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Growing tomatoes in Hesketh Bank

PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 June 2017

Tomatoes growing on the vine

Tomatoes growing on the vine

Archant

The Ascroft family in Hesketh Bank know what it takes to grow good tomatoes. Emma Mayoh reports

Michael AscroftMichael Ascroft

What Brian Ascroft doesn’t know about growing tomatoes isn’t worth knowing. When the patriarch of the Croftpak business speaks about the fruit he sounds more a man discussing the delicate notes of a fine wine than something you usually put in a salad. But when you’ve dedicated several decades of your life to growing one thing, you’re bound to be passionate.

It was his dad, John, who started growing in the small agricultural village of Hesketh Bank after the Second World War.

‘Everyone had a smallholding and a few greenhouses back then,’ said Brian, 72. ‘We grew lettuces, cucumbers and other veg. I couldn’t wait to get involved. When I was 15 my dad paid £10 to get me out of school early and I began building glasshouses. That was the start of it all for me.

‘In 1970, my dad retired and sold me the business. He wasn’t sure about growing tomatoes and said I would be growing balls of water. Un fact, he played hell with me. But you get out what you put in.

‘Over the years we’ve bought more land and ran the business with my sister and brother-in-law before they retired, too. I absolutely love it. It’s been a lot of fun. Hard work, but fun.’

The business has gone from strength to strength. But it really took off in 1990 when they started supplying their tomatoes exclusively to Booths and were then asked to grow long season varieties. They built special glasshouses and they now supply the stores from May to November. They were the first to grow vine ripened varieties.

‘Some say it is risky, and I guess it was,’ said Brian. ‘But if we’re growing good tomatoes then we have nothing to worry about. We started with a few hundred plants and the following year we put in 6,000.

‘Booths have shown tremendous faith in us as we have in them. It’s a very good partnership. And for a grower of my size a future without Booths would be bleak. People say “are you not frightened of putting all of your eggs in one basket?” But it’s a strong basket.’

Peter AscroftPeter Ascroft

Brian and wife Janet, who also helps out in the business, have officially retired. But don’t be fooled. You’ll still find them most days out in the glasshouses checking on the crops. Retirement has just meant they can squeeze in a holiday from time to time.

‘We call him Judith Chalmers these days,’ said son Peter, who with brother Michael, has taken on the running of Croftpak. ‘But he’s definitely earned that time off.

‘I said I would come here for a year to help out after my A-levels. But I’ve been here ever since. I love it.’

But while Brian admits he eats kilos of tomatoes, you’ll never catch son Peter stealing fruit from the vines.

‘I don’t like tomatoes,’ admitted Peter. ‘That’s probably not the right thing to say for a tomato grower but I just don’t like them. I think I’ve just probably seen too many.

‘I send my daughter Olivia to the taste testings at Booths. She’s 14 and she loves it. She’ll send my mum off for a coffee and she takes over.’

The family now grow several varieties of tomatoes including bianca, cherry, vine, conchita and pozzano. Demand for their tomatoes is high and they will often sell out.

What shines through from the Ascroft family is their passion and dedication. It is clear they love what they do. And they need to. During the harvest season is it all hands to the pump with all members of the family, along with a handful of staff, in the glasshouses hand picking tomatoes. Until recently they were also hand packaged but they now have a machine that does it for them.

The farm is also run by a biomass boiler – a huge contraption that needed its own vast building and thousands of pounds of investment. But it has meant they are now carbon neutral, meaning much lower costs for them and it is much less harmful to the environment. They use natural means to keep diseases and pests away from the fruit.

‘We use biological control and bees to pollinate our tomatoes – spraying is an absolute last resort,’ said Brian. ‘And, as I’ve said to the lads, “if you wouldn’t eat it yourself, don’t put it in the box”. That’s how we’ve carried on all these years. It’s the way we feel.’

And their dedication pays off. The tomatoes they grow taste divine – packed with flavour. Despite the hard work, the family clearly love what they do. But there is just one thing sure to get their backs up.

‘Fridges,’ said Peter. ‘People who store tomatoes in their fridge need a good telling off.

‘You just don’t do it. It leeches the nutrients out of them and takes away the flavour. I went to a party at a friend’s house and they were really proud they had our tomatoes. Then I saw them take them out of the fridge. It’s unforgivable!’

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