Planning a large scale pea crop across more than 100 farms in Norfolk and Suffolk is a complicated task. Andy Beach, general manager of growers’ co-operative Anglian Pea Growers spoke to Clemmie Gleeson on how he makes it work.
Producing top quality vining peas for quick freezing requires careful planning, combining technological tools with ‘good old gut feeling and judgement’ says Andy Beach, general manager at Anglian Pea Growers (APG).
APG has been operating in its current format since 2000, first supplying Birds Eye before securing a new contract with Ardo UK in 2011 after Birds Eye’s departure from the region the previous year.
As well as nitrogen-fixing, peas are a low input crop which provide spring cover and early entry for the following crop. Other benefits are that growers do not need to harvest, store or transport the crop. However, one downside is the harvesting machinery which comes with a hefty price tag, one reason why this group of 120 growers in Norfolk and Suffolk have been collaborating for many years to make it possible.
Now in his tenth season managing the group’s collective crop, Andy’s role includes deciding what to grow where in order to fulfil Ardo UK’s requirements.
This starts in June the previous year when members are asked to submit details of land they will be making available to APG. Later in the year, Andy and his colleague, Robert Lee, visit the proposed pea growing fields to check their suitability and distance from the processor in Lowestoft. They then start planning the season, starting with a harvest plan and working back to drilling.
“Each field and its locality will grow peas differently,” says Andy. “So we have to factor that in to the process to come up with a harvest plan. This is the age of technology, but we still rely on gut feeling and experience. For example, we use accumulated heat units to help predict crop maturity, but we also use our feeling and knowledge of the crop and variety and how it reacts to different conditions.”
Soil type, aspect, variety selection is also an important factor and as well as looking at breeding companies’ trial results, Andy also trials new varieties on APG land before committing too heavily. This starts with 5ha and if successful would increase to 50ha by the third year and then to 200-300ha.
When it comes to harvest, Andy develops a sequential 24-hour, seven days per week plan.
“The aim is to start on day one and work continuously until all the peas are harvested,” he says. “Mother Nature has an impact on the success of that along with various other factors but that is what we aim for. Once the factory opens, it just wants to keep running.”
However, the volume of deliveries needs to be kept within the factory’s capacity to process the incoming peas. The harvest plan informs the drilling plan.
“We aim to start drilling in the last week of February, although this year we were coming back from a very wet autumn and winter, so we were delayed and didn’t start until March 11.”
The drilling conditions started well in 2020 and the team even had to pause temporarily so they didn’t get ahead of themselves, but then as the dry conditions continued it was difficult to establish crops.
Members carry out primary and secondary cultivations and may do some or all of the drilling themselves. Otherwise APG drills the crop with group-owned precision equipment.
The group uses a 6m Terratech precision drill which it commissioned. It counts seeds individually before pressing them into the soil and thereby causes less soil disturbance than a conventional drill. Its use, Andy says, has increased output and helped with the success of sequential planting.
Individuals are responsible for maintaining the crop between drilling and harvest, with Andy overseeing and advising where necessary. Recent losses to the chemical arsenal have included loss of some seed treatments for early drillings.
“Essentially we are now drilling naked seed before April 1. We could live without them for later drillings but the impact on early crops couldn’t be worse because they are more susceptible to problems.”
Pests that pose a particular problem for vining peas include the pea and bean weevil in the early season and aphids, both peach potato and pea types.
“We don’t like applying insecticides but will closely monitor and if we see a threshold of economic damage approaching, we will treat them,” Andy says.
The pea moth and the silver Y moth are also potential problems, so the group monitors populations through pheromone traps to inform whether chemical intervention is needed. Pigeons however pose the biggest economical risk to a crop.
In terms of cost, the biggest to the group is its harvesting machinery.
“We have five viners which are about £450,000 each,” Andy says. “But as a producer organisation, APG has been able to access EU grant funding to help with this.”
The sharing of crop risk between growers is also an important benefit of membership.
“It is not the case that if one grower has a disaster beyond his control, like a hailstorm, he takes it fully on the chin. The other members are committed to helping one another out. The growers still have an incentive to do well but given that the group dictates when crops are drilled and what variety is grown on each individual’s land, it’s only fair to spread the risk.”
Drilling is completed by early June and harvest of the earliest fields starts soon after.
“It’s three and a half months for those earlier crops while the later drilled fields will be ready by mid-August.”
As well as heat accumulation, flower scoring is another important maturity marker for predicting harvest.
“We do regular visual assessments. It’s a fairly accurate gauge of when a crop is likely to be at optimum maturity, coupled with heat accumulation figures and good old gut feeling and judgement.”
And once harvested, peas must be frozen within 150 minutes to qualify as ‘speedy peas.
“Peas lose quality if they are not frozen within that time and particularly if they miss a three-hour time limit,” says Andy “This is due to microbes and bacteria on the pea which start to break it down.”
All of APG’s crop is intended to be ‘speedy’, he says. This means the group also aims to hit the top A or AA quality grades which, put simply, is the tenderness of the pea.
Andy measures the group’s success not just by producing good yields, APG typically yields 5t/ha for petit pois and 6t/ha for standard peas, but also reaching the required quality profile and the volume required by the customer.
“It’s also about hitting budgets and being as economical as possible,” Andy says. "Knowing how much it costs us to run the precision drill for example and how well we are covering harvesting costs and sourcing all our inputs at the best price.”
An additional health and safety consideration for 2020 has been the group’s response to Covid-19 with the most significant day-to-day change being how it manages the transportation of staff to and from the field.
“We use minibuses for staff transport and while we used to have one bus, we now have four.”
Another direct cost has been provision of additional personal protective equipment and further in-field provisions for hand washing, sanitisation and disinfection of machinery between operators.
Andy has also taken the initiative to order spare parts that may be required during harvest well in advance, in case of any supply issues which could be disastrous for the 24-hour harvesting plans.
“The most important aspect from my and APG’s perspective is doing everything possible to protect our staff and their families. But we are very lucky in this industry to be able to carry on with what we are doing in relative isolation.
“Like all agricultural enterprises, APG and its growers have had a lot of challenges so far in 2020. The continued success of APG is down to a mix of experienced and committed growers, expertise of its employees and hopefully a touch of good fortune.”