Cavegates Nurseries was established in the mid 1950s by the current growers’ parents John and Pat May. John’s father was a partner in Humber Fruit Brokers, a wholesaler based in Humber Street, Hull. The nursery was based near South Cave with John May initially working for his parents before branching out on his own.
The 10-acre site is located on the Humber plain on the edge of the pretty village of Ellerker. The site was a true market garden at first, producing many different crops including daffodils, leeks, brassicas and lettuce. It was Pat May's role to work out what paid and what didn’t, and gradually the number of crops whittled down.
Small propagating greenhouses were erected so plants such as lettuces could be established earlier and gain higher prices. A mobile greenhouse was used that could be shuttled back and forth on wheels. Glass frames were also laid out just above ground level to advance the crops.
Before entrance to the Common Market, these early crops made good money and because more crops were possible in a year, higher returns per acre were made. As mechanisation came in, many market garden crops, such as peas, became field scale. Therefore, the nursery gradually increased the area of greenhouses. These early greenhouses were wooden and called Dutch lights.
Tomatoes were grown in the summer and one or two crops of lettuce in the winter. In 1967, the first acre of aluminium Venlo house was erected and proper piped heating using a steam boiler. This enabled tomato and cucumber crops to be planted much earlier, steam could be used to sterilise the soil to eradicate disease. By the time John and Pat's son Nigel came into the business in 1982, the site had five acres of heated glass and the outside crops had virtually been dropped, except for a few leeks. Lettuce was grown in the winter and cucumbers and tomatoes in the summer.
By the 1980s, higher fuel prices and cheaper imported produce were having an effect. The supermarkets were starting to flex their muscles. Until then the produce had been marketed to the wholesale markets in the North of England. We had to improve yields to survive.
In 1983, we started to grow crops hydroponically in Rockwool. This required investment in irrigation and a computer was installed to control heating and ventilation. We gradually dropped the winter lettuce as, once we were growing the cucumbers in Rockwool, it became difficult to prepare the land for lettuce and the Spanish iceberg was favoured by the consumer.
Around 1990, it was decided to stop growing tomatoes. It was easier to concentrate on one crop and we didn’t have enough tall greenhouses to grow tomatoes well. In 1995, a local three-acre glasshouse nursery was acquired to increase production to nine acres of cucumbers. After cropping this glass for five years, it was realised that the other nursery would not achieve the yields we were achieving at Cavegates without significant investment in heating and CO2 enrichment. We had heard about the production of strawberries in glasshouses using the table top system; the plants are grown in bags of compost placed in troughs suspended one metre from the ground, making harvesting much easier and cheaper. The decision was made to convert the three acres to strawberries. After a couple of learning years, this became a profitable operation.
By 2008, cucumber growing had become unprofitable for us so we had to stop .We sold the three-acre nursery and established three acres of strawberries at the main site. We are now focused on converting the rest of the nursery to strawberry production.