Putting peas centre stage

Great British Pea Week which took place recently from the 10th to 16th July, celebrated the harvest of the humble pea.

The end of June doesn’t just mean Glastonbury and Wimbledon; for hundreds of farmers it’s also time to harvest two billion portions of peas in order to meet Great British demand for the next year. Best described as a military operation, the harvesting process takes on average six to eight weeks. For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, pea viners harvest, shell and transport their crop from field to frozen as quickly as possible – usually in as little as 150 minutes.

The popularity of the vegetable is enduring; approximately 34,000 hectares are grown each year by 700 pea growers, but the expensive machinery required means they have to collaborate in order to harvest the crop. An example of farmer teamwork at its best, there are currently 18 farmer groups along the east coast of the UK. From Essex to the North of Dundee, the east-facing seaboard and maritime climate has provided the perfect conditions for producing a superior crop.

Around 135,000 tonnes of peas are harvested every year, with the remaining 3,000 intended for cans. This makes the UK both the largest producer and consumer of frozen peas in Europe, and means the country is 90% self-sufficient when it comes to this particular vegetable.

Often taken for granted, Great British Pea Week was created last year by Yes Peas! and the British Growers Association to promote the humble pea and inform consumers about the hard work that goes into delivering a premium fresh product to their plates. The week is funded by growers, freezers and machinery companies from the vining pea sector and aims to promote the versatility, provenance and nutritional benefits of frozen peas.

This year the annual awareness week shared recipes created by the Yes Peas! campaign ambassador, chef Rachel Green, and educated the general public about harvest through Facebook and Twitter. ‘Farmer Cam’ saw pea farmers recording short videos that shared behind the scenes footage of harvest from the heart of the action.

Pea grower Russell Corfield was one farmer who decided to share the trials and tribulations of the pea harvest. His videos were so popular that he was asked to appear on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans’ breakfast show where he chatted about how you can tell when a pea is ready to be harvested.

“We enter the fields every day and sample them, then we bring them back to base and put them through a special machine called a tenderometer,” he told Chris Evans and his 9.38 million listeners. “This gives us a reading and from that we can dictate whether or not they’re ready to be harvested.

“A tenderometer is a specialist piece of equipment that comes at vast expense – we take the peas from the pod and the force it takes to crush the peas gives us a reading. From that we know whether they are ready to be harvested.

“We’re busy harvesting in the fields at the moment and we’re about 40% through the harvest at the moment,” he said on 10th July. “We’re running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to get them into the factory in pristine condition.”

A pea grower’s story

Stephen Francis, member of the YesPeas! campaign and Managing Director of Fen Peas Ltd, said: “Great British Pea Week came back for its second year to inspire the nation to cook with peas during harvest season and reconnect people with the important heritage and provenance of frozen peas and their fascinating journey from the field to our freezers.

“The locked in freshness of frozen peas means we can enjoy British peas all year round, so Great British Pea Week is here to put peas firmly on the food agenda and give everyone a reason to enjoy this versatile and nutritional vegetable at the peak of the British harvesting season, as well as all year-round.”

Stephen, a third generation pea grower from Lincolnshire, says that peas are in the DNA of most of the farmers involved in the annual operation. Stephen spent his childhood amongst acres of pea vines: “One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather overseeing the loading of peas into railway carriages from the back of our canning factory in the late 60s,” he said. A family business that boasted three canning factories in Boston and Kings Lynn was run by Stephen’s grandfather and his two brothers. They would eventually sell the business, but Stephen would continue to pursue a career producing the vegetable.

While he attended Riseholme Agricultural College he would spend every summer helping out during the pea harvest and today he is managing director of Fen Peas Ltd, a cooperative of 82 farmers with 5,200 acres producing 10,000 tonnes of peas every year. Covering areas such as Waddington, Holbeach, Market Deeping and Grantham, the company supplies Pinguin Lutosa UK, AP East Anglia and two further specialist customers. The 82 members benefit from the company’s knowledge, resources and equipment, which includes four PMC 979-CT harvesters. These are worked so hard during harvest that at the end they are stripped down, cleaned and sent back to the supplier for a complete overhaul – a process Stephen likens to the treatment given to Formula One cars.

“The pea harvest is the culmination of ten months of hard work, involving meticulous precision and planning that leads to an almost military operation,” Stephen said. “As soon as one year’s harvest is complete, we begin planning for the following year. Thinking about seed, estimating how many tonnes will need to be grown, drilling and planting.

“It’s the challenge of the harvest which I love most about growing peas. They say it’s like firing up a super tanker. It takes days to get going, but when it’s cranked up it runs superbly, and when it’s done, it takes a little while to bring to a halt.”

Speed is the most important aspect of pea production: the sooner they can be harvested, shelled and frozen the better, locking more sweetness and taste into the vegetable. The freezing sites are all nearby on the coast and originally built for freezing fish. “I’ll always remember the best harvesting day for me for getting quickly to the factory,” Stephen recalled. “It was the day Charles married Diana and there was hardly a car on the road!”

Including peas in a rotation brings significant benefits as they fix nitrogen into the soil, benefitting the following crop. However, planting peas is an exact art, largely because of the maritime climate. Fields at or near sea level will grow much quicker than those planted higher up. Add to this equation 15 different varieties and it’s easy to understand why the process is referred to as a military operation. Given the team can only deliver a set amount of tonnage every day during harvest, planting must be staggered whilst also taking into account average weather patterns – another cause of complications.

Stephen doesn’t have a secret method for mastering this, but he does share one lesson learned. “I was always told, it doesn’t matter what sort of year it is, the best peas are those that are planted on 7 April,” he said. “It’s considered to be the golden day, and I’d say it stands pretty true.”

When Stephen began managing Fen Peas in 1989 he was responsible for 1,000 acres. The 90’s would prove a turbulent time in the pea industry and some groups ceased operating, but Fen Peas rode out the storm, considerably expanding its grower and customer base.

Stephen credits the group’s survival to its farmer members who work together to reap the benefits of collective purchasing, best practice sharing and man power.

“The pea industry is a funny old business,” he said. “We’re close. We’re friends and instead of competing, we work together like a well-oiled machine. We share best practice and the outcomes of trials and cultivations; we are learning from each other.”

Reported by Emily Scaife.