Way back in 2007 when The Tomato Stall began making the commute to London to sell their produce it was market based and the reception they received was almost overwhelming.
Encouraged by the fantastic feedback they received they began experimenting and now have an award winning unique tomato inspired artisanal range of products. Driven by a clear passion for all things tomato they have grown quite significantly over the years and now supply a range of farm shops, delis, bars, renowned restaurants and US!
Just before the Easter weekend got into full swing we went over to the Isle of Wight to visit The Tomato Stall.
It was incredibly accommodating of Joni Rhodes and Daniella Tarrant to take time out of their obviously very busy day to show us all around.
We start in the office where Daniella, seen here, is very proud to show us the entire range of their products, we stock quite of few of these now.
Daniella tells us that in the beginning the original design of labels were applied by hand, but like everything it evolves and grows into what you get today.
Their business might have grown and expanded but they still remember their humble beginnings, and the markets are still very much a part of life for the Tomato Stall, and as we are taken on the tour, we go through a warehouse that is buzzing with activity of getting the produce ready for the Easter Markets. Face to face contact at the market gives them direct feedback straight from the customer, another positive way to help them grow and evolve.
As we wander round the warehouse and the hubbub, we are given little tasters (gotta love this job) and the sweetness that comes from a freshly picked tomato, there really is nothing like it. Daniella then tells us that from the fruit being picked to it being at the market or with the customer it can be as little as 24hrs. It is no surprise then that three of their tomato varieties have Great Taste Awards, the Piccolo Vine has a 2 gold star Great Taste Award while the Golden Mini Plum and Red Mini Plum have the 1 gold star Great Taste Award.
The tomato variety – Angelle is so sweet that when tested in a laboratory it registered the same sugar level as a strawberry!
This is where Joni Rhodes takes over with the tour, these girls are totally passionate about what they do and it shows.
We are driven round to another site to visit the greenhouses, these are not like our little potting shed style greenhouses we have the back garden, these are the grand-daddy of all greenhouses. They are all different, pitched roof/staggered pitch, another factor helping these plants produce the best possible product. The difference in the shapes and sizes of the roofs is all about the different density of light it allows the plants to receive, also as the months move on and we go into the brighter/hotter summer months, the greenhouse windows may get covered, to protect the plant from the scorching heat or funnel the light/heat directly to the late season plants for maximum growth. As the science behind growing the plants evolves so do the houses that help them grow.
This is where the fancy dress portion of the tour kicks in. Because we are going into a clean environment, we have to be extra careful not to take any bugs or insects into the warehouse that could infect the crops so … here we are, all catwalk ready.
The plants in this warehouse have been in since December/January, the main planting time for all the tomatoes here, the first picks came in February, with the main availability starting in the last couple of weeks and they will continue to pick until November. During the winter months the same seeds are grown in their Spanish and Portuguese nurseries, the taste is still exceptional and providing a very long season.
As you can just make out from the image (by the numbers), the plants are tied onto bobbins which once a week, get tightened and hoist the plant up to allow continual fruit bearing with new flowers forming at the head of the plant and fruit ripening towards the base. The fruit bearing part of the plant will not go much higher than 6ft, but the plant height will be 15m or over by the end of the season as the stem keeps on growing.
Every week a maintenance team go through and cut or pick the fruit. All varieties are regularly tasted by the taste panel, who are all looking for consistency, sweetness and texture. This information is then fed back into the tomatoes they are trailing.
This year they set up a time lapse camera overhead of the plants, this showed up some amazing footage of the plants appearing to dance, rising and falling a number of times during the day!
The pollination of all their plants is done by the humble bumblebees. They are housed in small bee boxes that hold a queen and her workers. This may sound strange but they are free to come and go as they please.
There are vaults at the top of the greenhouses that open and shut according to the temperature and they often find the bees have gone out to the wild flowers that surround the facilities. Not all return, obviously, and they have to replenish the bees during the growing year. Their nursery has Conservation Grade status, meaning that they are ethical, sustainable and Fair to Nature. 10% of their land is given back to natural habitats including wild flower meadows, barn owl boxes and red squirrel houses.
Not all the tomato plants are organic but the principals of organic growing are maintained across the whole nursery. The organic plants are grown in soil beds on the floor in a natural compost and non-organic are grown in coconut husks. The Tomato Stall have been producing their own nutrient rich compost for the last 6 years from the plants themselves. During the growing year, when the plant is cut, thinned out or finished, it is kept to dry on the floor. Then at the end of the year when they totally strip down the nursery for cleaning, the plant waste is gathered up and composted producing their own high heat compost.
The plant is left on the floor not only to dry out but, during the growing season even these nurseries will suffer from plant pest but, as they embrace organic principles they utilise biological control across the nursery. Here they use natural predators and vials of bug eating bugs are released into the nurseries to deal with this. The plant waste within the nursery provides additional environment for this mico-cosmic ecosystem.
The Greenhouses are kept at an optimum temperature for the plants, when required, by rails all over the floor. Heated water passes into the glass houses from their compost facility.
At the end of the growing year, the entire nursery is stripped down and washed. Their entire growing system is completely biodegradable, from the coconut husk that the plants are grown in to the string that supports the plants. Even the plastic flooring is recycled into bin bags at the end of the season!
If time-lapse videos simply aren’t enough, how about the chance to come and see first-hand what goes on behind the scenes at Tomato HQ? This year they are delighted to be taking part in Open Farm Sunday, and on the 7th June will be opening up sections of the nursery to the public. It’s the 10th anniversary of the event, which is organised by LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) and they are very excited to be joining in the fun.
For more information visit their website or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.