In the midst of harvest, Emily Scaife visits one of the most knowledgeable pea growers in the country and finds out more about the importance of collaborative working.
The pea harvest, a period stretching from six to eight weeks, is best described as a military operation.
Teamwork, strategy and meticulous planning are essential, as the race begins to deliver the crop from field to freezer in record time.
The expensive machinery required means growers have to collaborate to produce the product, but overseeing the entire process for 82 farmers is one man - Stephen Francis, the managing director of Fen Peas.
Stephen hails from a pea farming background, thanks to the three pea canning factories in Boston and Kings Lynn which were run by his grandfather and two brothers.
Although the business has since been sold, Stephen pursued agriculture at Riseholme College, then spent every summer harvesting peas.
He returned from college to manage Fen Peas, at which point consisted of 1,012 hectares (2,500 acres).
Being responsible for a total of 2,266ha (5,600 acres) and producing 10,000 tonnes of peas per annum is no small feat.
The group’s members, who between them farm 8,093 ha (200,000 acres) in Lincolnshire, rely on Stephen to oversee and execute their pea production every year. And it is a responsibility he does not take lightly.
He says: “I am privileged I go on all these different farms and know all these different businesses.
“Around here we tend to have smaller farms because of the quality of land, so someone who has 250 acres can put in 20 acres, but it is probably next door to another of my growers who is farming 2,500 acres. It is variable.
“Our system is rigid but it is flexible. The quality and how we do things for our customers is vital, but we work with growers to make sure their best wishes are looked after as well. It is very personal.”
Ahead of taking on new farms, Stephen works with them to ensure they meet criteria which includes being located within a specific geographical area.
“We start with a farm visit to understand their business and growing techniques and, ideally, our growers will have as wide a rotation as possible with the pea crop. We then look to enter a grower agreement.”
Juggling 82 farms, several pea varieties all with differing speeds of maturity and varying soil types requires an unprecedented level of organisation.
Despite being preoccupied with harvest, Stephen has already begun the process of planning next year’s crop, building up a picture of acreage and requirements as the team moves from farm to farm.
It is this attention to detail which has enabled Stephen to grow the business from 405ha (1,000 acres) when he first joined in 1989 to the 2,266ha (5,600 acres) he oversees today.
“Pea harvest is the culmination of 10 months of hard work, involving meticulous precision and planning which leads to an almost military operation.
“As soon as one year’s harvest is complete, we begin planning for the following year. Thinking about seed, estimating how many tonnes will need to be grown, drilling and planting.
“But it is the challenge of the harvest which I love most about growing peas.
“They say it is like firing up a super tanker. It takes days to get going, but when it is cranked up, it runs superbly. When it is done, it takes a little while to bring to a halt.”
The team starts sowing as soon as they can – usually around Valentine’s Day – before finishing in mid-May. However, this timeframe is not set in stone and sowing was not complete until mid-June this year due to the weather.
Typically, harvest begins in mid-June and is finished by mid-August.
Stephen says: “By the time we start harvesting we only have seven days before daylight hours reduce.”
Although this timescale varies the further north you go, Stephen says peas grown in Lincolnshire are superior thanks to the east-facing seaboard and maritime climate.
He says: “Behind me, the sea is 1.5 miles as the crow flies. I can guarantee if you drilled the same variety, on the same day, on both sides of the A52, the one this side would mature a day later – it is strange.
“Anything within the A52, A16 and the A17 which is near the coast matures a day later than anything on the other side of the road. We are always saying the road must have undersoil heating and create its own climate and the sea does have an effect.
"The industry is in the hands of a few people. We are not competitive, we share a lot of information with each other"
“Peas do not like heavy soil. We grow peas on light land early on. This warms up quickly and we drill them fairly shallow so roots will always challenge and it will fight to go down for moisture – not that it has had to this year.”
Fen Peas produces garden peas (a small- to medium-size produced to a high quality and frozen in less than 150 minutes to retain freshness), petit pois, about 120 tonnes of organic peas for one retailer and economy, which are a medium to large sieve size and usually a B, C or D grade.
Different varieties are specially selected for different locations and maturing rates. These range from Anubis, a variety produced, grown and sold in the UK, to others including Style, Span, Savanah, Novella, Geneva, Markado, Serge, Ibis, Kenobi, Naches and Oasis.
Stephen says: “There are two challenges. One, in terms of growing the crop, is the weather. The second is the huge challenge regarding chemicals, as there are not many approved products.
“The irony is if we cannot use the seed dressings, we are actually going to use more chemicals spraying overhead. So available chemistry is a challenge and all our customers and ultimately retailers are driven by price, so currency is also a big issue. Our competitors are European, in terms of selling peas into retailers.”
On average, Stephen produces five tonnes/ha (2.2t/acre) for Pinguin Lutosa UK, which in turn supplies retail and foodservice sectors in the UK.
Fen Peas’ 82 farmer members reap the benefits of collective purchasing, best practice sharing and man power.
Stephen says: “The pea industry is a funny old business. We are close. We are friends and, instead of competing, we work together like a well-oiled machine.
“We share best practice and outcomes of trials and cultivations, so we are always learning from each other.”
The spread of best practice is done by having Stephen as a single manager looking after all crops from land selection through to seed, drilling crop protection and harvesting.
By working closely with growers, he spreads best practice with his interaction with them, holding regular meetings with them throughout the year, as well as meeting with representatives from other groups to share best practice and feedback to his own growers.
There are also online resources, which include websites and emails, as well as information from research bodies, such as PGRO.
Another key benefit to being part of a co-operative is the expensive machinery Fen Peas invests in on a regular basis. The team’s latest purchase was a new Ploeger pea harvester, which cost £414,000.
Stephen says: “It was imported from Holland when the euro was at 1.4, which was very nice.
“We used to have four machines, but I only really wanted three-and-a-half. I brought this new machine this year because it has much more output and we are now more balanced. Moving a lot of kit around these roads is a nightmare.
“I will always remember the best harvesting day for me for getting quickly to the factory. It was the day Prince Charles married Diana and there was hardly a car on the road.”
Fen Peas has also invested in a new trailer this year to accommodate the growing height of lorries.
He says: “I got Bailey Trailers to build us one which would go higher. It will go to 14ft, which is fairly enormous.”
Stephen highlights investment as absolutely crucial. In total, Fen Peas harvesting equipment is worth £1.5 million.
He says: “If you want to be in it for the long run, you have to invest. After six years, the machines are still okay, but it is like anything – it will need more spending on it, as it is important they keep running.
“Formula One cars are tuned up to do about an hour-and-a-half and 70 laps, then they need stripping down and putting back together.
These machines are designed to do about eight weeks, then go back to the factory, get stripped down and put back together.
Ultimately, I think we get the best out of them over six years.”
Stephen is positive about the future of pea production, which has come a long way since a turbulent patch in the 1990s, in which some groups stopped operating.
He says: “The industry is in the hands of a few people. We are not competitive, we share a lot of information with each other, we are passionate and have a very good healthy product.
“Some people would argue otherwise, but I believe we are still in fairly austere times and we produce a good value product with no waste. You take what you want, then seal the bag and put it back in the freezer.”
He is also certain Fen Peas has reached its optimum size and scale.
He says: “The scale is quite large, but I also think it is large enough. To go any bigger would require a quantum leap and I don’t think in this instance a quantum leap is the right thing.
“It fits with what our customer does and, if you are not too big, it gives you time to look at other things. For example, we have been taking part in some micro-granular fertiliser trials.
“Consumption and production are also just about balanced. We do not want to get to the point where we are overproducing.”