Region's pea farmers 'abandoned' by frozen food giant Birds Eye
Michael Pollitt, agricultural editorBirds Eye, the country's frozen food giant, left Norfolk and Suffolk farmers reeling last night after abandoning the region's pea industry worth more than �5m a year to growers.Michael Pollitt, agricultural editor
Birds Eye, the country's frozen food giant, left Norfolk and Suffolk farmers reeling last night after abandoning the region's pea industry worth more than �5m a year to growers.
Farmers' leader Richard Hirst was given the shock news in a brief telephone message yesterday morning that the 64-year partnership of growing peas had been ended with immediate effect.
The 180 members of the Anglia Pea Growers' co-operative have grown about 30,000 tonnes of tender, farm-fresh peas a year for Birds Eye across Broadland, the Waveney Valley and East Suffolk.
Birds Eye will concentrate pea production in East Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire, where the crop would be processed at a factory in Hull, and also in a smaller operation in Perthshire.
Mr Hirst said the co-operative's board members were at the time discussing whether to buy two pea harvesters costing �320,000 each and they were staggered. 'It's a bolt from the blue. I don't know what to say because it is completely out of the blue,' he said.
'I was due to meet Birds Eye yesterday afternoon to carrying on negotiating the 2010 contract. There's been absolutely no indication this was likely to happen.
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'It is a bitter pill to swallow and what the long-term implications are, it is just too soon to tell,' added Mr Hirst, of Ormesby, near Yarmouth, who added that his members grew a total of about 11,500 acres of peas.
'We've only just had the seed delivered last month and some growers were already planning to start drilling the next crop.'
Birds Eye said the loss of a 'major export contract' to Italy left it with no choice but to act to safeguard its frozen pea business. Anne Murphy, managing director, said: 'We were only notified of the decision in December. It is important to us that we make a considered judgement on what is the right thing for the business.
'As soon as we finished that work we have got to the growers as fast as we possibly can. Obviously, the timing is a challenge in the context of the pea season but we have worked as fast as humanly possible.'
'We've entered into a dialogue with the growers' this morning. We need to let that process runs its course,' she added.
Farmer Ed Wharton, of Stokesby, a third generation grower of peas for Birds Eye, voiced his shock and added: 'We also drill all the crops for the group so I don't know what I'm going to do,' he added.
His grandfather, Charles, was among one of the first to start growing for Birds Eye.
The ending of the pea processing business in Norfolk and Suffolk will not have any impact on the Birds Eye factory at Lowestoft, which currently has about 700 employees including agency staff.
But about half a dozen specialist agricultural advisers are likely to lose their jobs, the company indicated yesterday.