Torrential downpours did little to deter the pea industry from turning out in force to the Processors & Growers Research Organisation (PGRO)'s recent vining pea trials at Thornhaugh, near Peterborough.
With the recent loss of the Anglian Pea Growers Group, the UK production area has reduced from 35,000ha to 29,800ha. Production of frozen and fresh peas is forecast to be around 130,000 tonnes this year, with a total farm-gate value of £50m. Shifting northwards, one third of this year's crop has been drilled on the Scottish borders or further north.
In a field adjacent to the PGRO headquarters, this year's vining pea screening trials feature three newcomers, while the preliminary trials include 18 contenders vying for promotion. The main varietal trial, evaluating the most promising in terms of field performance and suitability for processing, encompasses 25 varieties. Sown on 19 March, the seed was treated with Wakil XL to control downy mildew, Ascochyta and damping-off disease. Plots were sown in 10 to 15cm-wide rows at a target population of 90 plants per sq m.
Alongside the standards Avola for earliness, Bikini and Oasis for yield and Ambassador for the late slot, the trial featured five varieties due to complete three years' evaluation in 2010 - Rumble (Syngenta), CMG 407 AF (Crites Seed), DS 89 264 (Maribo), Vixen and Charlie (Sharpes).
Commenting on their performance, principal technical officer Steve Belcher said: "Rumble is a second early, three days later than Avola with yields slightly below Bikini and producing a smaller pea. Semi-leafless, CMG 407 AF has produced yields a little higher than Bikini and a larger size of pea. Maturing a day earlier than Bikini, DS 89264 produces a smaller size grade pea. Also semi-leafless, Vixen is producing a similar size pea to Bikini but higher yields, while Charlie is a couple of days later than Bikini - producing similar size peas and good yields."
A three-year Horticultural Development Company (HDC)-funded project will begin this year to explore variety performance and relative maturities when sown at appropriate commercial timings. All varieties selected have recently completed PGRO trials.
The sowing time trials span six weeks - mirroring the commercial situation, the earliest being 19 March and latest 29 April.
"We'll be looking at the relative maturity and downy mildew and powdery mildew resistances," explains senior technical officer, Shona Johnson. "After three years the results will be published in an HDC booklet."
Vining pea nutrition
Crop nutrition work begins this year, with fertiliser-company funded trials to evaluate vining pea response to potash and magnesium. This is a somewhat neglected area, the last field-based research in this area dates back to 1946, with limited laboratory trials carried out 20-30 years later at Wellesbourne.
"The soil in this area has low indices for potassium and magnesium so it's a good site to test the response out," explains Dr Anthony Biddle. "Possible yield declines could be attributed to nutrition with legume growers not paying sufficient attention to phosphorus and potassium." In addition, HDC-funded trials exploring critical phosphate levels are due to start next year.
Previous PGRO trials exploring the effect of sulphur did not generate much response from the crop. "We haven't looked at major nutrients and we are confident we can get response, just need to get right level," says Biddle.
Responding to growing concerns over the damaging environmental gas nitrous oxide, the PGRO is using HortLINK funding to explore emissions in relation to minimising the carbon use. This long-term project aims to monitor nitrous oxide emissions over the life of the crop.
In a co-operative project with HGCA, and in partnership with ADAS research, work is exploring nitrogen levels left in the soil after a pulse crop. "Legume crops don't need nitrogen as they fix their own," says Biddle.
With 20 trials sites from Yorkshire to South Essex covering a wide range of soil types, researchers are evaluating nitrogen residue following vining pea and other pulse crops.
Insecticidal seed treatments
Investigations evaluating the effectiveness of thiomethoxam (TMX) as a seed treatment to control soil-borne pests, such as pea and bean weevil, are showing promising results.
The plots treated with TMX were noticeably greener. The trial plots compared untreated areas, with plots where Hallmark had been sprayed, with plots where seed had been treated with TMX.
Weevil damage counts showed an impressive 90 per cent reduction on the TMX treated compared with untreated, while the Hallmark-treated plots showed a 30 per cent reduction.
"Where insecticides are used for weevil it is often too late," says Biddle. "By the time growers have seen the weevil damage the pest has already laid its eggs.
"We need to look at costings, maturity response and yield responses and do the maths. Does it add up? Last year there was a 30 to 40 per cent yield difference due to the level of aphids."
Syngenta is hoping to gain approval for TMX on peas through mutual recognition of the approval in Belgium.
Focus on Sclerotinia
Enjoying a wide host range, including oil seed rape, lettuce and carrots, Sclerotinia is widespread in UK soil. The good news is that as a result there is plenty of research into how best to control it.
According to principal technical officer Jim Scrimshaw, the PGRO has two objectives: first, to find a short-term solution by timing fungicide applications more effectively; and, second, to work the soil using biological agents to reduce the viability of the spores.
Technical staff are evaluating two models to assess their application for vining pea and green bean crops, including MORPH. Originally developed for oil seed rape, it is a weather-based predictive model.
There have been no independent agronomic broad bean trials for more than a decade. With HDC funding the PGRO is setting out to provide new data on 12 varieties for the fresh and frozen market.
There are just a handful of seed companies maintaining broad bean seed stocks and even fewer breeding new varieties focusing on improved yields and disease tolerance.
The PGRO trials feature 12 varieties with Listra (Nunhems) the standard for processing and Manita (Elsoms) the standard for the fresh market. The plots will be hand harvested in mid-July and data recorded to produce a recommended list in 2012.
Looking to the future
Addressing visitors at the trials event, chief executive officer Salvador Potter was upbeat describing the PGRO as a "virtuous cycle" - with its voluntary levy, and carefully targeted research carried out by its own staff producing results disseminated through meetings as well as magazines and bulletins. Involving producers and processors, he said value for money had to be demonstrated.
He outlined a number of challenges ahead, not least the need to own suitable trials land and to squeeze research from limited funds. However, he says: "The PGRO is thriving and remains very relevant and strong despite its size."
Indeed, alongside its voluntary levy, the PGRO continues to attract funding from the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, HortLINK funding from Defra as well as the newly formed Technology Strategy Board and industry charities such as the Perry Foundation. The PGRO's current project work totals some £200,000 - for every £1 of levy the organisation is delivering an impressive £2 of work.
In addition to the projects outlined above, the PGRO is involved in a new LINK project with scientists at the John Innes Institute in Norwich to help breed better varieties for the future. This complex project aims to understand the quality determinants in pea seeds (QdipS) using NMR profiling to explore characteristics such as tenderness, colour, size and sensory evaluation and relate this to genetic map and markers.