Mill Nurseries, based near Keyingham to the east of Hull will add eight more acres of glasshouses to its current 24-acre tomato growing facility.
The family-run business, established in 1962, is already East Yorkshire’s biggest grower and fifth largest in the UK, supplying over one hundred million tomatoes a year to supermarkets Cooperative, Waitrose, Morrisons and Lidl.
Mill Nurseries has seen demand rocket thanks to increased Cooperative orders and is commencing the expansion programme this month, with a view to completion for this November.
It mow employs more than 100 people and aims to use increasing amounts of renewable energy in its day-to-day business practices.
Hermanus de Lang, who runs the family business with his two brothers and sister, said the firm’s aim was to stay one step ahead of the rest of the competition in what is an increasingly competitive market.
Mr de Lang said: “From adopting Rockwool as our growing medium in the 1980s to introducing sustainable CHP (combined heat and power) generators and straw-fired boilers to heat our greenhouses, and employing organic pest control methods, we have striven hard to stay ahead in a highly competitive industry, while ensuring our products are of the highest possible quality. The increase in Cooperative orders is testament to that.”
The business was established by Mr de Lang’s father Gerrit on a smaller plot across the road from where it is now, after migrating to the UK from Holland in the 1950s. He started off growing lettuces, chrysanthemums and tomatoes in the soil.
Mr de Lang said: “Ironically, given that’s where our dad hailed from, we keep a close eye on what’s coming out of Holland, which is seen very much as the centre of horticulture around the world.
“That’s where a lot of the latest innovations in growing stem from, including environmental control sensors to maximise the potential of every plant.
“Dad was a first-generation grower but spotted an opportunity to do in the UK what had been done in Holland for many years. He arrived in the UK with nothing in his pockets, no possessions or even a suitcase and not even able to speak the language.
“He started to build the business through sheer grit and determination, and just not being prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer. We’re extremely proud of what he achieved.”
The family hopes to continue their father’s environmentally sound legacy by adhering to sustainable growing methods, including adopting hundreds of endangered bumble bees to pollinate the thousands of tomato plants which stretch as far as the eye can see within their vast glasshouses.
Pest control is also done organically.
“Tomatoes, like other crops, can be prey to a variety of pests, like whiteflies and leaf miner,” said Mr de Lang.
“An entomologist visits us every week during our eight-month long harvesting period to advise and provide insects like spiders to help target the pests where needs be.”
On the renewable energy front, the firm tries to remember that tomatoes have their origins in tropical climates like South America. Mindful that glasshouses use a lot of energy, and the fact that the business needs to keep its greenhouses at a steady 19 or 20-degree temperature, it has invested £3.5 million in state-of-the-art new CHP units.
These systems are essentially large, gas-fired engines which generate electricity and hot water to heat the glasshouses. Energy that is unused is exported to the National Grid.
Hull-based electrical specialist Pearson Electrical is supporting Mill Nurseries with the greenhouse installation.
The company has worked as Mill Nurseries’ electrical installation partner for the past 20 years, wiring and installing all of their new kit, including the new biomass boiler and CHP units, and taking care of the company’s periodic testing and certifications, as well as reactive maintenance. Mr de Lang said: “While we have the ability to manually control our systems, they spend most of their lives on auto.
“Everything has to be fully optimised, well planned and fail-safe because the slightest glitch can result in thousands of plants being potentially ruined.
“Mark Pearson has shared our journey so far with us.”