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From field to freezer: The incredible journey of the humble pea

Peas are bouncing with abandon, creating an effect like bright green lava despite being frozen – as they begin the final part of their journey from field to fork.

There are 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of peas grown in the UK each year, mostly along the east coast from Dundee to Norfolk, producing about 160,000 tonnes of peas, equivalent to roughly 2bn portions.


During the annual harvest, farmers and processors work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over the course of eight weeks in order to feed each person in Britain an average of 9,000 peas a year.


About 42,000 tonnes of peas grown in the UK go to the frozen food company Birds Eye, for which supplies are grown within 40 miles (64km) of Hull, where the mild, damp, maritime climate and chalk bedrock create the perfect growing conditions.


At the Green Pea Company, a co-operative of about 250 farmers who collectively supply Birds Eye, there are only about 80 people working on the harvest across more than 900 fields.


Unlike many other crops grown in the UK, as much as 90% of the pea harvesting workforce is British – many of them the offspring of the farm owners, or students – as the relatively short harvest and skilled jobs attract local interest.


An army of students at Birds Eye’s processing base helps to plan and monitor operations, with lorries taking peas to the plant tracked along their route as part of a system planned to meet the brand’s promise of getting peas from the field to the freezer in 150 minutes.


The timescale is calculated to ensure that the peas remain as sweet as possible. Richard Wilson, Birds Eye’s UK agricultural manager, said: “After that, they start to develop starch.”


Pea growing is one of the UK’s most hi-tech farming operations, using GPS-guided “viners”, which collect and pop the pods in the field. Drivers step in only to turn the giant vehicles at the end of each row, while other skilled drivers in small tipper lorries wait to catch the pea avalanches that intermittently pour from the viners.


The peas are then placed into larger road vehicles, with two hoppers filled within set time limits to ensure freshness.


Monitors keep track of capacity in the factory, ensuring that peas do not arrive until there is room to process them.


If one of the lorries – many of which have a number plate featuring the letters P-E-A – gets caught in a traffic jam, harvesting can be slowed or brought to a stop, or operations moved around, to ensure that peas are not left to shrivel while they wait for transport.


Such systems could be the future for a plethora of other crops, as robotic picking and packing systems are gradually developed for more tricky to handle fruit and vegetables such as berries and tomatoes.


However, the elements still have a key role to play. It has been a slow start to the pea harvest this year and there will be fewer pods to pick after a soggy March held back planting for several weeks. Rain and even hail lashed crops just before they were ready to be picked.


Stephen Francis, the chair of the Processor and Growers Research Organisation, said: “Peas, like all plants, require decent sunlight to get them to produce to their full potential. The peas, like us humans, are just wondering what the hell is going on with our weather. Historically, we can expect at some stage a wet spring or a wet summer, but never both in the same year.” While there are likely to be fewer peas this year, they will be good quality, he said.


Gary Creaser, operations manager at the Green Pea Company, said: “It’s been difficult with the wet spring and harvest this year. There’s the price of fuel and then the cost of machinery has gone up.”


The disappointing harvest follows after a tough year in 2022, when the harvest was affected by extreme hot weather, while the rise in the price of fuel, labour and machinery has forced up costs by about a quarter.


Wholesale prices for producers have risen to reflect the increase, suggesting that there could be more price rises to come for shoppers after the price of a pack of peas in the shops rose by about 11.5% over the past year, according to analysts at Kantar. The price increase, coupled with the return of workers to the office, plus the increased ease of ordering takeaways, has prompted shoppers to cut back despite high demand for frozen food.


When the peas bound for Birds Eye arrive at the processing plant, they are tipped from the lorry into a hopper, after which they are taken on a series of conveyor belts to be washed, sieved and blown to remove impurities.


They are then blanched with steam before entering the freezer, where more air keeps them dancing to prevent them from turning into an unpackable block. They are then placed into a one-tonne box, ready for packing and the final journey to customers’ freezers.


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