Pea growers step up to the plate in East Anglia

Pea growers in Norfolk and Suffolk were back in business yesterday as the new harvest started in earnest – 16 months after Birds Eye scrapped a 64-year tradition and delivered a major blow to the region's agricultural industry.

A farmers' group has invested in a �1m fleet of three top-of-the-range harvesters to pick more than 7,500 acres of peas over the next six weeks.

Broadland farmer Richard Hirst, who is chairman of Anglia Pea Growers, was determined to revive the industry and found a new partner to take and freeze the crop at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft.

The last of the three harvesters, which each cost about �350,000, was delivered yesterday to Wrentham, near Beccles, and handed over by Morris Holl, of Fakenham-based PMC.

Mr Hirst, who is also a pea grower and a former chairman of Norfolk National Farmers' Union, was delighted by the arrival of the harvesters and the partnership with leading global pea group, Ardo.

The scrapping of the Birds Eye contract in February last year was estimated to have cost the region's 180 pea growers about �5.1m in lost income last year. Most scrambled to plant other crops at short notice but it was a major blow to the industry's confidence.

And peas, which can be worth between �500 and �600 per hectare, are also valued by arable farmers because they enables cereal crops to be drilled early.

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Some 112 farmers have drilled about 3,000 hectares – or 7,450 acres – since early March for harvesting over the next few weeks, a reduction on about 12,000 acres grown until last year by the group for Birds Eye.

Mr Hirst, of Carr Farm, Ormesby, near Great Yarmouth, was pleased by the quality of the peas as the first crops were picked and delivered.

'And this latest rain will really help the later drilled pea crops, especially on heavier land,' said Mr Hirst, who has logged just 3mm of rain on his family's farm in the past four days.

Although the pea harvest started about two weeks earlier than usual, the early-drilled crops have survived the drought much better than expected, said APG's general manager and fieldsman Andy Beach. He joined Anglia Pea Growers to run the new contract having been redundant by Birds Eye last spring, so he is pleased to be back in the pea business.

'We're the largest independent group of pea growers in the country, and we're second to Birds Eye,' he added.

North Suffolk farmer, Ed Hadingham, of The Saints, near Halesworth, who is also a director of the group and started as a viner driver in 1990, said that the rainfall had been very varied. 'On one of our pea fields, we recorded 6mm at one end and 9mm at the other end. And a further 11mm fell on Sunday evening,' he added.

The group, which already has a waiting list of growers keen to plant vining peas, is broadly split into two. The northern arm is in the Waveney Valley and into Broadland while the southern group extends deeper in Suffolk.

The crops were all grown within 40 miles of the freezing plant, said Mr Hirst.

As the harvesting swings into top gear and final adjustments are made to the 27-tonne viners, which can each harvest about one hectare an hour, the teams – each of seven staff – will be working 24 hours a day to get the crop to Oulton Broad as quickly as possible and within 150 minutes from field to freezer.

PMC's customer sales manager Mr Holl was pleased that a third of this year's production of 15 machines had been bought by local farmers. It employs 36 staff, and has also supplied another machine to North-Norfolk based Aylsham Growers and two to Fen Peas. 'We export around the world but it is good to have the chance to deliver on our doorstep too,' he added.

Ironically when Birds Eye decided last spring to scrap local pea growing after more than 60 years and move the focus of production to Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire, the directors of Anglian Pea Growers were actually deciding whether to replace part of the fleet with three machines.

'Now the race is to harvest every field of peas as possible,' said Mr Hirst. 'I won't be able to relax until the last field is harvested probably in early August.'

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