At times, it was touch-and-go whether Suffolk and Norfolk's traditional pea harvest would go ahead this year.

But against the odds - and due to the dogged determination of the farmers and team behind it - spring drilling for the 2024 crop has begun.

Farmers across the two counties have been producing fresh peas - around 10,000t a year - for the frozen market for many decades.

They continued even after their former customer - frozen foods company Birds Eye - ceased sourcing peas from East Anglia in 2009. 

Up until the end of last year, the fresh peas - which must be frozen almost instantly after they are harvested - went to a factory at Oulton Broad.

But then their customer - Belgian multinational Ardo - a global supplier of fresh frozen products - pulled the plug on its Oulton Broad operation.

"In 2023, Ardo decided to pull out of freezing in this country - largely because they didn't own the factory and it needed a lot of money spending on it," explained Anglian Pea Growers (APG) general manager Andy Beach.

East Anglian Daily Times:

At that point, the 95 pea growers who produce the crop through farmer-owned co-operative APG faced a cliff-edge moment.

APG worked on a tripartite arrangement. It grew the crop, a logistics company called GXO contract-froze it and a third party - Ardo - bought it to sell to consumers.

The only way of keeping the crop going appeared to be finding a way to keep the ageing factory going while working out a customer to buy the peas.

Short-term works on the Oulton Broad facility were estimated at £2.5m to keep it operational - but longer term it needed an £8m injection.

GXO as a logistics operation wasn't interested in continuing to run and invest in the factory. The farmers were keen to continue and willing to invest - but the final nail in the coffin, explained Andy, was the problem of effluent disposal.

East Anglian Daily Times:

In November 2023, Anglian Water said the amount of waste sent to its treatment plant should be radically cut from previous levels - in fact by 90%. This cut the legs from under Plan A - to keep the factory going.

It spelt the end of the pea-freezing operation at Oulton Broad/Lowestoft after 60-plus years.

"The farmers were willing to put a level of investment in. We wanted to carry it on but it was a no-go," said Andy.

Another possibility was to build a new factory. Realistically, this would have cost in the region of £20m for an eight-week-a-year operation. "There's no way we could afford to do that as growers," Andy explained.

The third option was to secure another customer. And in the final breath of last year, they landed one.

Greenyard Frozen UK - a pan-European company with a multi-fruit and vegetable freezing factory in King's Lynn - stepped into the breach.

"We grow circa 10,000t of peas per annum. Losing that from the market would make quite a big hole," said Andy.

East Anglian Daily Times:

"Greenyard are very keen to source from the UK. Their company policy is for local sourcing. They really want to reduce food miles and the carbon footprint of their produce."

It was the break they needed - and they grabbed it. It followed months of painstaking effort to find a solution.

In December 2023, APG signed a deal with Greenyard and the 2024 crop was saved.

"We found out about losing our contract with Ardo in February last year - before the 2023 season had started," explained Andy.

There was a real danger that APG would cease to exist. Farmers could revert to other crops - but the pea harvest would have been lost.

East Anglian Daily Times:

"All through the season until the latter part of last year until the point where we signed up with Greenyard there was getting on for 10 months of uncertainty," said Andy.

But he and members of the board made strenuous efforts to find a solution - while keeping the 2023 pea harvest on track for the £4m turnover APG business.

Andy reports to the board, which is presided over by long-time chairman Richard Hirst of Ormesby St Margaret at Caister, near Great Yarmouth, who has been in post since 1999/2000.

"We were working incredibly hard having lots of meetings," said Andy.

The APG full-time team numbers just three permanent staff but up to 20 people are employed on a seasonal basis.

East Anglian Daily Times:

The team drills some of the farmers' peas - but not all. About two thirds drill their own, as APG has just one dedicated drilling machine.

However, it has four pea harvesters, and they operate intensively and against the clock during the pea harvest season - which usually begins around the third week of June and continues into mid-August.

The peas must be harvested at precisely the right moment and frozen within four hours to prevent them perishing.

It's a painstaking operation and takes military precision and timing to get right.

"The only way a pea harvest works is if it's centrally controlled," said Andy. "We cram a year's work into six months in this job."

Rain has delayed this year's pea drilling by getting on for a fortnight, but this weekend the team hopes to make up for lost time as the weather changes.

East Anglian Daily Times:

Last year was a poor one for many crops - and the pea crop suffered from a disastrous early spring season.

The crop has only a small window, and the cold, wet establishment period hit yields - which were half of what they could have been - making it a loss-making year overall.

"It was the worst season I have ever had and I'm 20 years doing peas," said Andy. "Fifty per cent of what we do is planning and 50% is the weather and there's nothing you can do about the latter.

"The pea crop is incredibly sensitive. It's the most sensitive crop you'll come across."

The turning point of maturity for the crop can happen within hours, he explained, making it critical to harvest it in a timely way to avoid it missing the grade.

The crop is grown on farms from Ipswich in the south up to Stalham on the north Norfolk coast, and Wymondham in the west over a 2,000ha (5,000acre) area.

The aim is to produce around 5t/ha - but yields can go as low as 1 or 2ha and as high as 10ha.

East Anglian Daily Times:

Pests can be a problem and it's a risky crop to grow, Andy admitted. Prior to 2023, the worst year he can remember was 2007 when it was very, very wet.

All 95 farmers must work as a team, he said, and the harvest and different varieties are co-ordinated precisely. What matters is the group performance, he said.

"The individuals have to work as a group - that's the mentality you have to have.

"As a business our main aim for this year is to settle into our new contract with Greenyard. We are all very excited about the contract and hope for a reasonable year."