Hydroponic tomatoes

Tomato growers in the Isle of Wight and Yorkshire hope to considerably reduce crop losses through a new study that will mark the first time sap flow and stem diameter sensors have been trialled in UK tomato production.

Co-designed by the producers from the start, the research aims to achieve a detailed understanding of the water balance within plants in order to improve greenhouse efficiency.

The 'field lab' is coordinated by Innovative Farmers, a not-for-profit network that brings farmers and growers together with researchers and funders, to facilitate ground-level innovation.

Knowledge that growers at APS Produce hope to gain from the research could significantly reduce tomato losses, improve on-farm efficiency and increase the shelf life of produce.

The growers are installing the sensors in beef, cherry and organic piccolo tomatoes and the data generated will build a continuous picture of water balances within the plants.

By identifying when water deficit and excess occurs, they can better target irrigation and adjust other greenhouse conditions like ventilation and heating.

This should minimise pre-harvest losses caused by fruit splitting and disorders such as blossom end rot, which can otherwise result in losses of up to 10 per cent of total tomato yield.

In this video, Brian Moralee,field lab coordinator and grower manager at APS Produce, explains how the sensors will work in greater detail.

If these initial trials prove successful, the findings can be applied to many other protected crops including peppers, cucumbers and soft fruit, as well as outdoor annual and perennial crops.

These results will be made available to the wider industry through the Innovative Farmers network so that everyone can benefit.

Moralee is optimistic about the trial. “Our data platform provider and the sensor company will help us analyse the results, but we’ve already learnt a lot ourselves,” he said.

“Just a couple of weeks in, we noticed that removing the night screen too quickly was causing leaf tip scorch – our theory is that the shock of cooler air caused the stomata to close and reduced transpiration. So we slowed down the removal of the screen and are seeing less leaf scorch. If it can work commercially and environmentally, we’ll have a fantastic result.”

The field lab brings together six growers at three sites, with additional research support from ADAS staff, and is co-funded by Innovative Farmers and APS Produce.

Kate Pressland programme manager welcomed its launch. “By matching the latest monitoring technology with the expert observational knowledge that growers carry with them every day, this research hopes to lead the way in terms of optimising the growing environment for greenhouse plants,” she said.

“Increasing our understanding of the fine details of how crop sap levels change in protected environments will help growers become more selective with inputs and improve the efficiency and sustainability of their systems.

“Working with growers to enable them to use relevant, accessible technologies for supporting their everyday decisions, is a practical way to fast-track innovation and increase resilience on farm.”

The first sensors were installed into beef tomato and piccolo crops on the Isle of Wight in January. This will be repeated in February on cherry tomatoes in Yorkshire.

At the end of the growing season in November, the triallists will compare this year’s tomato losses with historic records, which will give an indication of the overall impact on yields vs losses.

They will share progress openly with other growers at industry events and via the Innovative Farmers website. To find out more on this and other field labs, go to:www.innovativefarmers.org.