Another round of flooding looks set to knock pea growers again. Let's hope, for the sake of British consumers, the supermarkets show some understanding of the problems facing the supply chain, says Martin Riggall, chief executive of the Processed Vegetable Growers' Association
We're halfway through the pea harvest and the latest Processed Vegetable Growers' Association survey indicates that flooding and water-logging will reduce UK output by about 41%.
As the largest producer of vining peas in Europe, this will seriously affect global supplies of frozen and canned peas for the next 12 months. Industry leaders fear the impact will be longer-lasting if crippling losses trigger an exodus of growers from the crop.
Vining peas used to be a popular crop. They were reasonably profitable and provided a useful break crop for cereal farmers. But years of declining margins have left many growers questioning the place of peas in the rotation. Grower prices today are about 36% lower in real terms than they were ten years ago. Labour costs in that period have increased 52%, and fuel 130%. The most efficient and successful growers can make a profit in a bumper year, but not enough to cover the high risk of losses because of the abnormal weather in recent years.
Dozens of growers have lost their entire pea crop to flooding this year, but even where crops have been salvaged growers are often left counting the cost. In particular, the damage to soil structure caused by 28 tonne harvesters in wet conditions will impact on the yields of subsequent crops for years to come. The return to profitability of low-risk combinable crops, following rises in cereal and oilseed commodity prices, is tempting growers away.
Having said that, the UK is a nation of pea lovers. We eat more per head of population than any other country in Europe - probably because of the quality of the sweet, young, tender peas in our supermarket freezer cabinets.
The east coast of England and Scotland has the ideal climate for pea production - mild and sunny maritime weather without the extreme changes in climate more associated with the Continent. Short distances to freezing factories allow the peas to be frozen quickly to lock in the vitamins and taste. This combination has led to our worldwide reputation as the leading producers of peas.
We must hope retailers will show some understanding of the problems in the supply chain. If our farmers and freezers go out of business, they will not find the volume and quality elsewhere.