Interesting times

Writers Posted 28/04/20
Alan reminds us that he warned two months ago of a coming virus that would “almost certainly send economic ripples around the globe”.

My last paragraph in the March copy of South East Farmer (written on 14 Feb) was: “Just as a footnote, a point to watch is the developing coronavirus situation in China, which will no doubt have a significant and negative impact on the Chinese economy; this in turn will almost certainly send economic ripples around the globe. Quite what the effect will be on the wider global economy is uncertain, but it will have an impact.”

Who could have ever imagined that far from simply suffering an economic impact from Covid-19, we would, within the space of two months, be facing a pandemic within the UK and have joined many other countries in lockdown?

The impact on the farming community has, I suspect, yet to be fully realised, but I’m sure that there will be a significant, far-reaching and long-lasting impact. The immediate effect on the sheep sector has been on lamb prices, prices that had firmed up nicely since the beginning of the year but which took a knock with the removal of demand from catering resulting from the forced closure of restaurants and the like.

I suspect we will see reallocation of New Zealand (NZ) supplies arising from coronavirus-inspired shutdowns in China reducing Chinese demand for NZ lamb (oh, the complexities and interactions of global produce markets). There is a degree of uncertainty as to future market opportunities, but at least with most auction marts remaining open, even if on slightly different terms, we still have access to a market.

The lack of availability of shearers for the rapidly approaching shearing season will also have a significant impact; with no, or very few, NZ shearers available there will certainly be pressure on UK shearers. Time for a few shepherds to sharpen up their shearing technique, I think.

Other impacts are not quite so obvious. Without doubt there is a substantial segment of the sheep farming community within one of the vulnerable groups and in theory subject to some, if self-imposed, restrictions. I suspect the most significant of these groups is the over-seventies who are still actively engaged, a demographic of which we, no doubt, have a greater share than most other sectors of the economy.

I am sure, however, that most will not regard this as a major concern, since the vast proportion will, I’m convinced, not regard themselves as being particularly vulnerable. Most will be reasonably fit (apart from the odd aches and pains) and not overweight, and the fact that we spend a substantial portion of our time working outside and socially separated, particularly at lambing, is an effective vehicle for social separation, if not isolation, and I am sure rather diminishes the risk of actually contracting Covid-19.

Probably a more significant cause for concern will be the social impact of Covid-19; sheep keeping can, at the best of times, be a lonely occupation at this time of the year in particular – we probably spend more time talking to our sheep (or dogs) than we do to other people, but current shut downs and movement restrictions risk pushing some producers into complete isolation.

Those few opportunities that we had for a little bit of interaction, the pub, the market, the feed store, are now denied to us or at least severely restricted, and with them the opportunities to share worries and concerns. Concerns over lambing, the availability of grazing, future market opportunities for lamb and sheep and a host of other things can assume major proportions if they cannot be shared.

A problem shared is a problem halved; the appreciation that others are experiencing the same problems does not make them go away, but often makes them easier to deal with. The opportunity to talk through potential solutions, or simply the availability of a sympathetic ear and the chance to offload worries, can have a powerful psychological impact. But we still do have a very effective means of communication – the telephone and/or social media; a simple phone call or text can make a lot of difference and the mobile phone has extended the reach of that reassuring phone call into the lambing shed, the tractor cab etc.

Phone a friend now. A friendly voice and reassuring word can lift anyone’s spirits, or maybe you simply need to catch up or have a moan; to have someone to listen to your problems. In the current, difficult situation, even if face-to-face contact may be awkward, keeping in touch with friends and colleagues is more important than ever, both for their sake and yours.

I have certainly had concerns over the availability of grass; I currently have plenty of grass in front of the ewes and they really are milking well off it, but regrowth seems to be remarkably and depressingly slow, very much slower than would normally be expected for the time of year, to the point where future grass availability may become a problem.

After a few phone calls and the odd Tweet, I soon discovered that there are other producers, in many other parts of the country, in just the same position. This was confirmed by AHDB’s “Forage Knowledge” and highlights the benefit of communication and social media. The knowledge certainly didn’t solve the problem, but it did make it significantly easier to live with. Fortunately, the warmer weather of the past few days (early April) seems to have stimulated a bit of grass growth and paddocks are starting to green over nicely again.

One thing that the current Covid-19 crisis has highlighted is how fragile the food distribution network is in the UK; a fragility that has generated significant problems, problems that have been aggravated by consumer panic and stockpiling.
The difficulties generated by the current crisis raise a number of questions that demand a significant review of the UK food sector once the crisis is over; a review that I suggest should go from farm gate to fork.

There really does need to be a very much stronger focus on local produce, on low food miles and on greater support for local producers. It is the dominance of a small number of very large retail grocers, driven largely by the desire to increase their own market share and boost profits, retailers with very little commitment or loyalty to UK producers, retailers that are subject to little regulatory control and who pay little heed to voluntary codes of conduct, that have generated most of the problems that have arisen.

We need a safe and effective food production, processing, distribution and supply system; we need sensibly priced food at all levels, farm to fork, a system that is able to function effectively under pressure and a system that is able to support efficient and sustainable domestic food production. I know that there are reciprocal trade agreements and commonwealth interests, but should some supermarkets at this time be promoting NZ lamb when we have an abundant supply of quality home produced lamb available?

The crisis generated by coronavirus and its consequential effects has also brought sharply into focus the reliance of the UK on imported food products for almost 50% of our needs and the impact that this has on the food security and food resilience positions of the country.

Supply and transport issues arising in third party countries impacted by Covid-19 and the threat from Channel and North Sea ferry companies to significantly reduce services no longer underwritten by passenger revenues, brings a fresh urgency to the debate and further highlights the fragility of the whole of the food network within the UK. The crisis really has very firmly positioned the spotlight on the need for future agricultural policy to focus on domestic production. While there are some things, like bananas, that we will never produce in the UK, priority should be given to increasing the proportion of good quality, affordable (which does not always mean cheap) food produced efficiently and sustainably in the UK. This is an aspiration to which the UK sheep industry could make a significant contribution, not as a heavily subsidised and inefficient sector but as a forward-looking, innovative, efficient and highly sustainable sector of the agricultural industry.


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