Yin, yang and the art of tomato growing

Is feng shui the work of the devil? An Isle of Wight tomato grower hoped a bit of 'chi' would bump up his yield - but two of his Christian employees thought otherwise

Martin Kelly liked his job. There was just something about trussing and pruning the tomato plants at Arreton Valley Nursery on the Isle of Wight. Some workers found the heat in the glasshouses unbearable and left, but not Mr Kelly. Whenever the sun came out, the Sunday school teacher just tapped his toes to the pop music playing on the radio, happy in the knowledge that he would be home in time to make the tea for his family. Nothing could have prepared him for the shock of discovering that the forces of evil were lurking amongst the vines, and would force him to resign from his much-loved job on the spot.

Sitting in his simply furnished lounge in Sandown, Mr Kelly, 45, describes the moment when he realised all was not right at work. ''We always have the radio on, and it said that an Isle of Wight tomato firm was harnessing the powers of yin and yang to boost its harvest, and that a local feng shui consultant would be walking around the glasshouses and telling them how best to site the bee hives in order to bring harmony to the yin and yang.

"I took it as a joke. I thought yin and yang and chi were new members of staff.''

But on seeing a press release issued by the British Tomato Growers' Association which ''read like an assault plan'', Mr Kelly soon realised the nursery was deadly serious.

''It [the press release] confirmed that it was right for me to go. I was prepared to treat it as a joke, but they were all serious about it. Any yield would be seen as being down to the yin and the yang. Yin and yang is not the power that I'm subject to,'' says the Baptist, who started working at the nursery last year.

''They had imposed it on me. It was nothing I asked for. One minute I'm training the plants as normal, and the next thing I'm working for yin and yang.

"It's not a joke, I wish it was a joke. If Alan Parker [a director at the nursery] had said it was tongue-in-cheek, that would have been the end of it. At the end of the day, he declared his faith in a power other than God. It doesn't matter what that power was, I don't want to be associated with it. The only power I recognise as a Christian is God. I couldn't serve God with yin and yang in the middle of us."

Mr Kelly wasn't the only one to go. His son Paul-Martin, 20, resigned the next day. Baptised for the second time in January, Paul-Martin admits to feeling ''pretty gutted'' at no longer being employed. But he too is adamant he has made the right decision. ''I felt I shouldn't be working there, because I'm promoting something that isn't my faith,'' he says.

Having walked out of his job, Mr Kelly, who has three out of four children still at home, now faces 26 weeks without any state benefits. Luckily his wife, Alyson, 41, a customer services clerk and Christian, supports his decision.

Mr Kelly, a former Catholic, became "born-again" after seeing an apparition of Jesus ''with well-groomed oiled hair, wearing a white robe and gold sash'' smiling at him through his television set. He insists that he is not, in his own words, a religious nutcase. ''I love a laugh,'' he says, breaking into a Tommy Cooper impersonation.

I spot an aromatherapy kit in the lounge. Surely the forces of odour? ''It was a present from someone. It's still in the box, still sealed,'' says Mr Kelly, momentarily flustered. Back at Arreton Valley Nursery, one of the largest tomato growers in the UK, Alan Parker remains baffled at the walkout. ''As far as we're concerned, this isn't a religious act. It's an art form. We respect Martin and his son's views. We can't do anything more than that. I don't think there is anyway they are going to see our view, and there's probably no way we'll see their view.

"It's a very unfortunate experience for us to lose people like this, it's the first time it has ever happened,'' said Mr Parker.

But Mr Kelly is convinced there is more to feng shui than art. ''When you're bringing in the forces of yin and yang, the yin being the female element and the derivation of the moon, the yang being the masculine element, with the element of the sun, and the chi being the force that works either for or against you, you can't say it's not a religion. They have brought a force into it that isn't a human force. There's no mention of God, so therefore it has got to be a Godless form.''

The nursery was one of 11 nationally that agreed to try feng shui on the recommendation of the British Tomato Growers' Association. The industry is currently suffering from competition from cheap imports from Spain, Italy and Holland. And plants at four or five sites in the UK, including Arreton Valley, are suffering from a particularly contagious virus. Arreton Valley has already had to destroy a hectare of plants. ''It's costing us a lot of money,'' says Mr Parker.

The feng shui consultants advised on the siting of the bee hives. Though tomatoes are self-pollinating, UK nurseries have been using imported bubble bees to boost production for the last 10 years. As the bees forage for pollen to feed their young, they shake the plants, causing pollen to fall on the stigma, resulting in fertilisation. Previously, special rods, known as vibrators, were used to shake the plants. It was, however, time-consuming and damaged the plants.

Andrea Smith, 48, the feng shui consultant who came to Arreton Valley, has advised the nursery to place the hives in the bottom right hand corner of the glasshouses, a position which relates to "helpful friends". Ms Smith also cast her eye over the nursery's offices, and suggested that the directors sat with their backs against the walls ''in a more protective position''.

Mr Parker, whose only hitherto experience of Chinese culture was sweet and sour chicken, denies that it is all a public relations ploy. At last year's launch of the tomato season, the British Tomato Growers' Association, of which Mr Parker is a leading member, hired rock musicians to play to the plants. A near five per cent increase in production was later claimed.

''There is a serious aspect to it. You can look at it and be cynical and say it's an attempt to just get cheap publicity, but in reality it's about attempting also to improve our performance. We heard that some poultry and livestock farmers were doing it in the north of England.''

Surely some people must think he's barking? ''I haven't heard that comment. With all these art forms, there are always sceptics. I'm sure there are people out there who think it's something they wouldn't want to be a part of.''

Does he really think it will work?

''Time will tell,'' says Mr Parker, who admits to not keeping his toilet seat down - something feng shui devotees say helps to keep finances in order.

Whether just a public relations ploy or not, the scheme has surely backfired. The appeal for workers sited at the entrance to the nursery may now go unheeded by other Christians, and there is also the prospect of them refusing to buy home-grown tomatoes. Certainly he has already lost one customer. ''I won't be buying British,'' Mr Kelly sniffs. ''Not that I could stand tomatoes anyway.''