The four great ethereal edifices form the biggest and most technologically advanced glasshouse complex in Britain, and they produce tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers on a scale that Montgomery could never have dreamt of during most of his 64 years. 'I was growing about two and a half kilos per square metre against their 50 or 60 kilos per square metre,’ he says with something akin to awe. Put another way, the glasshouses produce approximately 225 million tomatoes, 16 million peppers and 13 million cucumbers a year, equal to roughly 12, 11 and eight per cent respectively of Britain’s entire annual production of those salad ingredients.
The complex is called Thanet Earth, and it arouses strong feelings. Its vocal detractors have labelled it a 'Frankenfarm’ and a 'super-sized plant factory’ that churns out the insipid fruit-and-vegetable equivalent of broiler chickens. It is exactly the sort of enterprise that is fuelling the grow-your-own movement, according to Liz Wright, the author of several books on smallholdings and self-sufficiency, who feels that most people dislike the increasing concentration of food production in a few hands, and really do have the view that vegetables should be coming out of gardens with mud on them.
Those who work at Thanet Earth strenuously object to such characterisations. They contend that they are simply harnessing technology to help nature to produce some of the best salad ingredients ever grown in Britain, albeit on an industrial scale. 'It’s the most exciting development in UK fresh produce in decades,’ Ian Craig, the managing director of Thanet Earth Marketing (TEM) and the deputy chief executive of Fresca, TEM’s largest shareholder, insists.