FARMERS have been ploughing peas back into the ground after an astonishing set of harvests.
An unprecedented pea crop was the most spectacular result of an unexpectedly good combination of circumstances for many growers this year – starting with an early drought about which everybody complained.
It stretched a lot of plants to their limit. But in this part of the world at least, the rain came back just in time. And what looked like an indifferent summer to most of us turned out to be perfect in terms of water supply. Grains caught up, soft fruits ripened early and pea vines went wild.
The varieties grown to sell fresh in the shops or to the freezing factories – by far the biggest market – are harvested mainly in July and early August.
As late as June, it looked as if they would struggle to be ready in time.
But when it came to it, many acres were “bypassed” – left standing because they were surplus to requirements.
Farmers who supply shelled peas for freezing have machinery, generally owned co-operatively, which is designed for just that job. And the buyer most of them supply, Birds Eye, did not want all they had to offer.
After meeting their quotas, farmers have been growing some peas on until they are dry, for use as seed or animal feed. Some are attempting to turn spare vines into silage. But most have better things to do and a lot of peas have simply been turned into “green manure”.
Chief executive William Bradley of the Green Pea Company, a co-operative of East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire growers, said: “We are not equipped to sell fresh peas. It would mean employing a lot of manual labour to handle them, for what would be a very small market, and this year is a one-off.
“It’s very costly to store peas long-term and there is only a certain market for them. It’s a shame, but it’s better than being short.”
Tamara Hall, who grows for the co-op at Beverley, said: “Peas hate going into wet ground so the drought made ideal conditions for drilling.”
The chief executive of the industry’s Processors and Growers Research Organisation, Salvador Potter, said: “Despite the drought, which in some cases lasted February to June, peas withstood the conditions extremely well. Because they fix their own nitrogen, from the atmosphere, they are less dependent on mineral nitrogen from the soil, which gets locked up when there is no moisture to transport it.”
He said farmers should take note that, even this year, there is still unmet demand for dry peas for various markets – including chip shop “mushies”. But they come from different varieties from freezer peas, harvested later and harvested differently, using combines.
Ironically, Birds Eye is offering contracts for hundreds of extra hectares next year, to meet a new order from Italy. But for this year, it has all it wants.
The Yorkshire Post asked Birds Eye why surpluses could not be frozen and kept and got the short answer: “We only freeze what we plan to sell.”
The company added in a statement: “Our cooperation with the farmers in East Yorkshire and North Lincs allows us to produce the highest quality Birds Eye peas each summer. For nearly 65 years we’ve been harvesting peas with military precision, picking and freezing them within 2.5 hours to lock in their great taste and nutrients. This year, the pea harvest began two weeks early and it’s been a great achievement that despite the spring drought, we have met our targets.”
Mr Potter said: “No company wants to carry surplus stocks.”
The sugar beet harvest also looks good. British Sugar has announced that its next “campaign”, as the effort to collect and process the crop is traditionally called, will start on Wednesday this week. Roots are big and healthy and although sugar content has yet to be measured, it is expected to be high.
“Surpluses should not be a problem for us,” said a Yorkshire growers’ representative in the NFU, Michael Craven of Melbourne. “British Sugar will probably take them, for a reduced price, or they can be sold as livestock feed.”
The Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme said it had not yet looked into crop surpluses and could offer no comment on the waste of peas.