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BEHIND THE SCENES IN THE PEA INDUSTRY

From Ransomville in Niagara County all across Western New York to Trumansburg in Tompkins County, carpets of green sweet peas have been harvested this year for packaging into frozen cartons or cans to meet a constant demand for the tasty legume that's loaded with protein, carbohydrates, phosphorus, iron, vitamin A and a touch of other nutrients.

All told, some 19,000 acres of sweet peas seeded in cool April and May and were harvested between June 20 and Friday. "It has been a good growing year for sweet peas," said Tom Facer, vice president for vegetable production for Curtice Burns Foods, the Rochester-based packer and wholesaler. "Yields of 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 tons of shelled peas per acre have been better than usual."

Unlike the wet start of the 1996 growing season, which made it difficult for farmers to seed sweet peas, the cool but drier 1997 growing season has been fine for growing them.

One estimate suggests that farmers will get more than $9 million for their 1997 peas. That's well above their 1996 returns. Facer says prices will average about $200 a ton, with the most tender peas valued up to 40 percent more than the least tender.

For this reason, processors -- Curtice Burns Foods and Seneca Foods -- and farmers tried to schedule the harvesting at the time (often a matter of hours) when the peas are the most tender.

Eight growers -- Winksterns of Pembroke, C-Y Farms of Elba and My-T Acres of Batavia among them -- own the 30 monsterlike machines that harvest the 19,000 acres.

To harvest pea fields at the best time and to get the most return from the costly harvesters -- worth $150,000 to $300,000 -- the machines are usually worked around the clock during their five-to-seven-week performing period. All the rest of the year, these specialized harvesters are idle, earning nothing.

Facer said that it costs processors about $110 a ton to snip the pods from the ground vines, strip the peas from the pods, spill them into trucks that are driven alongside the moving harvesters and deliver the peas to processing plants.

The Curtice Burns plant at Bergen freezes all its peas. The Leicester-Mount Morris plant owned by Seneca Foods freezes some and cans others. And Seneca's East Williamson plant cans its peas. Most are stored until a private-label retailer orders them.

The American Farm Bureau is dismayed by the 1998 appropriation cuts for the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service that were adopted by the House Appropriations Committee. But Farm Bureau is pleased that the committee rejected the Clinton administration's plan to require user fees for meat and poultry inspection. The committee also chopped $500 million from export enhancement funding, leaving only $205 million in subsidies to help food exporters compete in lower-priced world markets. Most of those savings will go for crop insurance commissions. The $49.4 billion USDA spending plan for next year is $3.8 billion less than 1997 appropriations.

The promoters of the 23rd annual Chautauqua County Antique Equipment Show call their event "a display of mechanical marvels and iron dinosaurs from the technological and agricultural past." It will be held Aug. 16 and 17 at the Firemen's Fraternity Grounds, County Road 58, Stockton. Adult admission costs $2. Tractors, stationary engines, antique cars and trucks and crafts will be displayed.

State Ag Commissioner Donald Davidsen has advised farmers to sell only to dealers who can show updated Article 20 licenses if they expect to receive protection from the state's Agricultural Producers Security Protection Fund. Growers can verify dealer license holders by calling (800) 455-5401. In the event of non-payment within 30 days after delivery, farmers have 30 days to file a notice of lien against the delinquent payer. Ag & Markets has made several changes in the grower protection procedures.

Some California orchard farmers now grow grass around their trees to reduce erosion, provide a home for good bugs and improve the soil. Cover crops have become a common part of integrated pest management that relies more or organic methods to eliminate pesticides. Vetch is a favored cover crop because it is a habitat for beneficial insects, growers say.

Barnyard gossip -- The people who trim cow hoofs, a vital part of the milk industry that is overlooked by just about everybody except dairy farmers, will gather Thursday at the Sheraton Conference Center in Batavia for a three-day conference.

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