Saturday, August 24, 2019

Anglia Pea Growers: Peas, please

August 8, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Farmer cooperative Anglian Pea Growers’ ninth season is well underway. Judith Tooth went to watch the pea viners’ progress.

Since the middle of June, field by field, four pea viners have been steadily making their way up the Suffolk and Norfolk coast, from Nacton to Bacton, and inland to the A140, popping peas from their pods. Today they have reached Pulham Market, and are about to take a rare break from their 24/7 operation to make modifications ready for the change from petits pois to garden peas. Later they will move to a new field, change driver shifts and set off again. By mid August they will have made their way east to Halesworth and then back towards Eye, by which time they will have harvested a total of 2650ha of peas from 110 farms.

Part of one field on this farm has been left unharvested, the recent high temperatures having pushed the peas beyond the required tenderness. But the farmer won’t be penalised: as a cooperative, risk is spread among all the growers.

“The idea is that all the growers share the cost of the machinery and the risk of growing the crop,” says general manager of Anglian Pea Growers, Andy Beach. “Peas are a high-risk crop, and every grower, no matter how good, will have a bad crop every now and again, and at that point will be supported by the rest of the growers. As an individual, or with another crop – if your oilseed rape crop was decimated by flea beetle, for example – you have no protection. As a co-op you share the good times and the bad.

“A percentage of the crop value is retained by the grower regardless, and the rest goes into a pooling system to be spread accordingly, dependent on the performance of that variety.”

The cooperative’s sole purpose is to produce garden peas and petits pois for quick freezing, and is sole supplier to Ardo UK, part of the Ardo Group, Europe’s largest frozen fruit and vegetable company. Peas were first quick-frozen in East Anglia in 1962, and among APG’s members are the grandchildren of some of the original growers.

APG itself isn’t as old: it was set up in 1999 when five separate farmer cooperatives, all supplying Birds Eye, merged. In 2010, when Birds Eye decided not to produce peas in East Anglia anymore, the board of APG decided to keep growing them and seek a new customer.

“Ardo was thought to give us the best chance of a longterm relationship. We’re now in our ninth season and the future looks good. Ardo is expanding, and so are we, gradually increasing our area if the right land and the right grower comes along. We’re not making a big jump.”

The geographical area for growing peas in East Anglia is, in part, historical: peas were frozen at the fishing ports on the east coast, along with the fish, and had to be grown close enough to retain their freshness on the journey there. Today, they are still frozen and stored near the coast, at XPO Logistics at Oulton Broad. And distance, or time, from the factory, is still critical: the peas have to be frozen within 150 minutes of being harvested.

“We also require farmers to have the ability to grow peas – or any legume – not less than one year in eight, to minimise the risk of soil borne diseases, particularly fusarium foot rot. They need to be able to pay attention to detail: in some respects peas are an easy crop to grow, but you have to be hot on aphid monitorings, and airborne vermin – in other words, pigeons. We need a minimum field size of 4ha, so that the four pea viners can operate without getting on top of each other. And, while most soil types from sand to clay will grow peas, a well-structured and well-drained soil is important: peas will show up any compaction or drainage issues.”

A pea season is defined by two main factors: the finite capacity of the factory to process peas on any one day, and the length of growing season. Drilling takes place from the second half of February to the end of May, depending on the variety – there is a choice of 250 – and its maturity factor, with later drilled crops having a shorter growing season. Planning when to drill a crop is important: for example, a crop grown closer to the coast, where temperatures are slightly lower, will take longer to mature, compared with a field inland. Andy uses many different factors to plan the harvesting operation from the first to the last day.

“We don’t force a drilling schedule: as the saying goes, well sown is half grown, and it’s most important that, as soon as the seed is in the ground, it is taking on moisture and swelling. To try and achieve this, we precision drill wherever possible, giving us the best chance of growth starting immediately so that we can monitor it accurately.”

The period between drilling and harvesting is the responsibility of the individual grower –  although APG has a preferred list of agrochemicals to be use, which excludes older technology and products with a “less than acceptable environmental profile”, even where they are listed as suitable for pea crops. Crop monitoring continues throughout the growing season, but particularly in the 10 days leading up to harvest.

“We then take over responsibility for the crop, sampling it every day in the five days before the expected harvest. Robert Lee, our fieldsman, and I use tenderometer values to determine exactly when the pea viners should go in, estimate yields, liaise with the factory and with the individual grower, and contract in logistics. We aim for the quality end of the market, with tenderometer values giving us AA and A grades.”

All growers are Red Tractor Fresh Produce-certified. As APG already looks after many aspects of the crop, the process of certification is easy, with Andy providing all supporting documentation and back-up.

There is no less uncertainty in growing peas than any other crop, says Andy. On the plus side, the UK is the biggest consumer of peas in Europe, and is 80-85 per cent self-sufficient. But a lot of seed is sourced from Europe and the US, and the pea viners, although built in Fakenham, include many components from other countries. Cooperatives may not suit everyone, but they have their benefits: “It’s all about your attitude to risk. If you have an open mind to sharing risk with others then you’ll be fine in a co-op.”