Whilst the current crisis is enormous in both scale and seriousness, it is far from the first that farming has had to face in recent decades. Agriculture is a sector which has proven itself to be resilient and adaptable whatever is thrown in its path, from foot and mouth and mad cow disease to disastrous flooding and Brexit uncertainty.
So how ready is the sector to emerge from the coronavirus crisis? Will the region’s farmers be leading the way back to prosperity for our economy, or will they become part of the ongoing problem? The answer is of course nuanced – but I see much reason for optimism.
One of the striking
things about the current crisis is the extent to which we have seen improved
communication and a collaborative approach as farmers, food producers and
retailers all fought to adapt. It has
brought businesses together, in the realisation that a challenge this big cannot
be faced alone. And that collaboration
must be a key part of the recovery.
Food security, and the
necessity to increase self-sufficiency when it comes to feeding the nation,
have rocketed up the political agenda.
Hopefully, that will translate into more
concrete support for our industry. We
must capitalise on the popular (i.e. voters’) sentiment to make this
Likewise, farming must
build on the success of engaging with consumers to buy local during the crisis,
and be proactive in making this stick as we emerge from the virus. Alongside this, the general public have
reconnected with the countryside more than ever before, as the daily walk
became the lockdown highlight for many.
What about the barriers
to recovery? Clearly, shortage of labour – already an issue with Brexit
looming – is a big worry; simply bringing in the harvest is going to be a
challenge for some. A new pool of unemployed and furloughed local
labour may mitigate this to some extent and will be the first test of
post-Brexit labour supply.
For those farm
businesses which have diversified into tourism, the picture is mixed. In the short-term, consumer reluctance to
leave their homes, coupled with draconian
strict social distancing guidelines, may prolong
the slump. But in the medium-term, with overseas
travel problematic, they can expect to see a staycation bounce which could last
well into next year.
Overall, a renewed awareness of the need for food security, a growing public realisation that farmers are the guardians of the countryside, and a gathering momentum for increased environmental stewardship should all combine to allow help farming to emerge from coronavirus in better shape than most sectors.