Good growing conditions and a so-far trouble-free vining pea harvest has provided 240-strong grower co-operative The Green Pea Company with a near perfect season.
Farmers Weekly visited a harvesting crew and Birds Eye’s processing plant in Hull to see how the great British staple makes it into our freezers.
The Green Pea Company is the sole supplier of frozen food giant Birds Eye’s Hull-based operation, which requires 46,000t of vining peas each year – enough for 45.4% of the UK frozen pea market.
Harvest of its 10,300ha crop across north Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, which started a week later than normal this year on 27 June, typically runs for about 50 days.
The total crop is split into five areas – called Lime, Amber, Purple, Silver and Gold – all within a 35-mile radius of the freezing plant on the south-west edge of Hull. Each area is designated its own harvesting crew.
This is to ensure the peas can go from field to frozen within the 150-minute limit Birds Eye quality demands, ensuring the flavour and nutritional value is preserved.
Viners work round the clock during the harvest period to ensure fields of vining peas are harvested within the narrow window when the crop is at the perfect maturity.
Birds Eye aims for 92% grade 1 peas and this season the factory has been running just above target.
Fieldsmen constantly taste-test in the field and use feedback from the factory to ensure the crop is within the correct quality parameters.
Viners take about 15 minutes to harvest a load, with two viner loads filling the lorries. Lorries then head for the factory every 30 minutes.
Real-time telematics track harvesters and lorries to ensure that pea loads aren’t exceeding the two-and-a-half-hour time after picking, with all information displayed in the control room at the factory.
Samples are taken from each load on arrival, checked for admixture then washed and tested with a tenderometer.
This machine measures the toughness of the peas and tougher peas signal that the crop is reaching the end of the harvest window for the top grade.
This information is fed back to fieldsmen who can increase harvesting output to speed up the process or abandon the field for fresher peas.
Once up the elevators and into the factory the peas are cleaned of stones and crop debris, washed and blanched in water at a temperature of 92C for 80 seconds to stablise the flavour.
The five factory lines can process 61t/hour at capacity and aim for 1000t/day at peak season.
The final stage is the freezing process, with peas passing through a freezer tunnel set at -35C and then packed into 1t “Octabins”.
It is at this point that the clock is stopped on the 150-minute field-to-frozen requirement.
Any peas outside this window are downgraded and not used in Birds Eye’s packs.
The 1t bins then go into cold store and are shipped to Birds Eye’s factory at Lowestoft throughout the year, where they are given a second clean and packed into bags ready for the supermarket shelf.
Cold store stocks are able to keep a steady supply to meet year-round demand.