East Anglia: The vegetable growers bringing in our Christmas feast

One group of hardy workers out in the fields of East Anglia over the festive season certainly isn’t dreaming of a white Christmas. Produce World, based at Isleham on the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border, supplies vegetables from across East Anglia and the UK. SARAH CHAMBERS caught up with Ian Hall, who works for one of its major growers, Tompsett Burgess Growers, which is tasked with bringing in the harvest - even when the ground lies several inches under snow

FARMING boss Ian Hall isn’t dreaming of a white Christmas.

In fact, a pre-festive snow flurry is definitely bottom of his yuletide wish-list.

“A couple of years ago we were harvesting down at Bawdsey in the snow. We had a foot to 18 inches of snow,” he recalls.

“In a normal week, we probably lift about 20 acres of parsnips. I can’t straw down parsnips until the temperature is really low then I will straw down enough for a week or a week and a half. What happened two years ago is the ground froze at the beginning of December throughout our exceptionally busy period.

“I don’t physically cover enough parsnips to enable more to keep lifting through the Christmas period. We got through by the skin of our teeth, but that’s when it gets a bit stressful. If the ground freezes, we can’t lift parsnips unless we go under straw.”

The harvesting teams from Tompsett Burgess Growers, one of Produce World’s main growers of root vegetables, work flat out in the run-up to Christmas, pulling up carrots and parsnips for the festive feast. They are headed up by farming director Ian Hall who works for East Anglia’s ‘carrot king’ Clem Tompsett MBE, 77, its managing director, and his daughter, director Jackie Seddon.

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The teams work six-day weeks in all weathers in the run-up to Christmas, providing fresh produce via Produce World, which sorts, packs and sends it to supermarkets all over the country from its base in Isleham, on the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border.

Produce World began as a vegetable growing operation run by Harry and Percy Burgess in 1898 and remains a privately-owned business in which the fourth generation of the family is actively involved. Through various merger and acquisition deals, a single brand, Produce World, was created.

The soft, sandy soils along the Suffolk coast provide ideal conditions for the crops which are now heading into our supermarkets.

Produce World is one of the UK’s leading growers and this is one of its busiest times of the year.

Potatoes, sprouts, parsnips, cabbage and carrots all take centre stage at the Christmas dinner table, and the company grows, supplies and distributes all of these to leading retailers, including Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. This year, it expects to deliver festive vegetables to 15 million people in Britain. It aims to supply 1,200 tons of carrots and 1,200 tons of parsnips into retail - equivalent in weight to 1,600 cars.

The humble sprout tops the leader board with 1,500,000 kilos being harvested, packed and distributed across the country and cabbage is also expected to be a big hit this year, with the team expecting to deliver 6,291,084 of them in to supermarkets.

Produce World farming director Jason Burgess said: “Produce World understands the importance of growing and delivering quality fresh produce throughout the year. Demand shows us that people still want to serve a variety of vegetables with their Christmas dinners. This is reflected through the supermarkets, with demand for potatoes increasing by 50% from November to December.

“At Produce World, innovation is a key part of our business and we are constantly reviewing the varieties grown and examining ways in which they can be improved. This innovation has led to Produce World growing and supplying sprouts that are less bitter in taste.”

Keeping that chain in good functioning order is key to the success of the operation, as Ian explains. Below him are four managers. One is in charge of growing and will organise a group of men who prepare the land, drill the crop, get it sprayed and irrigated, and, at this time of year, cover the ground with straw.

“We grow the crop. Isleham pack it. So we can focus on growing it and they can concentrate on packing it and delivering it to the supermarket,” he says.

“What it enables us to do is to concentrate purely on growing.”

At harvest time, a topper will cut off the top of the plant, so that the carrots and parsnips can then be lifted.

Tompsett Burgess Growers works with about 20 farmers in Suffolk. It rents the land. and the farmers deal with irrigation while Ian’s team does the rest.

On the Broxtead Estate, owned by Andrew Paul and situated near Woodbridge, vast crop fields stretch out almost as far as the eye can see. It’s one of the areas which has been least affected by the incessant rain and flooding which plagued many farms this year.

“On this heath it could literally rain every day and it would still be dry. The three days over Christmas, we would harvest three fields like this in three days,” says Ian.

“On this soil we can’t grow really early carrots because it’s so dry in the summer.”

“From the harvesting point of view we do about 15% of our yearly volume of parsnips on about four days at Christmas and parsnips in the four weeks leading up to Christmas twice the amout sold in November.

The peak harvesting time for parsnips is around December 17 to 19.

“Normally this time of year we are probably doing 200 tonnes of parsnips but at Christmas time we are probably doing 1,000 tonnes for the week,” says Ian.

“We run extra harvesting teams and men will work longer to make sure we are in the best quality fields

“This time of year you look at the best quality.”

The teams save the best crops for now, striving to ensure that as much of the crop as possible is free of blemishing or defects, and that it is of the optimum size.

“One of our biggest problems at Christmas time is finding enough haulage to get it into the factory, especially at the weekend. Driving regulations now are you can only work one weekend on and one weekend off. Saturdays and Sundays get to be a real issue,” says Ian.

“We have do try and plan. That’s why it’s important to get best quality in at Christmas.

“Those three days at Christmas what you have got to remember is Isleham will have to level it out so for a 10 day period I’m trying to bring in the best quality produce as possible to enable them to process it as quickly as possible otherwise they don’t have enough factory time to pack it, especially with parsnips.”

Parsnips have to be individually trimmed. In the factory, they are washed, sized, trimmed and individually handled, adding vital time and money to the process.

“Roughly speaking we are doing 1900 acres of carrots and about 1400 acres of parsnips. “

Parsnips don’t yield at anything near the rate of carrots, making them a more expensive crop to grow.This year has brought its own challenges for the carrot crop too.

“We have struggled with dealing for a start with the wet April and May on both carrots and parsnips. Carrot yields when we started were exceptionally low due to a cold April and continued being low throughout the summer although quality has been good,” says Ian.