There’s a lot of love for the humble pea in the Yorkshire Wolds. It might be an area best known as Hockney country for its patchwork landscape of gently rolling fields, but for less than two months a year it also becomes the scene of what can only be described as the Great Yorkshire Pea Harvest.
Mission control for this military operation is a row of unglamorous factory buildings on a Hull industrial estate and it’s from there that Birds Eye’s agricultural manager Aimee Dawson spends July and the bulk of August co-ordinating five different harvesting gangs working across 864 fields sown by 250 growers.
By 10.30am one sunny Wednesday morning, she’s already been at work for five hours – sleep, she says, waits until after the summer – and has swapped the office for a farmer’s field tucked away off Driffield’s main street.
“This is where it all happens,” says Aimee, who has just two and a half hours to get every single pea from the field to the freezer. “After that time, the quality and the nutrients start to deteriorate, so even if it’s a couple of seconds over, then they get rejected. Fortunately there aren’t many batches which fail to make the grade.
“Yes, there are times when it can be a bit stressful, but I love it. I don’t come from a farming family, but when I was growing up I just knew that I wanted to be involved in the industry and I ended up going to Bishop Burton Agricultural College. That was it, I never looked back.”
Each year, there is a window of around 50 days to harvest the two billion portions of peas which will feed Britain for the next 12 months and much of it is centred on Yorkshire. As the sun rises, each morning a small army of fieldsmen quietly assess the various crops, working out which ones should be harvested next. It’s been this way since the 1960s when Birds Eye first became production here and they now work with growers who operate under a co-operative called the Green Pea Company. The set-up means that they can not only share the burden of costly harvesting equipment, but also that every farmer receives a fair return for their crop.
“I probably own a couple of wheel nuts,” says Peter Caley, looking across at the new vining machines which have just been brought in for this year’s harvest. His father and grandfather both grew peas before him and while no-one wants to tempt fate this year’s crop looks like it should be a good one. “If we were all acting as individuals we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. No farmer, for example, wants to be the first or last to sow their crop, but by being part of a co-operative we can organise a sowing rota to ensure no-one loses out financially,” adds Peter.
While they may not be the most exotic vegetable, peas are the backbone of Britain’s vegetable industry and it’s one that more farmers seem keen to have a share in.
“Defra recently introduced some new incentives, which has made pea production increasingly attractive, but from an agricultural point of view it also makes sense,” says Peter.
“Peas are what’s known as nitrogen fixers – they basically plough goodness back into the soil and make it pretty much a perfect condition for wheat later in the year. These days there are so many regulations regarding what you can and can’t use in terms of artificial and chemical fertilisers, that any natural way of improving soil quality is something farmers understandably cling onto.”
The vining machine, which has been stood idle for a while, sparks into action. The harvesting team has just received the go ahead from mission control and as the clock begins to tick, Stew Owston is at the helm of the machine. He’s been part of the pea drilling and harvesting team for years and afterwards will move onto the potato crop.
“It’s not a bad job,” he says. “These days the machines are pretty much automated and quiet, so I can sit in my cab, close the doors and turn the radio up. Of course you get the occasional glitch, but we’ve got the harvest down to pretty much a fine art.”
With lorries standing by, it takes just 15 minutes to fill each of the two tanks and they then begin the journey back to Birds Eye’s headquarters.
“There is a lot which is within our control, but yes there are some things which we just have no influence over,” says trainee fieldsman Josh Williams. “If the roads around here ground to a halt because of a big accident then we have to try to find another way through and if something goes wrong at the factory then that obviously has a domino effect. However, we lose very few of our peas – less than two per cent – and given the scale of the operation that’s pretty impressive.
“The one thing peas don’t like is being sat in the wet, so we have been pretty lucky this spring and summer as we haven’t had too much rain. Until this year I worked as part of the harvesting gangs, and I know it probably sounds a bit sad, but there is a real sense of satisfaction when you’ve had a good day’s harvest.”
From Driffield it takes less than an hour for the peas to reach the factory where a sample is first taken for testing.
“It’s what we call the Del Monte moment,” says Steve Walker Smith, who oversees the factory operation and the 180 or so university students who each year spend their summer washing and freezing peas. This is a massive operation and one we spend the rest of the year working towards. As soon as one harvest is over we start cleaning down the factory and carrying out the maintenance work to ensure we are ready for the next one. I don’t think many people realise the scale of what goes on here – this is the largest pea factory in the world.
“During these few weeks the Hull treatment works has to deal with double the amount of waste water – we could basically fill a domestic bath in one second and the amount of electricity we use would power 7,000 homes.”
There are more facts where they came from – among Steve’s current favourite is the fact that the other weekend the factory broke all pea processing records, with 1,184 tonnes of the vegetable passing through the factory in a single day. Ten years ago the industry launched its Yes Peas campaign (www.peas.org) to promote the versatility, provenance and nutritional benefits of frozen peas. It’s worked to an extent, but over in East Yorkshire there is still work to be done.
“Often when you talk to people about Birds Eye they say ‘Yes, but isn’t it a shame that it’s not really a local company any more’,” says Aimee. “When the main factory closed down in 2007 it received an awful lot of publicity and it gave the impression that we had pulled out of the area. We hadn’t. We started up a new factory the following year, but that didn’t get any media attention.
“I want people to know that we are still here, that we are still providing local jobs and working with local farmers. I do bang the drum a bit, but it’s only because it’s frustrating to think that most people see us as a big national brand rather than a company which works with local growers as much as it always has done.”