Race against time to keep peas sweet at Swaythorpe Growers near Driffield

Keeping sweetness in peas is akin to a military operation in the East Riding from Langtoft to Market Weighton and Holderness and if transportation from viner to wagon to a freezing facility is not completed within an allotted time it can affect the quality of the crop and with it the profitability of the harvest.

Tim Rymer and Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who was at the official opening of Swaythorpe Growers new plant. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Tim Rymer and Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who was at the official opening of Swaythorpe Growers new plant. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.

Pea viners are in action right now as harvesting takes place from June through to the end of August.

One of the county’s largest pea growing co-operatives, Swaythorpe Growers, recognised the need for its forty-five growers, with 6000 acres of peas between them, to have a facility closer to its heartland than the previous base of Thorganby near York and together with Belgian company d’Arta, fellow producers and specialists in frozen vegetables who wanted a better presence in the UK, and Driffield-based GWE Biogas, they have produced as green a plant as is possible slap bang in the middle of their growers.

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“The clock is ticking as soon as a wagon is filling with peas,” says Tim Rymer, CEO of JSR Farms and chairman of Swaythorpe Growers. “From harvest to getting the peas frozen it is those first 150 minutes that is the gold standard. Any later and the sweetness starts to go starchy so capturing quality is our major consideration.

Pea Vining machines working the fields of Swaythorpe Growers near their pea processing plant near Driffield.

“We supply two major retailers with our own branded Yorkshire Peas and we can’t afford any hiccups.

“D’Arta were looking for a new production facility over here and were the catalyst to what has been built. They are also the major shareholders in the facility.

“Our previous factory location meant that in order to freeze the peas and being fully aware of the timeframe we were working to on transportation saw us sending smaller loads, which added expense.

“Our new factory will freeze, store and pack the peas and couldn’t be better located. If you were to drop a pin in the middle of our growers’ area you would put it where the factory has been built.”

Peas from the fields of Swaythorpe Growers.

This year’s prolonged dry sunny spell may have an adverse affect on their overall pea harvest.

“We hoped to freeze 11,000 tonnes of peas this year but may fall short as generally the peas are becoming ready too quickly and we don’t have the capacity to get them all harvested at once. They are not as staggered in terms of being ready as we would have wanted.

“In many ways this season’s crop couldn’t have been more challenging. Drilling plans are very complex taking into account land type, aspect of either north or south facing, height above sea level and varietal elements of whether an early or later growing variety.

“The really cold spring played havoc and production director Matthew Hayward tells me he has peas at 300ft on top of the Yorkshire Wolds and those on the lower ground all coming to maturity at the same time where he would at very least have been expecting the peas at the top to be a week later.

“It’s a particularly stressful time, but at least with the new facility we can assure ourselves that whatever crop we have will reach its destination more quickly.”

While much of the talk over Brexit is currently centred on negativity this new facility should inspire confidence in others that leaving the European Union hardly means the end to trade with partners from the mainland.

“This is a Brexit good news story,” says Tim. “D’Arta has 20 per cent of its business in the UK and they wanted to safeguard what to them is a very important market. They already have plants in Flanders and Portugal and had approached AE Lenton of Boston in Lincolnshire, the marketing company Swaythorpe Growers and D’Arta have used for many years, about working with someone in the UK to increase their commitment over here to expand and get into more retailers rather than purely food service which is the market they are serving presently.

“Our neighbouring farmer Tom Megginson has supplied a fabulous site which due to the nature of his unique and forward thinking GWE Biogas operation means this is now one of the UK’s first carbon-neutral food factories employing a full-time team of twenty.

“GWE Biogas will provide all the heat and power, will take all vegetable waste produced and convert it to renewable energy through anaerobic digestion.

“What it means to us is we dramatically reduce travel time from field to factory and thereby ensure a better product.”

Birds Eye in Hull were pioneers in the freezing of peas as they looked to ensure their processing facilities were close to capacity when the fishing industry fell into decline. Birds Eye encouraged growers in the East Riding to grow for them.

Tim and JSR Farms were initially involved with Birds Eye’s operations but following a farm acquisition an earlier initial partial move to processors JS Frozen Foods and marketing company AE Lenton was made whole eight years ago.

“We purchased Swaythorpe Farm just north of Langtoft in 1989 which proved too far north for Birds Eye, so we set up Swaythorpe Growers, found new processors and a new marketing company in 1989.”

Archbishop of York John Sentamu was on hand for last week’s official opening of the facility at Eastburn beside the old Driffield aerodrome. It’s right alongside where Tim’s father John Rymer started out with JSR Farms in 1958. John passed away in 1996.

Tim has been at the helm for the past 20 years.

“I met the archbishop at a function in York last year and he told me of having come across a pea viner and vining group while walking around the diocese.

“He had been fascinated and when I told him about our hopes for a new pea freezing plant with an opportunity to jump on board a viner he was even more enthused. Having him here last week was a real celebration – apt really is that is the name of the variety used for our own Yorkshire Pea brand.”