Mixed, organic farmer Mark Lea switched from growing peas for animal feed to those for humans when he realised they were in demand. He is riding on the trend for plant-based proteins and says he is now closer to the consumer and his crop has added value.
When Mark Lea grew frustrated with the fluctuating pea market for animal feed, he started looking around for an alternative.
He says: “We were growing peas organically and were pretty annoyed with the market. Cheap imports were undercutting prices and it was a difficult crop to grow and sell.
“So I started looking at Suma and Wholefoods catalogues [which are health food brands]. I found an article by Hodmedod – they were new at the time, so I rang them up, they came over and we got on really well.”
Mark, who farms near Shifnal, in Shropshire, started supplying Hodmedod, a small company which sells British- grown pulses and cereals to retailers and direct to consumers.
He supplies yellow peas, which are sold as split yellow peas and black badger peas, which are often eaten as an alternative to chickpeas. But early on he also supplied blue peas, which are sold as green split peas, and marrow fat peas, which are sold for mushy peas.
Working with Hodmedod has marked a pivotal change in his business, says Mark. The peas fit well into his cropping rotation, which includes clover, oats and 10 wheat varieties. He includes peas one year in every five. He also has 80 suckler cows and 100 ewes on his 202-hectare (500-acre) farm.
The value of the crop is higher now and he is able to negotiate a fair price with Hodmedod each year, rather than being at the mercy of commodity prices. To retain more value, Mark also cleans and dries the peas on-farm.
“It’s very different to when we just used to send the peas off on a trailer to the merchant. Now I feel we have more responsibility and it’s nice to produce food rather than a commodity – I love seeing our farm name on the packaging.
“Hodmedod is lovely to work with – there is a huge difference between the relationship we have with them to the feed buyer.”
As a mixed farmer, Mark says he is proud to produce quality meat, but it has also been good to embrace consumers who want to eat more plant-based protein too.
“We produce beef and lamb, but I would be stupid to alienate myself from one of the most rapidly growing markets we have seen in recent years. We are a mixed farm and I am proud to supply different markets.”
He is now looking at heritage wheats as another possible market with added value.
Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of Hodmedod, says: “We’ve seen a huge surge in interest in pulses, especially those grown on British farms. This reflects our cosmopolitan national tastes and enthusiasm for global cuisines, and also that consumers are increasingly choosing to eat less meat.
“We think this represents a fantastic opportunity for UK farmers who are well-placed to grow protein crops, which can play an important role in more sustainable lower input rotations [they’re an excellent disease break, fix nitrogen and build soil organic matter].
“Shorter routes to market, combined with varietal selection, allow farmers like Mark to find higher value for crops which might otherwise be treated as commodities.”
Shape Your Farming Future is a series of informative and practical guides looking in-depth at issues pertinent to farmers when planning for the future.