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Farmers hit by Bird's Eye loss

PUBLISHED: 09:51 05 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:33 30 June 2010

For farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk looking to grow alternative crops instead of vining peas, options are pretty limited.

But the 180 growers, who have lost their Birds Eye pea contracts, can adapt in the coming months.

For farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk looking to grow alternative crops instead of vining peas, options are pretty limited.

But the 180 growers, who have lost their Birds Eye pea contracts, can adapt in the coming months. While the loss of potential income of between £500 and £600 per hectare is a blow, it is still possible to plant some other crops.

The vining pea industry, which has been dominated by the Birds Eye in the region for the past 64 years, has helped to maintain crop diversity, which helps spring nesting birds, and encourages good rotational practice.

When farmers grew crops in succession, the land rapidly became “pea sick,” which might accurately describe feelings towards Birds Eye.

However, the loss is wider than simply farmers and growers because the annual 60-day pea harvest gave seasonal employment for up to 80 people. For some, it was an opportunity to drive a lorry delivering peas to the freezer plant at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft, as the three groups hired lorries to ferry the crops from the groups in Broadland, Waveney Valley and East Suffolk.

The 24-hour operation, which typically started in mid-June, was supported by a highly-skilled squad of drivers for the seven pea harvesters, plus maintenance engineers and tractor drivers.

The Birds Eye pea harvest from the region's growers was usually about 20,000 tonnes, although in some years it was down to about 17,000 tonnes. Now, the country's market leading brand, which blamed the reason for scrapping the region's contracts on the loss an export order to Italy, will switch production to the Hull factory. This can handle the production from farmers in East Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire, who produce about 45,000 tonnes of peas.

For some growers in central Norfolk, the pea crop will continue. Farmer Ed Jones, of Little Witchingham, near Reepham, said that the 25-strong Aylsham Growers Pea Group, will plant about 2,500 acres for the co-op's two viners to harvest later in the season.

They supply the King's Lynn-based Pinquin operation, which processes 150-minute peas and their garden peas.

But the cropping options for growers at this late stage are fairly limited and yesterday one agricultural merchant was reported to have hiked the price of spring beans by about a tenth or £50 per tonne.

One leading Norfolk grain merchant, Andrew Dewing, of Aylsham, thought that many might simply drill a spring malting barley crop. “On paper it makes the most sense because it is not terribly expensive to grow,” he added.

He was unable to firm a firm quote yesterday because the market remained depressed by the massive over-production of malting barley last year. “There have been deals done for £110 tonne for spring barley but that was quite a while ago,” added Mr Dewing.

Some farmers might consider a marrowfat pea contract, which would offer some rotational benefits. These peas, grown for either human consumption or the specialist petfood market, might appeal to some growers, he said.

With a tonne of pea seed costing just under £600 per tonne for marrowfat peas, a contract price of about £250 per tonne plus premiums could be an option.

Clarke Willis, chief executive, of co-operative buying group, Anglia Farmers, said that there had some supplies of combinable peas and beans. “All the seed houses stuck up the price of peas and beans yesterday. Fortunately we'd secured some,” he added.

But Broadland farmer Richard Hirst, chairman of the Anglian Pea Growers, is now left with seven top-of-the-range specialist self-propelled pea harvesters, which would cost £320,000 each if bought new. And they scrapped plans to buy two new machines from PMC Harvesters at Fakenham after the shock decision by Birds Eye, which represents a further loss to the broader rural economy.

“And we've lost a really good team of advisers as well,” he added.

Birds Eye yesterday rejected the National Farmers' Union's appeal to reconsider its decision about ending pea production in East Anglia.

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