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Why did the tomato blush? Because it saw the salad dressing... If Rob De Lang has heard our photographer’s joke before, he’s too polite to say so — but can’t help laughing as we catch up with him at Mill Nurseries in East Yorkshire, where he grows tomatoes for Co-op. We’re here to find out what goes into growing them. A lot of hard work, as it turns out.
‘Tomatoes are an interesting crop, but they’re demanding,’ Rob tells us. ‘Because they need to be kept warm they’re difficult to grow, but it makes the job very rewarding.’
Rob’s father set up Mill Nurseries in the 1960s, and Rob was just a boy when he learnt how to nurture his own crops. ‘I’ve got two brothers and a sister, and our childhood was about tomato boxes, not Xboxes,’ he laughs. ‘As kids, we’d help Dad in the glasshouse after school. When we began working on the farm in the 1980s, it was already part of our lives.’
These days of course, it’s a full-time job. Baby plants arrive for planting in January, and harvest begins around April. ‘By the time we’ve finished growing the plants in October, they’ll be around 14 metres long,’ Rob says.
Such huge plants need a lot of heat and water to grow, so the family have worked to make the nurseries as sustainable as possible. ‘We get 50 to 60% of our heat from our biomass boiler, which burns straw that mainly comes from within a 10-mile radius,’ Rob explains.
‘With 25 acres of glasshouses, we use up to 500,000 litres of water a day in summer, but it’s all rainwater collected from our roofs.’ The farm has also invested in packaging technology that removes the need for plastic trays in each six-pack of tomatoes.
Before harvest, the tomatoes turn from green to orange to red. ‘We know they’re ready when they start to break in colour,’ Rob explains. ‘We’ll pick them in the morning and they’ll be graded, packed, then shipped off to Co-op stores.’ Rob thinks buying British guarantees the best taste: ‘It’s important to support UK farmers and local production, but the quality is better too. I often see our tomatoes in the village Co-op. I can’t deny I feel a twinge of pride about that.’