The northern New South Wales town of Guyra once rode on the sheep’s back but now it’s hydroponic tomatoes that are making the economy surge.

Story By Amanda Burdon

The Big Ram that welcomes visitors to the New England town of Guyra may be on its last legs. While prime lamb production remains central to the region’s history and fortunes, the ageing concrete icon is facing some saucy opposition. In two glasshouses the size of four AFL football fields more than 325,000 tomato bushes are thriving – and the local economy along with them – and there’s talk that a Big Tomato may now be a more fitting New England Highway monument.
Top of the Range Tomatoes, launched in 2005, is today the largest employer in Guyra (providing some 100 jobs) and produces 60,000–100,000 kilograms of tomatoes hydroponically each week in Australia’s largest glasshouse complex. The Meccano-like construction of steel and glass rises out of a grazed sheep paddock like some odd science-fiction movie set. The scene inside is similarly outer-worldly.
With the mercury just creeping above freezing, workers toil in T-shirts, enjoying temperatures approaching 24 degrees Celcius. And so it is year-round, as the lanky tomato plants are progressively pollinated, trellised, pruned and harvested. Come summer the pungent plants are drip-watered twice as often (perhaps 40 times a day), but the pleasant working conditions are maintained year-round courtesy of a complex computer-controlled venting, shading and heating system.
“What we are doing here is at the cutting edge of technology world-wide,” says glasshouse manager Godfrey Dol, who grew up in Holland and moved to Australia 11 years ago. “Our yields have been exceptional, very competitive internationally, and among the highest in the Southern Hemisphere.
“In a glasshouse environment you have so much control over the growing. We review the conditions every day and do a lot of testing and tasting. These are sensitive plants; there’s no blueprint for growing them. It changes every day. Tomatoes need to look good and to taste the way they look.”
With 24 years’ experience growing fruit and vegetables internationally Godfrey had long dreamed of establishing a large glasshouse for tomato growing but it wasn’t until he joined forces with the Costa Group – a Victorian-based, family-owned business with more than 100 years experience in fruit and vegetable growing in Australia – that he realised his ambition.

This story excerpt is from Issue #55

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2007