Winter peas awaiting a French-aided comeback
Far from being dead and
buried, the winter pea crop
is merely taking a breather,
say industry backers.
Edward Long reports
AFTER two unfavourable seasons, interest in winter peas has slumped. But French breeders, who are investing heavily in winter types, believe new varieties will see a major resurgence of the crop.
The area drilled this autumn is expected to be little more than 10-15% of the 4000ha (10,000 acres) grown in the mid-1990s.
"The crop is marking time until new high yielding varieties emerge from French breeding programmes," says Ian Lowe of Harlow Agricultural Merchants at Bishops Stortford. "We are keeping a toe in the water, but have given up on winter peas for feeding. This autumn, our growers will drill 700 acres of the small blue Froidure for human consumption and export."
The attraction of winter peas in the mid-1990s was their ability to develop early roots to cope better with early summer drought. But ample moisture in recent seasons has favoured spring peas.
Lincs merchant Wherry & Sons is contracting for 200ha (500 acres) of winter peas this season. "This is about the same as last season," says Peter Smith. "If it is to expand in future varieties for which a premium is payable are needed. The semi-leafless small blue Dove, which has no spring equivalent, is one."
A tiny area will soon be drilled by a handful of growers for Wilts-based United Oilseeds.
"Recent seasons have not favoured winter peas. Only about 500 acres are scheduled to go in this autumn," says Richard Elsdon.
"Frost hardiness is not a problem, but if any stem develops before winter they are prone to wind damage in March and if stems are weakened disease can get in.
"Mid to late November is about right for drilling and a plant the size of a big button is ideal for the onset of cold weather. It may look small but roots are pushing down. A well-rooted crop can yield well. We have had over 3t/acre with crops ready for the combine at winter barley time."
The best hope for winter peas in the UK lies with French breeders who are dedicated to developing high yielding new types, says Mr Elsdon. "They say there will only be winter peas within five years." *
Winter peas should not be written off – an early maturing pulse crop does offer benefits, says Geoffrey Gent director of the Peterborough-based Processors and Growers Research Organisation.
It suffered from wet weather in June in 1997 and 1998 when conditions were hostile, disease came in and crops lodged.
"After the first wet June growers remained loyal, but after the second most gave up, so in 1999 virtually no winter peas were grown. But had the weather been suitable in 1998 the crop would have been grown last season and been harvested early with higher yields than spring peas. So it could easily have been a very different story," Mr Gent says.
Stuart Galloway of Mount Farm, Epping, Essex is still loyal to winter peas and is drilling more than ever this autumn. But other growers have dropped the crop until improved French varieties arrive.