With a dramatic increase in people stockpiling food, the current pandemic has placed extra stress and demand on UK farmers and growers. Unlike many sectors of business, farming and providing food cannot simply grind to a halt. Crops still need tending and produce need harvesting because people still need to eat.
Now more than ever, farming is essential. Farming is uncertain at the best of times. Weather, climate change, disease and new environmental regulations can cause irrevocable damage in the long term. Yet despite the odds stacked against them, the Covid-19 outbreak has seen farmers rise to the occasion with the classic “keep calm and carry on” attitude which defines Britain.
It’s Time To Support Our Farmers
For many, the outbreak has caused a huge shift in demand. Before the outbreak, around half of food consumed in the UK was via cafes, restaurants and pubs. With all these public places closed, demand has soared from supermarkets and stores. But farmers can’t simply switch who they sell to. Selling to supermarkets requires a different standard of control and a different supply chain. For many farmers who make their living selling to catering companies, the outbreak has cost them their customers.
For some, the outbreak has cost them the biggest job of the year. Strawberry growers across the country have to find homes for the millions of strawberries which would usually head to Wimbledon. Dairy farmers are having to pour fresh milk away because coffee shops and tea houses are closed. It’s thought food demand dropped by around 70-80% in the first weeks of the outbreak.
But the lack of demand doesn’t mean the work stops. Cows still need to be milked and crops tended to. For many there is frustration in seeing supermarkets imposing bulk buying limits. With farmers throwing their hard work down the drain for no payment, supermarket restrictions are frustrating.
Affordable Finance For Agriculture
With the abundance of produce comes the inevitable price crunch. Farmers across the country are being squeezed on prices. There’s less money coming in, an excess of product and expenses haven’t changed. The result is an increase in farmers needing affordable farming finance solutions to help cover costs.
An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Guardian found that most banks such as the International Finance Corporation (the commercial lending arm of the World Bank), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the CDC only provide medium to long-term loans and investment for industrial large-scale farming. This makes it harder and harder for most farmers to survive independently. With Covid-19 placing more stress on farmers, there is understandable concern for the future of independent farms.
The government’s response to the outbreak; relaxing the three-crop rule and freezing the red diesel subsidy is a step in the right direction but does not provide relief for most smaller farmers. Farms with little to fall back on are struggling to get gain credit extensions from banks as there is little certainty for the future. That is why specialist agriculture finance brokers such as Evangate Financial Services are doing everything they can to help farmers during these times.
Financial Support For Diary Farmers
For dairy farmers, the EU private storage aid (PSA) scheme has provided some relief. Milk powder, butter and cheese were all subsidised. However, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the UK filled its quota for cheese within the first week of the scheme opening.
The demand for more aid clearly shows that these measures are not enough. Earlier this year, the UK government opened applications for a single payment to support dairy farmers. The one-off support money will not be given to everyone and for many, is not as helpful as continued, sustained loans for future recovery.
Farmers Helping The Community
With continued unrest, uncertainty and extra pressure, it wouldn’t be a surprise if farmers crumbled. Yet across the country we are seeing examples of how, as always, farmers rise to the occasion and go the extra mile. During the two world wars, we saw the formation of the land army, dig for Britain and rationing. Now, we see farmers fighting against all the constraints of the virus and still managing to go above and beyond.
Stories of farmers delivering extra food to the elderly and vulnerable in their communities are proving just how hardy, determined and essential farming is to the UK. In the 1990s, the UK produced 80% of its own food. Now, according to Global Food Security we produce just under 60%. As borders close, farming and producing food within the UK has suddenly become even more essential.
In a way, the precautions and questions asked when facing Brexit have been very informative and are reflected in the issues facing farming during the pandemic. Farmers have been encouraged to consider their supply chain, the export market, their customer and how quickly they can adapt to change for the last few years. Now in the transition period, farmers are dealing with the dual issue of Brexit and Coronavirus.
The AHDB predicts an increase in export of products such as cheddar cheese – and that by 2030, 27% of UK milk will end up in Cheddar cheese. As this export market grows, international travel restrictions, as well as pressure on the workforce and changing legal issues, will increase pressure on farmers.
The Importance Of Farmers
In these uncertain times, farmers and growers have come together to ensure that everyone has enough food to last the first global pandemic of our time. With minimal fuss and with little praise compared to other essential workers, farmers continue to wake up early, in rain and scorching sun, to produce the food that keeps us going.
For some, the strain of the pandemic has been too much, entire herds of cows have been sold, crops spoiled and produce gone to waste. But throughout it all, farmers continue to look to the future. To a time when the virus has passed and life is back to normal, or as normal as it gets.
The landscape of the food industry has changed, potentially permanently, and farmers will find ways to cope with and adapt to the new circumstances. 75 years after World War II showed us all how important farmers and farming is – Covid-19 has reminded us of that.