accordingly.

However, as we all know English weather is an ever changeable thing, so it's no mean feat to pre-empt what's coming. Through my time with Gert I really gained an appreciation of how much skill it takes to grow a crop well; it's certainly not as simply as sowing seed and letting nature do the rest, as some people may think.

Even with the knowledge I had gained from the course and my time with Gert, the variety trials are solely my responsibility. As this was my first time growing in a greenhouse and using the computer system, I had to spend quite a lot of time wading through a hefty help manual to familiarise myself with all aspects of the programme that I would need for controlling the glasshouse environment. As well as getting my nose stuck into the tomato literature in Hadlow library to fill gaps in my knowledge and find answers to the more technical aspects of crop management.

Preparing the research greenhouse has been another aspect to the project. Some jobs were relatively simple, such as cleaning the irrigation system and sterilising the greenhouse and equipment to remove any dormant pests or diseases that might have been left over from its previous use. However, other decisions such as variety layout, plant density and training methods required my forward thinking skills, anticipating how these decisions might impact upon light interception for the plants and how easy it would be for me working in and on the crop for training and harvesting. With 550 plants to grow and 1100 heads to train this was not something I wanted to get wrong; a bad decision at this stage could have detrimental repercussions later on in the growing season.

I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts and reflections and that it has given you some insight into the world of tomato production.

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