Farmer’s job plans for £2M glasshouse

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A LOCAL farmer has revealed ambitious £2million plans to create a massive glasshouse – the size of one-and-a-half football pitches – where he intends producing organic tomatoes for a major supermarket.

Powered for heat and light by a state-of-the-art biogas electricity generating plant, the greenhouse – the largest of its kind ever constructed in the Borders – could go into full production as early as 2015.

And when that happens, Jim Shanks claims the project will create 19 full-time jobs.

Mr Shanks, whose family has farmed at Standhill, near Hassendean, for more than 60 years, has lodged a so-called proposal of planning application (PAPS) with Scottish Borders Council.

In it, he outlines his vision for the glasshouse close to his farmhouse and set back from the unclassified road. Major groundworks will be required to level the site which, he claims, will be set in a topographical basin to mitigate adverse visual impact.

Four of the new jobs will involve running the biogas – or anaerobic digestion – plant for which he was granted planning consent in July last year, despite 11 local objections and an unsupported motion for rejection from a Conservative councillor.

When that £1millon unit is installed, its digester tanks will transform a blend of slurry from his 220 Holstein dairy cattle, farmyard manure, grass and whole crop cereal silage into gas which will, in turn drive a generator capable of producing 1,600 MWh of electricity a year – enough to heat 350 domestic properties.

Some 10,000 tonnes of this feedstock, all from existing activities at Standhill, will be utilised.

The biogas plant will also, he claims, produce organic fertilizer which will be fed back into the land at Standhill.

“While I had always planned to use at least some of this generated power on food production, I’d also wanted to sell most of it to the National Grid,” explained Mr Shanks. “The cost of connection to the latter, however, was prohibitive, so now all the generated power will be consumed by the glasshouse and, happily, many more jobs will be created.

“For instance, eight people will be required to deal with the planting, picking and packing of the tomatoes.

Mr Shanks, who won a Nuffield Scholarship to study how agricultural businesses can maximise renewable energy systems in 2010, said he hoped the local community would welcome his initiative.

“I’m duty-bound to lodge a PAPS, which effectively puts my project into the public domain earlier than I would have liked, because of the physical scale of the development which covers about 1.6 hectares and thus requires a minimum statutory period of three months’ community consultation.

“All being well, I intend submitting my detailed bid for planning permission in the spring of next year.”

Mr Shanks admitted he had been in preliminary discussions with a major supermarket regarding the retail potential of his project.

As a result, he intended producing just two tomato varieties from the glasshouse – cherry on the vine and baby plum – which will be transported, via Minto, Denholm and the A68, to West Lothian.

“I hope this proposal will carry community support, although past experience has told me that there may well be objections, even though it will create much-needed jobs and ticks all the boxes as far as renewable energy and sustainable food production are concerned,” added Mr Shanks.