23 August 2002

Home-grown veg answers consumers every demand

A new venture aims to provide consumers with

UK-grown blemish and pesticide-free fresh produce

the whole year round. Charles Abel reports

WITH the backing of popular environmental campaigner David Bellamy and immediate enthusiasm from supermarkets, the Greengro concept for producing pesticide-free veg looks set for a promising future.

By meeting consumer demands for locally grown residue-free fresh produce, the growth room-based production system developed by Kent firm Unigro offers farmers a great opportunity to compete and beat imported produce, says commercial director Keith Hamp.

"By providing the right produce year-round, we will be able to compete with imports and beat them on food miles and possibly taste too, thanks to the technology we have combined in our high-tech growing rooms."

Developed by research director Michael Dufton, Unigros growth rooms use a host of technologies already seen elsewhere in horticulture. What sets them apart is their combination of all those technologies in one unit, says licence director and technical specialist Angus Padfield.

"Put it all together and we can claim a significant advantage over other systems, on yield, continuity of supply and consistency of quality."

That helps underpin the firms claims for a 20-25% return on investment. But it is the consumer-pleasing green image that has caught the eye of supermarkets.

A premium may not be possible, but Greengro-branded pesticide-free produce should create strong demand. The question is just how can top quality fresh produce be grown in a glasshouse without pesticides or biological control?

A clean room philosophy is the key, says Mr Padfield. "The units are sealed, using filtered air and sterilised growth media, which reduces the risk of infestation. Workers will enter through a clean room and wear clean coveralls and we also have the ability to reduce humidity in the rooms to below 45% for five hours every 24 hours to break any pathogen growth cycles."

Production in small modules means disease or pest-hit plants can easily be removed. "If we have a significant problem we can empty the entire room for sale as non-Greengro produce, clean down with heat and environmentally benign disinfectant and start again."

Enhanced crop growth is achieved by maintaining an optimum environment with computer-controlled facilities.

The growth media is coir processed on site and recycled up to five times, with plants grown from surface-sterilised seed in small modules suspended on five-tier racking and fed by individual water and nutrient drippers. No liquid is circulated, reducing the risk of disease spread.

Each unit measures 400sq m with modular construction allowing a common service passage for multi-room units. Robust construction means units could be relocated. Guaranteed life is 10 years with a 20-year working life expected.

Growing costs are said to be lower than normal thanks to improved energy efficiency in particular, plus lower water costs, full use of floor to ceiling space and faster crop turnaround.

Oriental stir-fry crop Pakchoi, for example, can be grown and supplied at one-third of the current £7/kg imported produce price.

"I would like to think that in a few years every mother in the high street is going to know the Greengro brand and is going to be looking for it," says main project backer Stephen Billings, of Billings Farms, West Kingsdown, Kent. &#42

Investment potential

Unigro is seeking interested farmers to enter joint venture production, with the grower receiving a management fee and prof

Open door to new opportunity… Project backer Stephen Billings reckons the Greengro concept offers farmers a real prospect to boost incomes.

No pesticides, no blemishes, no environmental damage, low food miles, UK grown. What more could consumers want? asks Greengros Angus Padfield.

&#8226 No pesticides, no blemishes.

&#8226 Consistent year-round growth.

&#8226 Local sourcing cuts food miles.

&#8226 Strong consumer appeal.

&#8226 Optimum conditions boost yield.

&#8226 Hi-tech £175,000 growth room.

&#8226 Greengro branding on shelves.