localism, pragmatism, pacos and tasty tomatoes

Three years ago, based on an environmental study with Exeter University, we took the decision to phase out our use of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers from heated glasshouses, however local. Maintaining a temperature of 20˚C in single-glazed glasshouses in frosty January is completely insane, making these easily the most environmentally damaging crops we sold. Without heat we can plant in polytunnels in April and start picking in July, giving us an unheated UK season of 12 weeks for tomatoes, 14 for cucumbers and about 10 for peppers, before the quality declines with falling temperatures and light in October.

So what do we do for the other 40 weeks of the year when, understandably, most customers still want tomatoes? Much as we will always champion what’s in season and put it in the boxes until you start begging for respite, Riverford would have gone under without some pragmatic supplementation. Over three years, contrary to the popular trend for localism, we have moved our out of season tomato production from local hothouses to two Andalucian growers, both of them called Paco. Each can grow through the winter without heat, and the emissions from transporting their tomatoes to the UK (about 240g CO2 per kg of fruit) are around a tenth of those associated with growing them closer to home using heat. We selected the Pacos on the basis of flavour (of their tomatoes) and personality (we like them), and have worked with them to improve their tomato flavour further through variety choice and growing techniques. We still have a way to go, but after three years I am now proud of our out of season tomatoes and peppers about 80% of the time (up from a dismal 20% when we started).

Surprisingly, a bigger challenge has been to find local growers willing to grow for a shorter season without heat. Despite the savings in fuel, it is hard to build a business requiring such specialist skills and equipment around such a short harvesting window. In the end we decided to do it ourselves. After a year of haggling with local planners, this week we start work on building three acres of sophisticated plastic-skinned green houses, which will grow tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer and salad leaves in the winter. When they are in production we will have the best tasting, lowest impact salads money can buy.  

Guy Watson