This article is part of our collection on Agriculture
What will the lasting legacy of the coronavirus pandemic be on farming and agriculture? We look at the current trends and what could constitute permanent change.
Last updated: 22 Sep 2020 7 min read
The coronavirus pandemic reminded us just how valuable our farmers are. At the height of lockdown, the only shops allowed to open were those that sold food. One of the few journeys deemed essential was to buy food. Supply chains broke because people were afraid they couldn’t get food. Farmers were recognised, rightfully, as key workers vital to the public’s survival.
But while farming stood steadfast, it has, like every other sector, been changed by coronavirus – possibly forever. We take a look at the potential lasting legacies of coronavirus on British farmers.
A combination of empty supermarket shelves, a restriction on unnecessary journeys and a desire to look after our own communities has prompted more people to buy local – and, in many cases, direct from farm shops.
“During the panic-buying and food shortages people came to us, and found us reliable,” says Will Simkin of Essington Farm in Staffordshire. “People realised they didn’t have to go to a supermarket but could go to a farm shop where the food was fresher, healthier – and, because our supply chain is so short, it was there.”
Weekly sales of vegetable boxes are also up 111% since the start of the year, according to research of 105 veg box suppliers by the Food Foundation.
This legacy could be permanent – a recent YouGov poll found 42% of the British public have changed how they value food, and a third are cooking more from scratch. “Some of this has to do with people having more time to prepare meals,” acknowledges Stuart Roberts, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, “but it has introduced people to the taste of really fresh food, and the sheer enjoyment of creating a meal from raw ingredients. Hopefully this will become the norm.”
However, academics at Harper Adams University (HAU) aren’t so optimistic. In a recent discussion paper written by Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer and Elizabeth Creak, the contributors predicted: “Human beings have short memories and soon consumer behaviour will go back to being driven by price, convenience and habit. Most consumers are unlikely to willingly pay more for food because it is produced in the UK.”
But Dr Mark Lyons, CEO of US agricultural solutions firm, Alltech, thinks the pandemic has permanently steered the industry towards local food. “The appreciation from the consumer to the local food sector does shift things in terms of the supply chain,” he says. “If you look at secure food supply, trust may be the driver in future, not price.”
“People realised they didn’t have to go to a supermarket but could go to a farm shop where the food was fresher, healthier – and, because our supply chain is so short, it was there” Will Simkin, Essington Farm
“As a nation we tend to buy 60% of our food in retail outlets and 40% in service businesses such as cafés and restaurants,” says Roberts. “Shutting the hospitality sector made that 100% retail – which threw up a big challenge for farmers. For example, a service customer might buy 10kg of cheese, a retail customer only 200g. The food service sector buys white-shelled eggs, the retail sector brown-shelled eggs. We had the ridiculous situation where dairy farmers who supplied to processors in the service sector no longer had any buyers and had to tip hundreds of litres of milk away, while in supermarkets, if there was milk, customers were limited to how much they could buy. We need to learn from this to build resilience to those emergency situations in the future.”
The HAU academics agree: “This pandemic has revealed the fragility of long-distance supply chains. A strategy to increase resilience is processing, logistics and market flexibility.” And the solution, it recommends, is for food companies to build in flexibility to serve alternative marketing channels.
Perhaps the virus will make us rethink the whole farm-to fork-model, suggests Jacqueline Pieters, lead in finance and investment with the World Business Council of Sustainable Development. “We are so focused on ‘just in time’ that there is little resilience in any disruption to our food supply and distribution,” she said recently. “Maybe we should [instead] look at ‘just in case’.”
“Farming businesses that have diversified have undoubtedly been hit hardest,” says Roberts. “The business of farming itself has proved quite resilient but those who have diversified into cafes, B&Bs, wedding venues, outdoor gyms, guided tours, public events – they’ve had no income at all from these for many months.”
Diversified businesses account for £740m – over a quarter – of UK farm income. Two thirds have diversified and will therefore welcome lockdown-easing measures that have allowed greater gatherings and overnight stays.
But, says Roberts: “It’ll be some time before they’re at full capacity and we have to wait for public confidence to build sufficiently for visitors to come back. The inability to maximise that revenue stream could prove the difference between some farms surviving or not. They may need to do some even more creative thinking.”
Many fruit and veg farms have been hit by the lack of seasonal foreign workers, who make up 90% of pickers. Most were unable to travel, and many of those who could were fearful of working in the country with the highest coronavirus death rate in Europe. While some farms chartered jets to fly in their usual workforce, Defra launched Pick For Britain, a drive to recruit UK workers into the fields. This did attract many British workers, particularly among the young whose own jobs were furloughed or in jeopardy.
“But this is unlikely to be a long-term solution,” says HAU. “It was a way to earn money and get out of the house during lockdown, but they probably won’t change their long-term career plans.”
The seasonal worker challenge may accelerate the introduction of robotic pickers and other tech investments. Biotech developments can help pinpoint disease hotspots, remote-control farming such as Harper Adams University’s famous hands-free hectare will ensure lack of human interaction, vertical farming and its ability to respond precisely to demand will shorten supply chains – all of these benefits have been brought into sharper focus by the pandemic.
Improved connectivity has also opened up opportunities for farmers, according to Rachel Watling, who writes a popular farm blog under the name AgriBlonde and is key account manager at AgSpace Agriculture. “Farmers are mechanics, chemists, biologists and, with digitalisation, tech savvy,” she says. “Up to now they’ve needed machinery, seed, chemicals, fertiliser and soil to grow a crop. Now digital should be another tool they can’t do without.”
Aside from the practical advantages of digital adoption – everything from cow collars to mapping – the pandemic has used technology to bring farmers together. “So many of us have used online presence to market ourselves to customers and suppliers,” she says. “But away from that, these last few months of Zoom, Teams, and WhatsApp groups have really brought people together. Farming can be a solitary and lonely way of life, but lockdown might have introduced isolated rural workers to a new way of connecting with other people, which is better for their mental health.”
The slower pace of life during lockdown has prompted many city-dwellers to take their foot off the pedal permanently – and with permanent working from home a real possibility for many, this could change rural communities. Property agent, Savills reports a 40% increase in house buyers looking for rural locations – and if that becomes a significant long-term trend, it’s good news for local infrastructure, raising demand and expectation for better broadband connections in the most rural areas.
But the biggest, most positive and most lasting legacy of coronavirus for agriculture may simply be the relationship farmers have with their communities and the public at large. “Covid has given the public a greater appreciation of what farmers do,” says Watling. “We’ve always struggled with the perception of ‘get off my land’ or ‘blooming tractors on the road at eight o’clock in the morning’ but the empty shelves showed people how essential we are. I hope that will continue and I think it will – I think people will recall that it was farmers who helped pull us all through.”