As the saying goes – “you say tomato, I say tomato” (try it out loud). It doesn’t matter how you say it, but it does matter how you grow it. LPG’s Lancaster Farms Australia’s first 5-hectare retractable roof greenhouse growing tomatoes hydroponically.
200 kilometres north of Melbourne in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley region, an unassuming patch of green marks Lancaster on the map. Here you can find LPG’s Lancaster Farms, where the sun is shining and the tomatoes are ripe. From October to June it’s harvesting season, which means all units are go – picking, sorting, packing and stacking box upon box onto pallet after pallet to keep the shelves stocked and our tables laden with fresh, ripe, quality tomatoes.
The tomatoes at Lancaster Farms are grown in a five-hectare greenhouse – technically a retractable roof house, though that’s a mouthful (in tomato terms, more Roma than Cherry). What it means is that the 360 rows of tomato plants are housed under enormous clear sheets attached to wires that can be pulled across to protect the plants and better control the temperature, or opened up to allow maximum sunlight exposure. Happy plants produce more fruit, and keeping our plants happy is a fine art. Factors like water and nutrient levels, sunlight and UV exposure, pests from outside, temperature inside and harvesting rates all have to be assessed and controlled to ensure that our plants are as happy as they can be.
There are two main types of tomatoes grown in the Lancaster Farms greenhouse: on one side we have Gourmet tomatoes, round and flat – just like the tomato emoji, but with the stalk removed; while on the other side we have the more elongated Roma variety, excellent for cooking with. On the first day of August, new seedlings are planted on long bricks of a special material made from spun rock(!) commonly known as rockwool. This material provides a base for the plant’s root system to grow into and also allows excess water to drain through into a gutter below, where it is sent back to the fertigation system to be reused. Any excess water from the tanks goes into the persimmon Orchard growing next door. This minimises water usage and exemplifies the sustainable approach to farming that lies at the heart of how we do things at Lancaster Farms.
The seeds take eight weeks to reach fruit-bearing stage, at which point harvesting begins. By November, fruit is being picked three days a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The vines are supported by wires running along the top of each row of tomato plants. As the vines grow, their tops are moved along these wires to ensure they are always growing upwards, while the bottom of each plant starts to wind around the entire row, forming huge coils dozens of vines thick. The vines produce trusses, each truss bearing five or six pieces of green fruit that gradually turn a vibrant red, ripe for the picking.
Once the fruit has been picked by our hardworking greenhouse staff, it’s sent to the packing shed. Here it’s fed into an enormous machine to be washed, then sent out the other side on a conveyor belt for our sorters to assess. Any pieces not up to standard are redirected to meet a different fate, as cow fodder on the neighbour’s farm or composted and returned to the soil – another example of the sustainable practices Lancaster Farms prides itself on.
Their more successful siblings, meanwhile, are fed into a second machine that looks like it was invented by Willy Wonka. This machine utilises incredible photographic technology to rapidly assess the size and colour of each piece of fruit and send it into the corresponding lane of Tomato Highway: each tomato rides along one of four conveyor belts in its own little seat, which flicks its rider off at the right exit into a box waiting below with other tomato friends of the same size and colour. More hardworking LPG employees pack the boxes according to weight, then stack them onto pallets, ready to be taken off to shops and supermarkets on their way to our kitchens and tables.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, the cycle continues all the way through to June. By the end of the season, the greenhouse will have produced around 2,400 tons of tomatoes. In July, the plants are cleared and the greenhouse cleaned in preparation for the next season’s crop. Thus continues the circle of life of LPG’s sustainable tomato farming up at Lancaster Farms.