Geoff Norman Remembers…
August 16, 2017 | News | By Lindsey Hart
The tomato industry was booming in the island for a number of years – but what was Norman Piette’s involvement? Geoff Norman recounts how his father Jack worked out a more efficient system to ship our prized toms off-island.
In 1953, my father began manufacturing boxes for the export of tomatoes, setting up in the shed now used as Norman Piette’s Timber Mill. The operation was then transferred to the warehouse subsequently used as Commodore Container Workshop, and then into the first hangar in Longue Hougue Lane (Hangar East). As production was not fully automated and could not meet demand in peak season, storage space was essential through the year.
The Guernsey Tomato Marketing Board was created in the late 1950’s to form a co-operative for the export, transport and marketing of all the Island’s tomato produce. Previously each grower had to deal through numerous export agents, resulting in the small growers not always getting the best or equal payments to the larger producers.
Once tomatoes were picked they were sent to the Guernsey Tomato Marketing Board to be exported, having been loaded onto pallets. First they were put into a cool room to cool off before being put onto a set of rollers to a trough of water to be cleaned. Then they were dried with cool air and travelled past an electronic eye that sorted them into different grades according to size and colour with very red or green fruit getting rejected. Then they were weighed into 6 ‘kilos and packed into a tray, and covered with a special coloured paper lid denoting each grade.
Finally they were put onto a turntable and stacked up on palettes of 130 trays which were then taken by lorry to the docks and sent to the various wholesale markets in the UK.
Loading and unloading
An area demanding rapid improvement was how the trays were loaded on and off the ships. The existing system involved every individual basket being manhandled off the lorries onto scale boards by numerous dockers. These were then unloaded by further dockers in the hold of the ship and bulk stacked, with the whole process repeated at the receiving port in England.
So my father was delegated the task of finding a faster, labour efficient system…
Pallets and forklifts
His system involved the trays being strapped into 3’s, stacked on a returnable metal pallet, picked up by a forklift onto lorries and unloaded at the quay with crane mounted forks directly in position in the vessel. The palletised system did not lend itself to multi-level stacking so Jack sourced the new Tweendecker generation of ships to improve shipping efficiencies. This put Commodore in a good position to gain an equal share of the tomato shipping contract shared with British Rail.
Jack retired from the GTMB during 1986 and was succeeded by myself until it wound its operations down when tomato production declined.