Perfection in an imperfect world

Published 25th April 2022 | Articles

Consumers demand perfection from their produce – a tricky desire to satisfy when growing conditions are more difficult than ever.

Unpredictable weather conditions paired with a rapidly diminishing toolbox make the quest for perfection even more challenging.  

Particularly when standards only seem to be rising.

Paddy Barrett from Askew & Barrett Pulses Ltd says that Japan, a significant market for peas, is particularly stringent in its drive for traceability.

“We’ve found that if we import peas, we will get traceability to a certain degree,” Paddy says. “But Japan needs total traceability, which is why we stick with UK growers as they can provide it.

“We have to supply samples of each lot prior to shipment and they also need spray records and details about the fields the peas are grown in.”

The perfect appearance

Consumers eat with their eyes and nowhere is this more apparent than with peas.

“If the average person picks up peas, they want to see something green,” Paddy says.

“However, more peas are likely to be bleached in appearance going forwards because of the restrictions on desiccants.”

Peas sent to a cannery aren’t held to such precise standards, as colour is added. However, other markets aren’t as flexible.

“We’re looking for colour and less waste, but the weather has a big impact,” Paddy explains. “If you get a lot of rain just immediately before harvest that does tend to take the colour out and also the rain will push them closer to the ground so then they get soil sticking to them which can spoil them.”

Paddy’s business tries to be as flexible as possible, knowing how difficult achieving the perfect pea can be.

“Our contracts are based on 10% waste and stains for which there are no deductions,” he explains. “We’re very lenient, especially in a year like this where there have been major problems.”

But it’s not just peas; beans need to uphold similarly exacting aesthetic standards. Robert Brown at Peters Commodities says that the majority of beans produced in this country are exported to North Africa where in countries such as Egypt they are a staple food.

“The Egyptians use more than 1,000 tonnes a day – what they want is a nice, big bean,” Robert says. “Ideally a spring bean, because the skins are thinner and they are less chewy. They want them to be an even colour and look pleasing to the eye – which means they shouldn’t be black, stained or have blemishes.”

Robert adds that insect holes or dead insects contained within the bean are a big no-no, but that the industry currently lacks the chemistry required to eradicate the bruchid beetle.

“The only chemistry that’s available to kill the bruchid beetle are pyrethroids but they’re very short-lived and also kill beneficial insects, so it’s a very fine balancing act to time the sprays when they will do good and not harm,” he explains.

Falling at the final hurdle

Even if a farmer has managed to grow a crop of perfect looking beans, all this hard work can be undone in an instant if they’re not harvested with care.

“A lot of combines are badly set up which then leads to poor samples of beans,” Robert says. “You want the combine tank to be full of beans – not pods, weed seeds, stones or soil.

“It seems like an obvious thing to say, but some farmers rush to get the job done.”

Using a contractor can sometimes lead to such issues, as they harvest beans when suits their schedule, and not necessarily the farmer’s.

“I’ve seen some really nice samples of beans that had huge potential, only to be smashed to bits, mangled by augers and full of stones and soil,” Robert says.

“Attention to detail when combining and setting your combine up properly can mean the difference between a really good premium and no premium at all.”

Harvesting beans at the right time is important but is, in theory, helped by the fact that beans are usually one of the last crops to mature.

“Beans can usually be the last crop a farmer harvests, but it’s still important to harvest them at the right time,” Robert says.

“It’s difficult when you have so many other constraints on your times, but sunlight, moisture and temperature make the skin of the bean oxidise more quickly, which will change the colour of the bean quickly.”

Drying them carefully and gently is also essential. “Putting them through a high-speed hot dryer will overheat the beans and turn them to glass on the inside, forcing them to go glossy and unable to soak up water,” Robert says.

“But not drying them is also bad as leaving them too wet will make the skins oxidise more quickly.

“If you do use a continuous flow dryer, use it on the setting for malting barley or below or use it with plenty of cold air on the floor dryer.”

Getting the moisture level down under 15% is essential when exporting is considered. Freight has been unpredictable in recent times, which is particularly troublesome when exporting to hot countries.

“A 20-foot shipping container in the hot sun is like an oven,” says Robert. “The condensation inside the container can render them horrible.”

Ensuring the beans are the best possible quality before leaving the country is the most a grower can do to safeguard against this scenario.

“Pulses are excellent for the soil and they’re so good for a rotation,” Robert concludes. “And they can be extremely profitable if they’re grown properly.

“But they’re not a product where a farmer can just drive into a field, drill, shut the farm gate and then go back in with a combine.”

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