Colman family’s pride as construction work begins on vast tomato greenhouse
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019
Work has begun on a vast new tomato greenhouse on farmland outside Norwich owned by the Colman family – who hope it will become an exemplar of sustainable agriculture while replacing lost local employment.
The development at the Crown Point Estate at Kirby Bedon is expected to create 210 new jobs by the time it is operational in autumn 2020.
While the recent wet weather has temporarily stalled the construction efforts of the Dutch contractors, the preliminary groundworks already illustrate the substantial scale of the project, covering an area larger than London's O2 Arena.
Along with a similar development outside Bury St Edmunds, the combined £120m project will have the capacity to produce 12pc of the nation's tomatoes in a hydroponic vertical growing system, warmed by waste heat recycled from the nearby water treatment plant - a "world-first" model aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Estate owner James Colman said the project fitted with his ethos of sustainability and conservation, and provided a weather-proof alternative income stream to help safeguard the business against future risks.
But he said it also created the "fortuitous" opportunity to replace some of the local jobs lost when the mustard factory - founded by his ancestors a few miles away at Carrow - was closed by its owners Unilever earlier this year.
The estate negotiated terms in the tenancy agreement ensuring that the tomato growers in the greenhouse "must use all reasonable endeavours to fill all job vacancies with applicants who are resident within 10 miles of the property".
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"I only see positives," said Mr Colman. "I think this is providing a sustainable covered environment to grow vegetables on a large scale, and it is providing jobs locally - we made a point of making sure that local people have an opportunity to find employment on the estate with the glasshouse company.
"As a family we were powerless to do anything about Unilever's decision to leave their integrated site with Britvic (at Carrow) but, given the opportunity, it is fortuitous that we can put our hand on our heart and say it is a great benefit to see more than 200 jobs being created when so many jobs have left within a couple of miles of the site where the glasshouses will be built.
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"I am confident that this is going to be a very advanced operation of precision farming under glass, that is going to be an exemplar of what can be done with land."
Mr Colman said the estate was approached about the greenhouse project as it was one of only five suitable UK sites with access to a water treatment works - adding to its other advantages of being a rural estate on the fringe of the city, with good transport links via the nearby A47.
"It came as a bolt out of the blue when they approached us," he said. "I think the uncertainty surrounding farming was something to do with our decision.
"It is fair to say we were looking to the future, asking where is farming going to be in five years' time. Looking at the signs we might find it is going to be a challenging environment so, for the long-term, I was looking for something that would be embracing new technology and providing a stable solid income for the estate. I am not ashamed of that. Every farmer in the region knows we are dependent on the weather but this gives us the opportunity to do other things that are not weather-dependent."
The 5,000-acre Crown Point Estate was bought by the Colman family in 1872, after its mustard production was transferred to the factory at Carrow. Mr Colman said at that time the land was used more for enjoyment and country pursuits.
Today, 4,000 arable acres are commercially farmed in-hand, with three other tenants growing crops, while around 300 acres of woodland is being added to every year as the estate aims to build on its sustainable ambitions. As well as the green benefits of woodland, the trees also provide woodchips for a biomass boiler which heats the redundant barns currently being renovated as commercial business lets to provide another diversified income stream.