I shall begin with the normal. Finally, after an unprecedented period of wet weather lasting from last summer until the middle of March, the final week of the month has seen growers across the country break out the drilling rigs and establish harvest 2020 in remarkably good conditions. We have planted a large area of spring barley to replace our winter barley and wheat crops which will now loiter in store until the autumn. Ground due to enter into winter beans will, however, remain fallow for this year. Our overwintered crops look, on the whole, poor, with our OSR area dropping with each pass of inputs. What the selling conditions will be come autumn is anybody’s guess, but I am at least hopeful that spring drilled crops will perform. Would only I hadn’t sold all my spring wheat last summer! What the agronomic consequences of winter 2019-20 will be, we shall discover.
Now, to the abnormal. The Covid-19 pandemic has emerged from nowhere to become the greatest crisis the globe has collectively faced since the Second World War. We have no idea for how long we must endure, nor what the final costs will be.
What is clear is that we, as farmers and food producers, are comparatively lucky. We have been designated ‘key workers’ and as such are encouraged, as a matter of national urgency, to continue with our vital work of producing food for the nation. My heart goes out to those millions of our fellow citizens who not only fear for their jobs and businesses, but are essentially prisoners in their own homes, wondering whether Covid-19 will take anyone in their circle of family and friends.
Now is not the time for industry triumphalism over a government and commentariat who only weeks ago were, in some cases, calling for the total offshoring of UK food production in favour of a national project of rewilding. Now we must all pull together to ask how we, as an industry, can best contribute to the wellbeing of our fellow citizens. Policy recriminations will come later.
But what is equally clear is that we, as a nation and as an industry, need greater resilience at all levels.
The unedifying spectacle of unnecessary food stockpiling as a result of the current crisis is a reminder to us all that society is fickle, and that panic can be as deadly as any real virus – and spread much faster. The supply chain has, in most cases, responded remarkably well to this massive surge in demand. But as a nation we need now to be alive to the fact that, were there a genuine supply issue, demand would undoubtedly increase even more than we have recently seen. Just-in-time delivery of food at the end of long, fragile supply chains cannot be allowed to account for a greater proportion of our food. In addition, we must better inform the public about their food and associated supply chains; a better understanding of these matters may help to reduce panic in a future crisis, and encourage more to shop local and decentralise our entire food system away from the big four retailers.
Our domestic industry also has to become more resilient; there are far too many bottlenecks already raising their potential heads for the coming year; wearing parts, fuel, baler twine; machinery spares, chemicals and fertilisers. Perhaps it’s time to consider repatriating domestic production of some of these items, or incentivising and encouraging the individual stockpiling of ‘strategic reserves’ of some essential items to enable domestic production to continue for a period of time in the event of supply chain disruption. This is how the military operates.
I would also suggest we need to build more resilience into our own businesses, and our own persons. Too many farms (mine included) are too reliant on a single individual for key operations. If you were to be removed, would someone else be able to operate the sprayer (legally?), the combine or drill? And then there’s the difficult issue of mental resilience; are you fighting fit? Would you be able to cope with a sudden shock to your business or personal life, or is there a danger you could become another tragic farm-related statistic?
This is an opportunity to reassess; to plan; to have difficult conversations and to optimise our businesses, our industry and ourselves. If nothing else positive comes from 2020, perhaps this could.