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Pea harvest: The race to pick the perfect pea

Pea harvesting pics

Over the next few weeks, two billion portions of peas will be harvested in Britain and farmers have to get them from the field to the freezer in just 150 minutes.

"It is a military operation. Somebody said the other day when the mobile workshop arrived in the field - 'here's Montgomery's desert wagon arriving!'," says the managing director of Fen Peas Stephen Francis.

At this time of year, the harvesters are working around the clock to ensure no quality is lost between the field-fresh vegetable and the frozen pea you can buy in the shops months later.

Timing is everything and every step in the process is closely monitored.

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On average Brits eat about 9,000 peas a year - with about 50,000 hectares grown annually for human consumption and 70,000 for animal feed, says the charity, UK Agriculture.

Fen Peas in Lincolnshire, is a producer organisation growing around 2,100 hectares of peas in the county. With their 82 farmers, they have to manage this process down to the wire.

Abbey Clayton must be in the fields by 3:30am each morning, collecting samples to find out exactly when the peas are at the exact optimum quality for the harvesters to move in.

She explains on BBC Radio 4's On Your Farm that she collects a small sample and puts it in a sensitive testing machine called a "tenderometer".

"What the machine is doing is crushing the pea, to see how tender it is, and that will give us the reading," says Abbey Clayton.

"We do a series of samples, so I might go back to the field three or four days to get an average reading.

"The machine itself sends a text message with the average readings. They (the farmers) like to have the readings early - hence the early starts."

Once harvesting begins, the logistics are critical.

"We are tying to get all the peas off the field and into the factory, to get them in on time, and freshly frozen as quick as we can," says Jamie Coles, head of logistics.

Find out more:

Sybil Ruscoe with peas and a tractor and a trailer

Listen to the full report by Sybil Ruscoe on Radio 4's On Your Farm

"This year we'll be done in five to six weeks time. It is a 24-hour operation, with two 12-hour shifts running. We've got tractors and trailers racing around in the field."

The pea varieties grown in the UK include Twinkle, Jaguar, Style, Premio, Gonzo, Novella, Geneva, Markado, Serge, Oasis, Ibis, Elvas and Zelda, but this year Fen Peas is harvesting Annubis, a new variety.

Stephen Francis says: "This variety has been bred in Lincolnshire, grown in Lincolnshire, processed in Lincolnshire and no doubt it will be eaten in Lincolnshire as well."

The harvesting is done by viners - special harvesting machines costing as much as £380,000. These suck up the peas and remove them from their pods. Once full, the driver releases the peas from a holding tank into a trailer, which is towed away to the factory, while the viner returns to the harvesting.

"You only need something to be delayed by 10 minutes and it can have a knock-on effect to the next vehicle, and so on," explains Stephen Francis.

As Britain is 90% self-sufficient in pea producing, you will most likely be eating local peas. But which grade?

"Our peas will end up in most of the retailer packs in the country, in cans or frozen, and also we supply other peas that go in to mixes - so that if you were to buy a veg mix or a cottage pie with peas in, that could be our peas," says Mr Francis.

"Peas run from an AA up to a C grade. If you went into a retailer and picked up a garden pea pack, that would be an A grade, a value pack is more than likely to be a C grade, and a pack of peas in the middle that might be a B grade."

Pea viners A fleet of viners has to move fast while the peas are at the optimum tenderness

A heatwave like the one currently gripping Britain could prove to be a hindrance for the harvest though.

"Once the night-time temperatures run at above 16C, they start to increase the pressure at the back end and it brings them on (ripens them). We are bracing ourselves for a crash somewhere in the season," says Stephen Francis.

Peas that remain in the field are left to fully die off, and then they are combined, and tested for seed quality, but if germination or quality is poor, they are sold to the animal feed market.

Meanwhile the picked crop is rushed by truck to nearby processors, Pinguin Foods in Boston.

Stuart Ashton from Pinguin says the vining time of a load would probably have started an hour before delivery.

"It would have taken them half an hour vining, and half an hour travelling on the road, and then we get another hour and a half to get it processed," he explains.

As the peas get tipped into a hopper, a quality test and a tenderometer test are done, to assess their grade.

Stuart Ashton says: "It is one almighty wash day - when the peas come in from the field and are weighed in, they go through seven stages of cleaning to remove any contaminants left from the field.

Then they are frozen.

"Peas go into the freezer at one end at about 15C, and they come out six minutes later at the other end at around -18C."

The peas make it into the freezer to be flash-frozen in the two-and-a-half hour time limit. They are then sorted and cameras and lights pick up any with any defects.

And there's only one kind to eat, according to Stuart Ashton, who says: "I eat AA all the way."

Radio 4's On Your Farm is on Sundays at 06:35 BST.

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