THEY have become a familiar site in fields across South Oxfordshire in early summer — beautiful swathes of pale purple poppies.
Now the man from Chalkhouse Green who introduced the growing of medicinal opium poppies to the UK has told how it came about.
John Manners persuaded the Home Office to allow small trials at five farms across the UK in 2000.A full-scale trial was carried out in a field near Goring in 2001 and the plants were first grown commercially the following year.
The flowers are now grown on more than 6,000 acres of land across the South, including a number of sites in South Oxfordshire.
They are used to make painkilling medicines such as morphine or the less potent codeine, which is used in some headache tablets.
Only one company in the UK, Mr Manners’ former employer MacFarlan Smith of Edinburgh, is allowed to process the poppies.
It needs a licence from the Home Office because morphine, a close relative of heroin, is highly addictive and could be sold illegally.
Before the plants were introduced here, the company relied exclusively on imported poppies, mainly from Tasmania and Spain.
Mr Manners decided to tell his story after seeing a photograph on the letters page of the Henley Standard, submitted by reader Pat Sparrowhawk, of an opium poppy field in Huntercombe.
He has lived in Chalkhouse Green with his wife Irene for 45 years and worked for two decades as an agricultural merchant in Sonning Common.
Mr Manners started his business John Manners & Son in Wood Lane in 1976. It mostly sold seeds for arable crops.
The firm was based in the former Barclays bank premises, now the Christian Community Action charity shop, before it was bought by United Oilseeds in 1996.
Mr Manners stayed on as sales director and was inspired to experiment with opium poppies after visiting a plant breeder in Poland in 1999.
He said: “After we had spoken and I was about to leave, he gave me a calendar with these purple poppies on.
“I’d never seen them that colour before so I asked what they were and he explained that they were morphine poppies. That one simple thing made me wonder why we didn’t grow them in the UK so I decided to investigate further.”
He approached MacFarlan Smith, who arranged a meeting with the Home Office to discuss his proposal.
Officials permitted trials on 24 sq m pitches at five experimental farms in England and Scotland.
At the time, it was uncertain whether poppies would yield enough morphine in the UK’s cooler climate.
The Scottish sites fared poorly due to weather but those further south were more successful than anticipated. Permission was therefore given for a full field trial in 2000.
This took place on about three hectares of land at Little Stoke Manor Farm, about three miles north of Goring, which is owned by South Oxfordshire District Council leader Ann Ducker.
It also proved successful so the first poppies were grown commercially over 100 hectares of land the following year.
Mr Manners visited farmers and persuaded them to sign up. They were wary at first but each year more agreed to grow the plants when the existing suppliers reported profits.
The poppies are now used as a “break crop” to prepare the ground for a return to cereal or oilseed rape farming the following season.
Mr Manners said: “Farmers are traditionally quite cautious and conservative. I used to say it wasn’t just a new crop but a new industry and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. It became much easier to get new farmers on board as time went on because it became more widespread and people realised it was a sound investment. Growing them over here means MacFarlan Smith has a secure supply and the growers have a very profitable crop.
“As well as growing morphine for pain control in the health system, our economy benefits from relying on fewer imports.
“We faced enormous scepticism at first but now they are very keen to grow them. They’re no longer a new phenomenon and we can prove they are economically viable.”
United Oilseeds formed a separate division called United Farmaceuticals, which chemicals trader Johnson Matthey bought in 2006.
Mr Manners was managing director by that time but stepped down to become a retained consultant, a role he still occupies.
Johnston Matthey bought MacFarlan Smith the same year and it trades under that name in Edinburgh and at a research site in Blounts Court Road, Sonning Common.
Mr Manners would not give details of the company’s operations but confirmed it worked with farms in Oxfordshire, Dorset, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Lincolnshire.
He said there were some in the Henley Standard’s circulation area, including the Huntercombe site, but declined to comment further.
The poppy crops reduce MacFarlan Smith’s dependence on imports, although Mr Manners said the company was “far from self-sufficient”.
He said he did not know how much money his initiative saved the company, adding: “Even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.” Poppy growing is not a state secret but suppliers must sign a confidentiality contract to protect the company’s growing and pest control methods. Johnston Matthey tries to find sites that are secluded but some are within public view.
Despite the crop’s potential for making addictive drugs, there are few security measures in place.
Police are informed about fields where they are being grown so that they can keep an eye on them.
Mr Manners said: “You might have images in your mind of guard dogs and electric fences but they don’t need that.
“You can grow poppies easily but the extraction process is incredibly expensive. The sad truth is that it would be easier to buy heroin on the street than for someone to try to produce it themselves.
“Anyone could do it but they would need a licence and about £40 or £50 million to set up a plant. It’s very costly and very complicated.
“We have been growing it as a full-scale operation since 2002 and in all that time there has never been a problem.
“The reason we keep our suppliers confidential is that we don’t want our competitors to know what we’re doing.
“We don’t go looking for places that are too conspicuous, although it really isn’t that big a deal.”
Several species of opium poppy, or papaver somniferum (the Latin botanical name means the “sleep-bringing poppy”), are grown for the process.
The plant’s seeds are legally available in garden centres but yield far less of the drug than commercial specimens, which are specially bred.
A hectare of these will produce about 15kg of anhydrous morphine alkaloid, extracted from the mature seed pod once it is dried.
This is the raw material that can be processed to make a range of pain-killing drugs. Most in the UK are used to manufacture codeine.
Mr Manners now advises the company on finding more efficient ways of growing the crop.
As a memento of his successful venture, he still has the Polish calendar in a frame and also keeps a dried poppy.
He said: “When I started I didn’t have any knowledge of the process. I didn’t even know which part of the flower the morphine came from.
“It was just another business opportunity at the time. I saw that calendar and thought it might be worth trying to grow them here.”