May is perhaps my favourite month of the year with its promise of summer. There is a spectacular palette of rich green as hedgerows and trees come into full leaf, especially the almost translucent leaves of beech trees in the hangings. Blossom everywhere offsets the green, hawthorn and cherry, whilst bluebells carpet the woods. I read a report that muntjac are eating them and causing serious damage with lack of control due to the lockdown.
Plants are growing fast, winter wheat and barley taking up nitrate giving a rich green colour as they race through their growth stages. Oilseed rape is in full flower, at least those crops that survived the weather and flea beetle. Maize is coming through the ground, warmed by the warm weather in April and nourished by recent rains. This is a glorious time to be out in the countryside but most of us are shut up at home in the lockdown. Farming continues, of course, this is a very busy time, but it is facing serious problems.
The coronavirus pandemic is only the latest of three major setbacks. First came the UK’s secession from the European Union and the uncertainty that was brought, especially if a comprehensive trade arrangement is not forthcoming. Next came the appalling weather of the past few months resulting in a huge reduction in the planting of winter crops and severe delay in preparing seedbeds for spring crops. Whilst growing conditions in the past month have been generally benign, it remains to be seen what the final toll will be on yields.
The most obvious impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been the shortage of labour to harvest fruit and vegetable crops. It is estimated that there are around 90,000 jobs, although some follow on as the season progresses. The vast majority of those are filled by migrant workers from countries like Romania and Bulgaria, highly skilled pickers that come every year. Only a third has arrived so far, according to George Eustice, Secretary of State at Defra, despite flights chartered specifically to bring in migrant workers.
There have been several initiatives to recruit unemployed and furloughed British workers, including Defra’s own Pick for Britain website. Reports have been contradictory but a recent article in the Financial Times said that the various campaigns had attracted 50,000 expressions of interest. One work placement charity reported that 6,000 people accepted an interview from which 1,000 turned down job offers and only 150 accepted. There may be valid reasons for some, inability to get from home to work for example, lack of physical fitness or skill to undertake the arduous work or fear of catching the virus staying in camps or bunkhouses with dozens of strangers. Nevertheless there is still the prospect of many crops rotting in the field this summer for lack of harvest labour.
But the pandemic has much wider implications. The food supply chain has been badly disrupted across many sectors, not least because of the closure of pubs, restaurants and events. Think, for example, of the impact of there being no Wimbledon this year or of sport played without spectators.
The case of the Freshways dairy has been widely reported, bringing ruin to many dairy farmers. It is a privately owned dairy specialising in supply to food outlets such as Costa Coffee, Starbucks, British Airways and P&O Cruises. With the closure of many of its clients, it has reduced the prices paid to farmers to way below the cost of production. Some contracted farmers claim that their milk has not been collected or paid for. At the same time there are reports that Freshways has increased the price of milk sold to care homes, a clear case of profiteering if true.
This has caused ripples throughout the dairy sector but there have been other impacts upon the food chain. In the meat sector, selling all cuts of a carcass has always been a delicate balancing act. With so many pubs, restaurants and caterers closed, the market for expensive cuts has collapsed leading to severe disruption. As one member of the public admitted, they used to donate to the local food bank, now they have to use it for their own food.
There is also a social, mental and emotional elements to all this. Farmers have a lonely and isolated existence at the best of times, as shown by the horrific rate of suicide. Many rely on meeting friends and colleagues, something now denied them. There are no meetings or conferences just as the farm walk and agricultural show season should be getting into full swing. I fear for the mental health of all of us in lockdown but farmers more than most. It was shocking to hear of the recent suicide of four farmers in Derbyshire caused in part by the cancellation of the badger cull there at the last moment. Those farmers believed that the cull offered the only hope is their desperate battle against bovine tuberculosis. Its late cancellation, apparently at the behest of Downing Street, allegedly the Prime Minister’s fiancée, was the last straw.