The COVID-19 pandemic: challenges and opportunities for Cornish Mutual’s Members

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Jeremy Oatey was recently made Chair of Cornish Mutual’s Board of Directors. He runs a farm business, Agricola Growers, based near Torpoint in South East Cornwall. Here, Jeremy reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and says it presents challenges but also opportunities for Cornish Mutual’s Members.

Just as the lockdown began, I was made Chair of the Board of Directors for Cornish Mutual. As a regional organisation that is owned by the farms and businesses it insures, the company is able to be nimble and act quickly. It is adapting well to supporting its Members through the crisis.

The company was founded in 1903 so has been through two World Wars and a number of other major challenges along the way, including foot-and-mouth disease. The key is that, as a mutual, it is owned by its Members and has always been there to serve them by reacting to their changing needs and requirements.

Meeting the challenges

So, what are the challenges facing the agricultural sector? Many farm businesses fall outside of the criteria for Government aid because they don’t pay business rates. The Government has responded to the problems facing the dairy sector by recently launching the hardship fund to help dairy farmers through the crisis and has provided a glimmer of hope for those worst hit.

While there have been reports of dairy farmers having to throw away milk, that they have been unable to sell, some have not been severely hit. The impact on milk producers is dependent on who their contract is with and where their markets are. This has created a two-tier milk system with those who supply restaurants being far worse affected than those who supply supermarkets.

Although it has been the dairy farms making the headlines, anyone supplying the service sector, whether it’s the local pubs or large restaurant chains, is being badly hit. While the emphasis has been on food production the region’s flower farmers have been seriously affected. The closure of livestock markets has presented huge challenges for those that rely heavily on live animal trading for their business and we have all had worries about our own individual supply chains.

Outside of these commercial concerns a key issue facing farmers, along with everyone else, is loneliness and social isolation. It is a major disappointment that there are no shows this year, as these events are such important social fixtures on our calendars. Like everyone else, farmers are becoming more reliant on technology to keep in touch. We’ve seen the first online agricultural show and more farmers turning to social media to interact and connect.

Here at Agricola Growers we have had to be more reactive and flexible than usual. On the farm things are working in very much the same way as usual and it’s just a case of following sensible precautions. We have had to be more flexible with the vegetable processing business. Some of our customers supply supermarkets and, although there have been some changes, they are mainly trading steadily. Those who supply restaurants and hotels have been badly hit so we have reduced what we do to a fair degree and made some changes to our working patterns.

The product range hasn’t changed that much but the demand has been unpredictable, which makes planning difficult. We’ve taken the view that we’re in it for the long term and some of the changes we’ve made might stick. Our focus is on managing the here and now but we are confident that business is going to come back.

While we have been adapting to the pandemic we have also been dealing with the usual challenges of the weather. We had such a wet winter and were then faced with the prospect of a drought. Nature is marvellous at correcting itself, however, and the weather has settled down so the crop prospects look much better than they did two months ago.

Looking beyond our own business, it has been interesting to see changing food buying habits. Some small retailers, including farm shops, have benefited from more people choosing to buy local produce and support independent shops. The key question is whether that will continue as life returns to normal.

Looking for the opportunities

While recognising the very significant challenges facing Cornish Mutual’s Members, I believe some good will come out of this crisis.

At a national level the pandemic seems to have generated greater recognition of the importance of not relying on importing food. It has shown the weaknesses in our food supply chains and there is a greater understanding of the importance of supporting the agricultural sector so we can produce our own food.

With the new Agriculture Bill now proceeding through Parliament, this is a brilliant opportunity to make positive changes. I am optimistic that, as a result of the crisis, MPs will be more aware of the importance of shortening our food supply chains. I hope this might result in them adapting the bill to make it more favourable to our farming community.

The last few weeks have been a very difficult time for the UK’s farmers but on the whole the rural sector in the South West is faring better than the rest of the country. Being more spread out, with a high proportion of small, mixed, family farms, means we are better placed to follow social distancing measures. For many of us in this part of the world it has been a case of carrying on pretty much as usual while making minor adjustments to meet the Government guidelines. Our farms seem to be more resilient to the current crisis than many of the larger producers elsewhere in the country.

Despite the fact that the South West appears, on the whole, to be coping well, there will be those that are either suffering now or are fearful for the future and we need to accept that there are challenges, plan ahead and keep talking to one another.

It is worth remembering that this is a temporary situation, where we will all need to manage things as sensibly as we can. I remain confident things will return to normal and, however long that takes, people will still need to eat. My hope is that when we come out of this, people will have a greater respect for the rural community and that we will see positive changes in the way we support the nation’s farmers.