Something unusual is sprouting out of the ground on former cauliflower fields near Monkton in Thanet, Kent, and it’s not brassicas. 

On a 91ha slab of land a coalition of salad growers are collaborating on what has been described as the most significant British glasshouse production development in decades. When fully built, the site will hold seven 8m-high glasshouses – each capable of accommodating 10 football pitches. It will also generate turnover of circa £40m per annum and provide an additional 15% to the current British production levels of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Oh, and it’s going to hardly have any impact on the local environment or infrastructure. This is the vast Thanet Earth fresh produce operation, an £80m project boasting almost cost-neutral energy-generation.

The idea was first mooted around five years ago. A group of Dutch growers doing business with the UK realised that in the Netherlands the scale of production was going up while the cost was going down, but in the UK the opposite was happening. Why not replicate the Dutch model of hi-tech glasshouse production on British soil? But while they had the technical know-how, they lacked the all-important relationships with UK retailers and a clear understanding of the mechanics of the UK market. Progress faltered until Fresca, the largest privately owned supplier of fresh produce to the UK, got wind of the plan three years ago and took it on. This was when Steve McVickers, the driving force behind Thanet Earth, came on board.

McVickers, who has worked in the salad industry for 20 years, recognised the potential immediately and started working on a new business model drawn up under the umbrella of Fresca’s newly formed subsidiary Thanet Earth. Fresca agreed to use its brand as the covenant to secure the funding and get the site up and running. It also agreed to put in all the infrastructure, such as improved roads and utilities, and to sell the ready-to-go freehold plots of land to the Dutch growers and invite them to bring their glasshouse knowledge to the UK. And, as well as providing the land and infrastructure, Fresca also agreed to construct a 100,000 sq ft automated packing facility so all the produce could be packed and then sold by Thanet Earth Marketing, owned 50-50 by Fresca (Thanet Earth) and the growers. The proposals struck a chord with Dutch growers. Rainbow Growers, a pepper-growing company, came on board first, closely followed by tomato grower Red Star and cucumber outfit A&A.

The three crops grown and marketed together give Thanet Earth a c.£1bn per annum market, says McVickers, who claims there has already been huge interest in the joint venture model from multiples, processors and foodservice. However, interest alone doesn’t pay the bills, so how is Thanet Earth doing in terms of securing contracts and getting up and running? While its still a bit of a building site, supply commitments and contracts are about to be completed in the next few weeks, with seeds planted off-site in less than a month. Plants from these seeds will then be delivered and planted at Thanet Earth in mid-December with fresh produce hitting the market in spring of next year. McVickers is confident he has also convinced retailers that Thanet Earth’s year-round operation will overcome the supply issues created by seasonal produce.  Under Thanet Earth’s model, retailers work with the same supplier year-round.

Another cost-effective aspect of the scheme is that it is close to self-sustaining. Thanks to Thanet Earth’s CHP plant, growers are able to get around the high energy prices currently crippling UK producers. The site has a £5m gas-powered 35MW-per-hour electricity generator that creates enough energy to power 55,000 homes. The greenhouses’ pumps and motors only require low energy input so the site only needs to keep about 3% of the electricity generated. The surplus is sold back to the national grid, making the whole venture almost cost-neutral.

Such green credentials will boost the clout of the Thanet Earth brand, under which the produce is set to be marketed, McVickers hopes. “Because of the interest we’ve generated there’s a decent chunk of the population, particularly in the south east, who know what Thanet Earth is,” he says. “And because the public has an increasing affinity with where and how products are grown, the brand will make it more appealing to consumers.” If he can pull it off, Thanet Earth could be the start of a fresh revolution.
growing the green way
l Fresca has 1,000 employees and made a profit of £11.5m on sales of £296.6m in the past financial year l Each £10m greenhouse has its own reservoir that can hold up to 70,000 gallons of water captured by the greenhouse roof. If the reservoirs are full in May, the site won’t need any additional water until September. The local water mains is just for top-up l When production is under way, two and a half million tomatoes a week will leave the greenhouses l All the CO2 created by the site will be pumped back into the greenhouses  l The site will boost the local economy with up to 500 jobs in what was once one of the country’s foremost cauliflower and brassica-growing areas  l National and international architects have praised the development’s aesthetics, which drew few concerns from local planners and residents