AT least six farming businesses in Oxfordshire are currently growing poppies for a drug company.

The poppy-growing in the county is helping to meet demand for morphine in the production of medicines and painkilling drugs.

Hundreds of acres of land in the county have just been harvested for morphine production, bringing in an important source of income for the county’s hard-pressed farmers.

The lilac-coloured poppies are different from the plant used to produce heroin in countries such as Afghanistan, although the Government will not release their location.

Britain has been involved there in efforts to eradicate opium poppy crops, which are used in funding terrorism.

It is understood that there are at least six farming businesses in the county involved in poppy growing for the drugs company Macfarlan Smith, under licence to the Home Office.

When you drive past the poppy fields, the crops can clearly be seen, but in 2008 the Government insisted the location of dozens of fields in the county used to grow the poppies must stay secret, to stop people stealing them.

The Home Office rejected a Freedom of Information (FoI) request lodged by the Oxford Mail to find out the locations of 10 sites in the county being used to cultivate 281 hectares of opium poppies for medicinal use.

Chris Lay, one of the South Oxfordshire farmers involved, has given over 100 acres to poppy growing, with the harvesting completed a few days ago.

Mr Lay said: “The poppies are harvested at the same time as our wheat. The company came and harvested the poppies themselves and also looked after the transport.”

Mr Lay said the lilac colour of the poppies adds to the attractiveness of the local countryside, while the poppies served as a good “break crop” for arable farmers.

He has been growing poppies for five years and said a number of farmers in South Oxfordshire were following his example.

Jonathan Gibbs, head of poppy growing operations at Macfarlan Smith, said: “We are the only company that is granted permission to grow poppies in the UK and are the world’s largest producer of morphine.

“All the poppies are grown under contract to us, with licences granted by the Home Office. We provide our growers with seed to sow, we give all agronomic advice, harvest the crop, using our own equipment and take it away.

“The whole crop poppy is taken to our initial processing facility where the straw and capsule is separated from the seed.

“There is no morphine in poppy seeds, which are cleaned to 99.95 per cent purity and sold for the culinary markets.

“The morphine is extracted from the straw.”

He said the kind of poppies grown for morphine were substantially different from the varieties grown for the illegal and dangerous production of heroin.