The legacy of Covid-19: Five ways in which 2020 could change farming

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Jeremy Oatey is our Chair of the Board of Directors and Managing Director of Agricola Growers in South East Cornwall. He considers five ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has changed farming and what it could mean for the future.

The harvest season is the culmination of the year’s work for many of the farms we insure across the South West.  Given the Covid-19 pandemic, some challenging weather conditions, and uncertainty over Brexit, I suspect most people will be glad to put 2020 behind them.  However, there are reasons to be optimistic and I think some benefits will come out of the challenges that we’ve faced this year.

While there is uncertainty about the future, I believe the events of 2020 will have a lasting legacy. Here are five of the future trends I think we could see.

  1. More support for local food

There was turmoil when lockdown started in March, but after the initial panic buying of food, the demand settled down and thankfully we didn’t have shortages.

During the early weeks of the pandemic, many people started using the shops around them because it was the only option they had and, as a result, we saw a surge in interest in local trade and farm shops.

Whether our Members sell direct from the farm gate, produce food for local retailers or run farm shops, we know that many of them have adapted to respond to an increase in demand.

I hope the crisis has brought about a greater appreciation for our farmers, producers and retailers across the region and that people’s new shopping habits stick.

  1. A commitment to overcoming farm labour challenges

The pandemic highlighted the challenge of farm labour for the South West, where we are reliant on migrant workers for harvesting seasonal crops like cauliflower and daffodils.

As we prepare to leave the EU, this has raised some important issues about how we will harvest our crops in the future. While there is a sense in Government that we shouldn’t be quite so reliant on migrant labour, robotic harvesting is still 10 or 15 years away and the pandemic has shown that we probably can’t expect to fill the void with a local labour force. We do somehow need to overcome this challenge. We don’t yet have the answers, but the crisis has highlighted the issue.

  1. A greater appreciation for agricultural events

A big difference this year for the farming community has been missing out on the agricultural shows. We have some fantastic shows here in the South West, including many local shows all over the region.

These are key social events for the rural community and the showcase for the livestock sector, selling pedigree cattle and sheep. You don’t realise how important they are until they’re not there. Sadly, some of the events have been badly hit so I think it’s important that we try and support them as much as we can to keep them alive.  While there have been a number of virtual shows, we need to get back to the real thing and hope the shows can function again in 2021.

The livestock markets have managed to get through the year with pretty stiff restrictions in place and are a shining example of how to get through a time of real adversity. Fortunately, we haven’t seen the drop off in trade that we did in the days of foot and mouth. I think the lessons have been learned that the markets need to function for local trading to continue at an acceptable level.

  1. A higher profile for food security

I believe the pandemic has made the politicians focus more on food security and moved the issue up the agenda. The UK is going to be in charge of its own food policy going forwards, which perhaps gives us a little bit more control and influence.

In times of adversity, short supply chains seem to work best and, if we rely too heavily on imports, they can very easily fall apart. Having strong local businesses makes us better able to cope with shocks along the way because we can be much more responsive.

  1. A reminder of what we can (and can’t) control

As we look ahead to 2021, we don’t yet know how Covid-19 will continue to impact us and are not yet clear on what changes Brexit will bring.  However, this pandemic has reminded us that although we like to think we are in control, in reality, we are not.

Brexit could drive major changes for the sector and the rural structure we see now could be completely different in 20 years’ time. As the Agriculture Bill takes shape, it looks likely that farmers will be rewarded for the environmental benefits they provide, which could have a significant effect on rent and land value. I suspect, with the greater focus on the environment rather than hard production, there could be greater benefit to having a mixed farming system.

We don’t have answers to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, but rural communities are good at adapting and working together. Because they are so connected to the land, agricultural communities are used to fluctuations in weather so tend to be resourceful.

In uncertain times, the key is how well you manage your business. It’s about being realistic, thinking about what you want in life and planning for how you’re going to get there. After all, you can only control what you can and that is what we need to concentrate on.