Insect armies, technology and innovation: Market Life visits The Tomato Stall farm
Words: Viel Richardson
From the moment of its arrival in the mid-1500s, the European response to the tomato was an extreme one. Some considered this exotic South American import to have powerful aphrodisiac qualities, lending it the name ‘love apple’ or ‘golden apple’. Others, including British herbalist John Gerard, believed it to be poisonous—“of ranke and stinking savour”—not fit for consumption.
These days, it’s hard to imagine anyone having an extreme reaction to a tomato, inured as we are to the shiny, watery, uniformly spherical fruits of mass production. Tomatoes have gone from exotic to mundane. They may not be poisonous, but they’re hardly love apples either.
This, though, is a place where tomatoes seem anything but ordinary. Walking through a huge glasshouse with Paul Thomas, co-founder of The Tomato Stall, it’s hard to feel anything but the excitement of a new convert.
Lush green vines
We’re surrounded on all sides by lush green vines. The colours are vivid, the atmosphere rich with heady smells. The names adorning the labels are as colourful as the fruits: red cocktail, piccolo, san manzano, marmonde, kumato, green tiger.
We find ourselves in what Paul calls the ‘new varieties house’, where trial tomato varieties are grown and tested. It is an apt location for our discussion to begin, as it is a culture of innovation that has lain at the heart of the company’s success.
The Tomato Stall began selling at Borough Market in the late 1990s, when Paul’s business partner Jeff MacDonald started loading tomatoes into a van and bringing them up to the Market. Their exceptional fruits have been a fixture at the Market since.
Organic growing methods
Paul and Jeff have been inventive both with the varieties they grow and the manner in which they grow them. “We began developing organic growing methods in the late 1990s,” says Paul. “In fact, our agronomist worked closely with the Soil Association to help develop the standards for growing organic tomatoes in glasshouses in this country.”
“We wanted to really keep pushing that area forward with The Tomato Stall, so we decided to apply the lessons we learned from organic research to our conventional growing as well. One example of this is using biological controls in all our glasshouses.” ‘Biological controls’ is a bland technical description for something quite wonderful: a vast insect workforce, tasked with fighting off pests.
A team of (human) pest and disease scouts patrol the tomato vines each week, assessing the health of the plants. If any unwanted beasties are found, a crack squad of killer arthropods is rapidly deployed.
“If we find something like leaf miner—an insect that lays its eggs in the leaves of the tomato plant—we will bring in other insects that feed on them. There are different pests that infect tomato plants and for each one we have a control species. It’s a complex but effective strategy.”
Insects are also used for pollination. Each plant used to be pollinated by hand, but this proved hugely difficult and time consuming—so the company brought in a squadron of smaller but far more naturally adept workers to do the job for them.
“We bring in hives and let the bees do the work. It is all part of biologically controlling the growing environment, because this is the most sustainable method,” Paul continues, looking across the rows of healthy, leaf-laden vines. “We do this because we feel it is the right thing, not because it’s easy. It’s actually bloody hard!”
Even in the right conditions tomatoes are delicate, so temperature and humidity are strictly monitored. When the temperature drops, steam is pumped through pipes to gently increase the temperature, while the humidity is controlled through a series of automated louvres.
Watering is similarly sophisticated and responsive. “Sensors on top of each glasshouse measure the level of the sun’s energy to determine just how much water each plant needs,” Paul explains. One of the reasons that all this effort takes place on the Isle of Wight is because the island gets more sunlight hours than almost anywhere else in the UK.
But it’s not just the amount of light that is important, it’s also the quality. “A lot of the sun’s energy is reflected back by the water. It means the amount of solar energy reaching our plants is much higher than elsewhere, and this is crucial,” Paul says.
All this talk of technology might lead you to expect neat rows of identikit glasshouses, marching uniformly across the landscape. But this is not the case. As the business grew, each addition was built using the best materials and technology available, resulting in a series of subtly different structures.
But what might seem a disadvantage—older structures being less efficient—has been turned into a strength. “Ideal growing conditions differ between varieties, and the glasshouses give us a range of environments,” Paul explains.
This highly adaptable approach allows the company to grow a far wider selection of tomatoes than most producers, with product development manager Kieran travelling all over the world to find new varieties.
Developing a new variety is a long, precise process. Before any new crop is shown to the world, a tasting panel made up of local residents and company employees will test the tomatoes and make careful notes. Some of these varieties have such a low yield that they will never have a particularly broad reach.
“We grow them because we think they are fantastic. When picked at their best, they are well worth growing.” The phrase ‘picked at their best’ sounds simple, but the harvesting takes place on the Isle of Wight, and Borough Market is in London, across land and sea. So how does The Tomato Stall ensure that its fruits remain in tip top condition?
The problem, Paul points out, is that tomatoes don’t like the cold. “Cold temperatures break down the sugars in the tomato, so the longer it stays in chilled conditions the more its natural flavour is lost,” Paul reveals.
Feel the warmth
“We pick them in the evening and pack them in non-refrigerated vans. The driver takes the 4am ferry the following morning and the stock is at Borough by around 6am. Sometimes you can still feel the warmth from when they were picked—which is why we can pick our tomatoes at the absolute peak of ripeness.”
This means the fruit will have developed all of its flavours, and its natural sugars will be at their maximum. “They haven’t been picked early,” Paul explains. “The moment the tomato is picked it stops developing flavour. If our tomatoes are any colour other than red, it is because they have been bred to be green, yellow or orange in colour.”
Paul delivers these lines with genuine intensity. He has been accused of early colour stage picking in the past, and it is an accusation that upsets him greatly. “We are trying our best to give the consumer the closest experience to picking fruit off the vine and eating it straight away,” says Paul, as we survey a verdant forest of green, peppered with drooping lines of red, orange and yellow, all of it framed by an unfeasibly blue sky.
Depth of flavour
Having worked my way through the generous bag I left the farm with, I can attest to the team’s success in this mission. The Tomato Stall produces tomatoes with a depth of flavour that will be a revelation to anyone trying one for the first time. It’s like being taken back in time to the eye-opening arrival of the mysterious golden apple. But without that rank and stinking savour.