Boost for pea farmers

East Anglia’s pea growers will be back in business after signing a contract yesterday with Europe’s biggest frozen vegetable specialist.

A total of 150 farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk will be planting peas next year to supply a Lowestoft freezer factory with high-quality vining crops.

Growers’ leader and Norfolk farmer Richard Hirst was delighted after signing off the deal with the Belgian giant, Ardo.

It was just seven months and two days ago that Birds Eye ended a 64-year partnership of growing vining peas in its traditional heartland in East Anglia and switched production to Yorkshire, he added.

“I’m just chuffed to bits. It has been really hard, but we’ve kept the support of the overwhelming number of growers,” said Mr Hirst, chairman of the farmers’ co-operative, Anglia Pea Growers.

He said that once seed had been secured, growers would be drilling about 8,600 acres of peas from early next year for harvesting from the middle of June. The contract is worth about �20,000 for most farmers or a total of about �3m.

The deal also secures 38 jobs at the Norbert Dentressangle freezing plant at Lowestoft, which will handle the projected crop of about 14,800 tonnes.

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Mr Hirst, of Ormesby, near Yarmouth, said that the group had retained its specialist fleet of seven pea viners, which would be used to harvest the crop in the two-month season.

“East Anglian peas are an excellent product, grown to the highest standards,” said Stephen Waugh, managing director of Ardo UK.

“We are delighted to secure this contract, which is very welcome news for both British farmers and consumers. The produce will be grown, prepared, packed and consumed within the UK, adding value at every stage.”

Mr Hirst, who is a former chairman of Norfolk National Farmers’ Union, said that the deal will bring back a valuable source of income lost at a moment’s notice in February.

“Peas are a high value product and an integral part of the farming process as they serve to fix nitrogen in the soil and can be harvested in between other main crops,” he added.

Ardo, which is based in Belgium, was started by farmer Edward Haspeslagh in 1977 in Flanders. It had a turnover of 556m Euros last year and has 15 factories in eight countries. It has recently invested �15m in a new packing operation at its UK headquarters at Charing, near Ashford, Kent.

NFU regional director Pamela Forbes said: “This is excellent news for the 150 growers involved and for the wider rural economy.

“Pea growing has been a real success story in our region, with growers producing a high quality crop with low food miles and low environmental impact.

“The cancellation of the Birds Eye contract in February came as a real blow, so we’re delighted that locally-grown peas will now be back on sale next summer,” she added.

Mr Hirst said: “We have chosen a partner to grow our business in the future, not just with peas but potentially with other frozen fresh vegetables as well.”

And the latest wet harvest had been a major headache for farmers, who had grown combinable peas as an alternative. “It was not a lot of fun,” added Mr Hirst.

Members of the 25-strong Aylsham Growers Pea Group harvestedabout 2,500 acres for King’s Lynn-based Pinguin in the latest season.