The second annual Great British Pea Week got underway last week (10-16 July 2017) to celebrate the midway point between the 2017 harvest that will see approximately 700 UK pea growers supply two billion portions of peas to feed British consumers for the next year. Produce Business UK takes a look at the state of the industry and how its promotional campaign is inspiring the nation, especially children, to do something different with peas.
Following a mild winter and warm start to summer, quality is “fantastic” this season, according to Stephen Francis, managing director of Lincolnshire-based Fen Peas, one the UK’s 18 premier pea grower groups based along the east coast, from Essex to the north of Dundee.
“Harvesting started on 12 June, which is 12 days earlier than normal due to the weather,” he explains. “We had a very warm winter. It never got very cold, so the soil going into spring was very warm. Then the Whitsun bank holiday was a particularly hot week, which marched everything on.
“The quality of the crop is fantastic this year because of the sunshine,” Francis continues. “There is no doubt it, when we get good sunlight levels the peas have better flavour and colour. I’m not saying quality is poor at any other time but it really does mean quality this year is fantastic.”
At the halfway stage of the season, Francis says volume looks on a par with last year, provided there are no further heatwaves going forward. Annually, he says the UK aims to produce 125,000 tonnes (t) of peas across 35,000 hectares. Last year the figure reached over 110,000t.
Although the season only lasts an average of six to eight weeks, consumers can enjoy British peas all year round in a frozen format. During the season growers work 24 hours, seven days a week to harvest, shell and transport the peas from the field to freezing facilities as quickly as possible – most within 150 minutes. This ensures the maximum quality and nutritional value are locked.
As a result, the UK is 96% self-sufficient in pea production. This is also thanks to the crop quality growers are able to achieve under the British climate, according to Francis.
“The point of difference for British peas is definitely our quality,” he explains. “And the single biggest factor peas are grown so heavily in the [east of the] UK is our east-facing seaboard and maritime climate, which is perfect for growing superior quality peas.
“We get enough moisture but not too much, and we don’t get high temperatures like in Spain. Peas are a slow growing crop. Under the UK climate they have the time to mature slowly, which makes them more flavoursome.”
Investing for the future
The world’s first sweet tasting pea was developed in the 18th century by amateur plant breeder Thomas Edward Knight of Downton, near Salisbury. Today there are approximately 100 different pea varieties available to commercial growers.
At the moment, Francis reveals that the sector is encouraging seed breeders to look carefully at developing new varieties of petit pois, which are heavily in demand.
“The pea market used to be a broad spectrum of different grades but it has swung into a two-tier market,” he tells PBUK. “People are either eating quality or economy, and nothing in between.
“Petit pois is one variety that occupies a large share of the market. The price is good for consumers and they are saying they want more. But the variety under production is fairly old.”
In terms of longevity, Francis says the British pea industry is in a stable position presently, albeit subject to the vagaries of the weather.
“The UK pea industry in a healthy place,” he affirms. “After a lot of slimming down since the early 1980s we’re at a point where we are comfortable but we’re not complacent.
“Everyone would always like to make more money but we have to be sensible about pricing. If peas are overpriced no one will buy them.”
Overall, Francis says the industry is “doing enough” to remain afloat and to invest in order to keep up with the times. Cooperation between growers plays a key role, so twice a year all the major players get together to talk agronomics, varieties and best practise.
In the last few years, the sector has upgraded its harvesting machinery with more efficient engines that use 20% less fuel.
Research into drones is also being undertaken to assess the potential of using near infra red technology to analyse the maturation of pods in the run up to harvest.
“We might be a few years away,” admits Francis, “but it would give us more accuracy in terms of knowing when to harvest at the optimum time to reap the maximum quality and nutritional content of the peas.”
Promoting peas as the star of the plate
The UK is the largest producer and consumer of frozen peas in Europe. Although consumption is only growing slightly at 1% annually, impressively the average person in Britain already eats nearly 9,000 peas per year.
“The consumption level is good but the key is to not let consumers get bored,” points out Francis. “That is what the British pea industry is trying to do with the YesPeas! campaign.
“At the moment we’re going all-out to educate people that you don’t just put peas in the corner of a plate. They can be an ingredient or used as an accompaniment in dishes like salads.”
Running for 11 years already, the YesPeas! initiative is run by the British Growers Association and funded by growers, freezers and machinery companies from the vining pea sector.
This year YesPeas! is focused on inspiring the nation to cook with peas and to reconnect consumers with the important heritage and provenance of British frozen peas. The key messages revolve around versatility and nutrition.
Recipes form an integral part of the drive. Over the years YesPeas! ambassador and TV chef Rachel Green has developed hundreds of recipes from five-minute lunches, to low calorie dinners, and hearty winter dishes for the whole family. All are available at www.peas.org.
“We want to encourage people to do something different with peas – to use them as an ingredient in salads, or an accompaniment to meals that might not typically feature peas,” explains Francis.
“Peas are small, value for money and easily stored. Every household is guaranteed to have a bag in the freezer at any time, meaning they’re an easy go-to ingredient every day of the week. As they’re quick to defrost and easy to add to a recipe, they can be used in anything and everything from pasta dishes to traditional English stews, salads to curries.”
The health message is also important to the campaign. Peas are high in protein – 100 calories of peas contains more protein than a whole egg. One serving also contains as much vitamin C as two apples. Peas are low in sodium and fat, but high in fibre. They’re a good source of vitamin A, and iron as well.
Mindful of their nutritional firepower and the significance of steering the consumption habits of the next generation of consumers, YesPeas! has developed two children-focused elements for 2017.
Firstly, it has introduced a School Meals Mission to lobby schools to use peas in more meals, as well as to educate children about the nutritional benefits and various uses of peas in cooking.
Secondly, its Young Pea Chef competition challenges talented young British Chefs to create new pea recipes, with the top 10 heavily publicised on social media and the YesPeas! website.
“The next generation is where we need to educate,” says Francis. “I was one of judges of the Young Pea Chef 2017 competition and there was some great imagination for using peas in food. It was fantastic and just what we want.”
Going forward, Francis says the British pea industry readily welcomes any additional support from the fresh produce industry or further afield to continue to raise the awareness and profile of British peas.
“We believe we’ve got a very good product and we’re quite happy to tell our story,” he notes. “We are always encouraging people to come and visit us. The dream would be to get the public seeing someone like David Beckham eating peas – that would do the job!”