An Early Spring Marketing Niche: Snap and Snow Peas

— Written By Nancy Power
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Snap pea plants

Snap pea plants at the Sandhills AgInnovation Center Demo Farm

I noticed that our local farmers’ markets and farm stands have a wide variety of local produce in the summer, but fewer items are offered in the spring and fall. As a potential candidate to fill the “shoulder season” gap, I planted Sugar Snap and Oregon Giant snow peas early this spring at the Sandhills AgInnovation Center Demo Farm outside of Ellerbe. I also talked with Moore County grower Gary Priest who has grown commercial snap peas (but not snow peas) for the past 12 years. He grows the Sugar Ann variety, due to customer preference. With sweet, edible pods, snap and snow peas do not require shelling, unlike the English peas that are more common here.

Like English peas, however, snap and snow pea plants require trellising. I made our trellis out of 6’ metal T posts and 6’ wide, reusable white trellis netting, purchased online, stretched over two 100’ rows. Priest uses a combination of metal T posts and 5’ – 6.5’ wooden posts, with twine stretched down one side of the row and up the other, adding a new round every 6” higher as the plants grow. Priest plants his first peas around Valentine’s Day and follows them with 2-3 more plantings spaced 2 weeks apart. However, the peas can be planted as early as late January in our area. If the soil is too cold, the peas will wait to germinate. Because they grow while the weather is still cold, they get off to a good start before the insect pests are active.

Peas make their own nitrogen (as do all legumes), with the help of a soil bacterium. If peas have not been grown in your soil recently, adding inoculant (which contains the bacterium) is recommended and can be purchased at farm supply stores. Because peas make their own nitrogen, adding too much nitrogen fertilizer causes excess vine growth, poor yields, and higher susceptibility to insects such as aphids.

Once the weather warmed, a few of our snap pea plants started showing signs of pea enation mosaic virus, followed by powdery mildew. The pea enation virus spread to more plants over time. The Oregon Giant snow pea plants, however, were bred for resistance to these diseases and they kept producing into early June. Some snap pea varieties are likewise resistant to powdery mildew and fusarium wilt.

The warm weather also brought some unwelcome insects, such as aphids, lygus bug, and stink bug, although they were never numerous. The snow peas had fewer insects than the snap peas. Several insecticides are available to control aphids and two are registered for lygus and stink bugs, as well as leafhoppers. Priest recommends keeping the peas away from other aphid-prone crops such as greens and tobacco. He says the later plantings are also prone to cutworms, but notes that, with 7-8 plants per foot, if you lose one to cutworm, “they’re not going to ruin you.”  Priest rotates the crops to allow 2-3 years between growing in the same field to prevent disease problems.

Snap and snow pea harvest parallels that of strawberries, starting in April and usually ending in early June. The snap peas are ready for harvest when the pods expand fully but are still immature, and the individual peas inside are not defined on the outside. Snow peas, on the other hand, need to be picked while they are still flat. The Oregon Giant are picked at a larger size, 4.5”, compared to other varieties. This saves on harvest labor, which is important since harvest is the most labor-intensive aspect of growing snap and snow peas. Each planting can be harvested over a period of 3-4 weeks. Priest has four H2A workers trellising and harvesting the peas. The same laborers have worked for him for 3-10 years, so they know what to do and he does not need to train them.

Gary Priest is one of the original core growers for Sandhills Farm to Table (SF2T), a cooperative that purchases local produce and provides a weekly fresh produce box to member/consumers. He started growing snap peas initially because they were requested by SF2T Moore County members. Now he also markets his 2.5 acres of snap peas to several restaurants and to a wholesale produce company. I tested having Richmond County vendors sell the peas at a farm stand and farmers’ market, but they did not sell well. The price of $6 per pound may inhibit buyers, but the harvest labor necessitates selling at this price. To sell in Richmond County would require educating the customers and letting them try the peas, which are delicious raw as well as slightly cooked. The Cooperative Extension could help with that, by setting up taste tests and offering cooking lessons.

For more information on growing edible-pod peas or other crops, or opportunities for learning at the Demo Farm, contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center at 910-997-8255.

Snap pea plants at the Sandhills AgInnovation Center Demo Farm

Snap pea plants at the Sandhills AgInnovation Center Demo Farm