DCRF Farming Update - Coronavirus - March 2020

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Devon Churches Rural Forum Farming Update March 2020 – Coronavirus

Compiled by Rev’d Penny Body with input from Danny Semorad, Joanne Jones, Andy Jerrard and Rev’d David Ursell

Overall

On the one hand farmers, farm workers and all involved in the agricultural industry are facing exactly the same pressures as everyone else in the country. They are concerned for the health of themselves and their families, worried by the scale of panic buying in the shops and how to manage their businesses both practically and financially. Yet they also are the ones who are producing the food that is disappearing from the supermarket shelves so quickly and we shall all be extra reliant on them, particularly as imports from other affected countries may be under strain.

Weather

The winter, as we know has been extremely wet, and many crops are already behind in planting and stock has been late out to the fields. However these recent days of dry weather and sunshine have already done much to dry up fields and there is hope that jobs and crops can be caught up.

Isolation, mental wellbeing, pastoral support

Farmers and their families have very isolating work and as one farmer joked “We already know how to self-isolate very well!”

However, whilst isolation could have severe impacts on the mental health of many in the general population, some farmers (as we have reported before) are close to the edge already as a result of isolated working, farm economics, animal disease, difficult weather conditions and debilitating criticism around animal welfare and environmental concerns, and losing even limited opportunities for social contact at markets and agricultural shows is likely to exacerbate this.

For many farmers this crisis and the isolation measures bring back powerful and traumatic memories of the foot and mouth outbreak 19 years ago, which was particularly virulent in our area. Then farmers were in isolation as never before. Police were stationed at the end of farm lanes to stop movement in or out and the grief at the loss of stock was immense. As well as bringing back such difficult memories, perhaps, as one farmer said, it means farmers are more prepared and understanding of the current situation.

With the very sensible new precautions and protocols in place our market chaplaincy teams are also unable to operate in their usual ways and similarly the FCN is unable to make face to face visits with farmers at this time. However, FCN work continues apace with telephone and email support. As always if you know anyone who needs support please signpost them to the FCN website for telephone and email helpline information.  Andy Jerrard (Methodist Rural Support Worker) is also in contact with many farmers and is able to offer a limited face to face service in special circumstances (find Andy’s contact details here)

Information on many other organisations who support the farming community can be found on our webpage here

https://www.devonchurchesruralforum.org.uk/farming/food-farming-and-related-organisations/foodfarmingandrelatedorganisations.php

Mental health advice specific to the coronavirus outbreak can be found here on the NHS “Every Mind Matters” website https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters

In our churches, you might want to telephone your local farmers to see how they are faring and offer any practical support with shopping etc. if they are self-isolating. And, just as we are thanking our NHS and care workers, which we wholeheartedly do, perhaps we could also find ways to show our appreciation to our farmers who are working hard to keep our food supplies going – perhaps a thank you card or letter of appreciation through the post to your local farmers?

Business issues

All farmers are being advised to follow national guidance about social distancing – for example staff going home or sitting in cars for their breaks or taking breaks at different time so not in the same room together, and also to follow advice re isolating for 7 days if they have symptoms or 14 days if someone in household has symptoms.

There may be problems down the line if farmers are unable to look after their stock due to illness.

The article from Farmers Weekly below gives further information about how government support will help farms.

https://www.fwi.co.uk/business/business-management/finance/coronavirus-how-financial-support-package-will-help-farms

Many farm workers are self-employed so if they are unable to work they are likely to need special support. Hopefully the new government scheme announced 26th March will help, and though actually money will not be available until the beginning of June hopefully it will provide light at the end of the tunnel.

In some parts of the country seasonal workers needed to harvest particularly fruit and vegetables are in increasingly short supply as people are prevented from travelling from Europe because of virus related travel restrictions, and some existing reduction already due to Brexit.

Regulatory Issues

In most cases, on-farm visits for assurance schemes etc.  have been postponed and their memberships/renewals extended. Vets have arrangements in place for TB testing and emergency call outs and collection of medicines procedures to minimise contact. 

Supply lines

Supplies of meat to the restaurant trade have of course stopped, though there is increased demand from supermarkets. This means different supply lines and logistics will be needed which may take some time to organise.

Some farmers who sell direct to the public through farm shops or veg boxes have seen sales increase – and of course there may even be some longer term uplift in local food sales as a result.

Livestock markets and Prices

Markets are still operating at the time of writing as they play a crucial role in the supply chain for the country’s food. However all sales of breeding stock have been suspended with only the sale of prime stock, cull animals and store stock permitted.  See here for the full Farmers Weekly article.

Strict rules have been introduced to enable proper social distancing to take place and buyers are being encouraged to “double up” and buy on each other’s behalf. For vendors a “drop and go” policy has been introduced where vendors have to stay in their vehicles as their animals are unloaded by market staff and then leave straight away.

It goes without saying that all common areas such as refreshment cafes have been closed.

Prices for livestock have been up and down. For example, recent reports about difficulties in exporting lamb to Europe caused prices to fall. However food and livestock imports are being prioritised but there are inevitably driver shortages as people fall sick. Prices for finished bulls increased as demand from supermarkets rose sharply. If you would like to keep up with this type of market information then both Farmers Weekly and the Agriculture and Horticultural Development Board websites are very helpful. The NFU is also of course a mine of information but some articles are only available to members.

On prices and supply, the NFU says “We are very much aware that the last few days has seen a disastrous drop in lamb prices, principally due to the inability to export lamb at present as well as some limited processing capacity issues at abattoirs.  We are seeking government support for the hardest hit sectors as well as working with processors, retailers and others to find ways for the food supply chain to become more dynamic, so that food can be directed to where demand is highest. Something like 50% of all calorie intake for consumers comes from outside of the home and social distancing and isolating means that this will change – so we must find ways for that shortfall to still get through to consumers.  This problem may also arise in the beef sector with McDonald’s closing its branches, which could mean that a lot of UK beef will be looking for a new outlet temporarily – hopefully filling some of those empty supermarket shelves.”

Tourism

Those farmers who heavily rely on diversification income are probably the most affected at present as they are losing income immediately. Many farms offer holiday accommodation in the form of B and B, holiday cottages or camping and caravanning facilities. Income from such diversification can sometimes be a significant portion of annual farm income, so farmers, like so many others involved in the tourism industry in our beautiful part of the world will be suffering through loss of business.

 

You can keep up with these and other business and supply issues through the various websites listed on our page here