View Full Version : Thanet Earth

Jun 29th, 2008, 09:47 PM
I drove past this today, wish I could have taken a closer look, I find the whole thing amazing.

Welcome to Thanet Earth: is this a taste of future for UK agriculture?

Cucumbers and peppers for eight months, tomatoes all year round in seven giant Kent glasshouses

http://image.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2008/06/10/thanet10c.jpg Inside a Thanet Earth greenhouse at Birchington, Kent. The lighting will be so bright that workers will have to wear sunglasses. Photograph: Henry Browne

From the A299 Thanet Way there is not a great deal to be seen - just some low white structures on the brow of the hill, and a discreet little sign. But that is because fewer than 15 of the 80 football pitches' worth of greenhouse have so far been constructed. Once this development is fully operational it will be rather harder to ignore.

The low hill on the Isle of Thanet in Kent will be home to 1.3 million plants, growing in seven greenhouses, each up to 140m in length and fed by its own reservoir.

Seven power generating stations on site will heat the glasshouses, and generate, as a byproduct, enough electricity to supply half of Thanet, an area in north-east Kent incorporating the towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs.

The crops themselves will be suspended from the 8m ceiling in huge hydroponic rows, their roots never touching the chalky Kent soil beneath.

This is Thanet Earth, Britain's biggest greenhouse development, which will increase by 15% the UK's crop of salad vegetables. Cucumbers and peppers will be picked continuously from February to October, tomatoes harvested every day of the week, 52 weeks a year.

Link to this audio (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/audio/2008/jun/11/addley.environment)
Esther Addley visits Thanet Earth

This kind of industrial agriculture is relatively common in the Netherlands and elsewhere but has never been attempted on this scale in the UK. But with British consumers increasingly demanding British salad vegetables, all year round, a consortium of Dutch growers approached Fresca, the UK's largest fresh produce supplier, with a plan to develop a site in Britain.

Thanet Earth was born. "We wanted Planet Thanet but in hindsight it's a bit lacking in sophistication," said Steve McVicars, the site's MD.

The advantages of the model to growers are self-evident. The vegetables' growing season is hugely extended in a sheltered climate of perpetual summer, with every nutritional need attended to and artificial lighting for part of the night.

Growing hydroponically, in nutrient-enriched water rather than soil, allows the suspension of the crops at waist height rather than ground level, for ease of picking. "Financially, commercially, in terms of sustainability and [ease of] growing, this has become more and more the model," said McVicars. Not every rural community would welcome the glazing over of 92 hectares (220 acres) of prime farmland, but for the local council at least, the prospect of 550 new jobs has sweetened the pill.

Roger Latchford, deputy leader of Thanet district council, describes the development as "eye-popping" in scale. "It's absolutely awesome, and very significant. In deprived areas the creation of 500 jobs is a major success story." He hopes the comparatively pleasant working conditions, in a heated greenhouse so bright workers will have to wear sunglasses, will attract locals, though others have suggested that the jobs may go overwhelmingly to migrant labour, with little impact on local employment rates.

Alastair Bruce, an environmental and geological consultant who also represents south Birchington on the council, agrees that the positive aspects of the development, which will be complete in August 2010, could outweigh the environmental impact. "Had I had a way of influencing where it was sited, I wouldn't necessarily have chosen where it is. It's on high land, and we've taken out a fair acreage of good quality agricultural land.
Having said that, it's a unique venture in the UK, I'm extremely pleased to have it here in Thanet, and even more pleased to have it called Thanet Earth." While some locals had early suspicions, he notes, the project has not attracted significant levels of opposition at any stage.

It's a familiar theme, too, in the village. "If it leads to the destruction of more hedgerows to make way for the greenhouses then I wouldn't be too happy about it, but if it's providing lots of jobs for local people then I can't see that is a bad thing," says Taffina Jenkins, behind the till in a newsagents in Birchington.

The site's developers say they have taken steps to ensure the environmental impact, considering the scale of the operation, will be minimised. The huge reservoirs, which will capture rainwater and recycle the water in which the crops grow, will allow the site to be self-sufficient from May to September, draining nothing from the local utilities. The 32MW generated by the combined heat and power system, uploaded to the National Grid, will offset significant costs from the site, while some of the CO2 produced by the burning gas will used to enrich the glasshouse atmosphere. Even the night-time lighting of the tomatoes will have minimal visual impact, said McVicars, with shades on the sides and roof keeping 95% of the light inside.

"We need to let the plants have a natural sleep, so we like to put them to bed in the afternoon naturally, then we just wake them up early, at around midnight." At night the site will appear no brighter than a street-lit road, he said.

Despite its claimed advantages, McVicars argued that the Thanet Earth model was unlikely to be widely replicated across Britain. "We don't believe you can go north of the Thames in terms of winter light. We've got 17% more light down here than you would have towards the Midlands, and that is really crucial."

But it's also about finding sites big enough to make industrialised farming on this scale practical, and large tracts of land, with the necessary gas, electricity and transport connections are not abundant in sunny, southern England.

Having broken the seasonality of salad vegetable production in Britain, McVicars believes that clear regional branding is the way forward, and he hopes the site's produce will be clearly marked with their provenance. The first Thanet Earth products will appear on supermarket shelves from October.