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Agriculture in these uncertain times

Posted on 6th April, 2020

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a lot said about the work that is being done by our key workers; the NHS staff, teachers looking after the children of other key workers, supermarket staff and many others.

I wanted to take a few minutes to focus on one sector of key workers in particular, the farming community.

Farming is not a 9-5 job at any time, but right now the agricultural community is continuing to work whilst facing a whole host of new challenges.

When the Government released its list of key workers just over two weeks ago it was no surprise to see that it included those involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery.

Farming has moved with the times and technology plays a much bigger role than ever before, but some sectors are still heavily reliant upon people power to get their crop in. The fruit and vegetable sectors are particularly reliant on seasonal workers to ensure that their produce gets from the ground to the shops.

Only a few weeks ago there was concern that there would be a shortage of seasonal workers due to Brexit (how soon that has been forgotten!) as the majority of those taking these positions have in recent years come from outside of the UK. Now the reality is that even if those workers from elsewhere in Europe wanted to apply for these seasonal jobs, with travel restrictions in place it is unlikely they will be able to do so.

With figures of between 50,000 and 80,000 being quoted, the industry has had to take steps to fill those positions. The ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign is hoping to recruit British workers to fill the gap. This may well be an opportunity for workers who have been furloughed to help ensure that the food makes its way to the shops and doesn’t end up going to waste as it rots in the ground. It would certainly help with the daily dose of outdoor exercise! And there are even plans in place to allow farms to swap workers where there is a need.

Many farmers were only weeks ago struggling to get seed into the ground as a result of flooding, but yet they have stepped up to the challenge in these unprecedented times. It seems that no matter what is thrown at this industry they are able to adapt and overcome.

And so to the next challenge. We have all been asked to stay indoors to help prevent the spread of the virus with each of us being limited to just one outing per day for the purposes of exercise or shopping for essentials. This led to many people driving out to beauty spots to take their daily exercise; thankfully, that seems to have been curtailed in recent days. However, many farmers have raised concerns that people are still taking their walks along public footpaths and that takes them right through farmland, and farmyards in some cases. Farmers are concerned that this is potentially exposing them and their workers to the virus and that if they are taken ill they will be unable to work despite being considered key workers. Naturally, this has been challenged by those who are wanting to take advantage of public footpaths close to their homes and feel that they should be entitled to use these more remote paths to limit their exposure to others. This is a tricky one and everyone will have their own view, but nonetheless farmers have continued working to ensure that food production continues.

There is some positive news for farmers – the Government is pressing ahead with plans to introduce legislation to relax the crop diversification rules for the purposes of the Basic Payment Scheme. Claims need to be in within the next few weeks and this development is intended to make sure that no farmer who has been affected by the poor autumn and winter weather will be penalised for not being able to comply with the usual requirements. This will no doubt be welcomed by the agricultural sector and particularly those who are reliant on the BPS payments.

And whilst all of this is going on, there are still applications to be made for Countryside Stewardship agreements and the basic Payment Scheme. I have no doubt that the farming community will be on top of that as well as everything else that they are juggling at the moment, because that is what they do. As I said at the beginning of this post, farming is not a 9-5 job and when the long hours in the fields are done there is always an online filing system to battle with!

In another display of the farming community getting on with things, the NFU has produced an essential journeys certificate which their members can download. It can be displayed in their vehicles if they are travelling to and from work or between sites and is intended to help the police recognise that they are key workers undertaking essential journeys so that they can get on with their journeys and their work.

Perhaps when we are through the worst of this and restrictions are lifted, we will all appreciate just a little bit more the work that the nation’s farmers do. And perhaps we might better appreciate seasonal produce and support local producers and sellers where we can.

When you next take to your doorstep to clap for key workers, by all means do it for the NHS staff and those working in social care, but also just spare a moment to think about those working on farms across the country who are working tirelessly to ensure that we have the food that we need.

Nicola Neilson, Partner and Head of Agricultural Property

 

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