For a prime example of how best to go about producing high-quality crops while caring for the environment and addressing the many wide-ranging issues affecting farming, look no further than Unilever’s Birds Eye frozen pea operation, suggests PGRO director Geoffrey Gent.

“It’s very much science based, and Birds Eye was one of the first companies to work in association with LEAF,” he says.

Working to nine key indicators the firm’s 380 growers produce about 40% of the UK’s annual production of 160,000t, says Unilever’s head of agriculture Colin Wright.

About 20% of their output is exported, mainly to Italy, Portugal and Germany.

The peas are produced under the firm’s global Sustainable Agriculture Initiative, introduced in the mid 1990s, which has four principles.

As an example of how the company itself has tackled a specific issue, Mr Wright points to the viner support lorries that carry peas to the freezing plant.

There was concern in some quarters that they often ran partially empty.

“We have introduced a patented segregation system which has allowed them to run full and the number to be cut from 44 to 27.”

But most of the advances are being made at farm level, says Robert Burrill, chairman of the Forum for Sustainable Farming (FfSF).

He grows 50ha (124 acres) of peas from his Slate House Farm at Hibaldstow, north Lincs, where much of the scientific research behind the Unilever initiative took place.

FfSF was set up by Unilever three years ago to promote ideas and deliver the sustainability standards, he says.

With representatives from the pea groups and the firm, and strong links with Bishops Burton and Easton colleges, it is supported by a DEFRA Vocational Training Scheme grant.

“Also on board is Forum for the Future, Jonathon Porrit’s organisation, which I believe gives us credibility,” says Mr Burrill.

“The standards are the blueprint for our pea growing operation and are based on meeting future legislation and what we believe to be best sustainable practice.”

They are not set in stone, but regularly updated as required, he stresses.

Hands-on grower workshops and FWAG farm visits led to 163 Environmental Action Plans in 2004/5 with 180 more expected by December 2006.

Peas have the potential to leave plenty of leachable nitrogen in the soil, he notes.

So the results of several years’ ADAS trials on his farm are being rolled out to Unilever growers at soil management training events.

“The aim is for the grower to appreciate the potential risks of diffuse pollution before and after peas, and to be able to go away with the management skills to determine the best solution.”

Next in line will be meetings relaying findings from Cranfield University on how best to cope with issues surrounding soil compaction, a topic especially relevant given the GAEC requirements of the single payment scheme.

“We didn’t realise how topical energy would be when we put the programme together.”

So plans are in hand for a series of Farm Energy Centre meetings to show how growers can audit and benchmark their use of energy and produce carbon footprints for their businesses.

“The Forum is successfully being used to lead members through the maze of legislation as painlessly as possible,” says Mr Burrill.

“The aim is for our growers to be at the leading edge when it comes to sustainable practice through carefully planned knowledge transfer, and for them to be the envy of their non-pea growing neighbours.”

andrew.blake@rbi.co.uk