Exclusive: Regional farmers ready for big push with peas

A STAPLE of the British dinner plate, the pea, is as quintessential a part of an English country garden as any vegetable you care to name.

But in fact, many of the peas sold in this country are from abroad and now a group of determined Yorkshire farmers are preparing to elevate the status of the varieties grown in Yorkshire by marketing the region's peas on a large-scale basis.

Swaythorpe Growers, a co-operative of more than 40 farmers in the Yorkshire area is preparing to market its branded Yorkshire Peas on a wide scale, hoping to emulate the success of locally-produced fresh food in the frozen market.

Produced from fields covering 4,000 acres of Yorkshire farmland, the growers have been growing and harvesting peas on a co-operative basis now for nearly 15 years.

With regional food and drink becoming more fashionable, Swaythorpe Growers hopes that the Yorkshire name will help it reach new markets and put peas with a specific local identity on the map once again for consumers.

Matthew Hayward, who co-ordinates the farming and harvesting side of things for the co-operative, said: "We know it is going to be a tough road and that we have a way to go yet. It is a big battle, but a battle we are up for.

"A lot of peas sold in this country are not British, they come from around Europe. What we are saying is let's get some British peas out there."

While the peas are marketed on the basis that they are locally grown, the enterprise is anything but small time.

It operates with growers across a broad area, ranging from Tadcaster in the west to east of Hull and as far north as towards Bridlington.

The sizeable operation sees more than a million pounds worth of machinery operating in the fields come harvest time with the whole growing process planned to military precession.

Seeds are planted on a timescale established by the soil type and local climate with a view to making the harvesting as efficient as possible. Harvesting itself takes place on a 24-hour rotating basis, with the vegetables being harvested, washed, blanched and frozen all within two and half hours of being picked.

The meticulous process means that as well as being home-grown and harvested, the peas are "as fresh as it can get" according to Mr Hayward.

The Swaythorpe group has been operating this way since 1996 when a small collection of growers who wanted a "fresh approach" to pea growing and marketing decided to come together.

Starting with a group of 30 members farming some 2,000 acres it has now grown to more than 40 members across some 4,000 acres, a level which Ian Keyes of the co-op said is necessary to compete effectively. "We needed a large-scale operation to cope with the commercial investment. We have increased the scale of the business very gradually and it has been market driven every time."

A keen business sense has seen the co-op establish its markets beforehand every year, selling to a variety of customers around the country with all profits being returned back to its members.

However to take the business to the next stage Swaythorpe Growers decided to try to market itself as a Yorkshire brand.

Mr Hayward said: "We want to bring a good return for the growers which is one of the reasons we started the Yorkshire brand of peas. It is a way of raising the profile and we want to sell this brand on a regional basis."

"When you got to a retailer with a product like potatoes or mushrooms or eggs and you have Yorkshire in the title then that is great. But if it is a commodity it is a different story. We want to change that."

Currently the peas are on sale in a number of farm shops around the East Riding of Yorkshire, as well as Fodder – the region's local food supermarket on the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate.

The scale of the task is daunting and one that the co-operative is aware of.

However, displaying true Yorkshire grit, it seems determined to take the Yorkshire name to a wider audience.

Mr Keyes said: "We recognise that it is a very difficult market place, especially when you are competing with very big names. There is no doubt that the Yorkshire name does help though.

"Local food is a really good thing for the fresh market, why should it not be good for frozen? That's the big debate we are in."

Bumper crop can last a long time

Peas are a cut-throat business, as the farmers of Norfolk discovered last year.

A frozen pea can last a long time and travel a long way and a bumper crop in 2009 had knock-on effects, including the cancellation of a big Italian order for Bird's Eye – which led to the mothballing of a factory at Great Yarmouth and the cancellation of contracts for hundreds of local growers for 2010.

The hiatus caused some concern in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, where peas are an important part of the income of many arable farmers.

Almost all peas nowadays are sold frozen and the first thing a grower needs is access to a processing plant.

Hull has a big one, mainly supplying Bird's Eye.

Peas or beans make a useful "break crop" for the arable farmer – meaning they give some return from land normally used for cereals like wheat and barley while it recovers.

They also take valuable nitrogen out of the air and leave it in the soil to assist any crop which follows.