A letter to farmers and growers from Helen Browning
I am endlessly grateful to be on my farm now, able to be outside, productively and legitimately useful- or not, my staff might think, having coped pretty well without my day to day involvement for the last 15 years! There again, I cannot quite believe that we have gone from non stop Brexit concerns (and they haven’t gone away) to the wettest winter I can remember, to Covid-19. This period will be a game changer for farming, though it’s still very unclear whether this will ultimately be for good or ill.
In the short term, the current crisis is impacting very unequally across society, and across farming and growing too. If your milk buyer happened to major in food service, it’s an immediate nightmare, and for the whole dairy sector the impact of overall reduced demand during the spring peak will be deeply challenging. Meanwhile, growers selling direct or into retail are rushed off their feet, while worrying about labour availability. Cereal prices are depressed, yet animal feed prices don’t seem to be coming down, and there are major problems with carcase imbalance in beef as it seems that people eat most of their steaks out of home now. We are bringing sectors together to help resolve specifically organic challenges, and keeping in close touch with retailers too; supermarkets are reassuring us that they are committed to maintaining organic lines, even if they need narrow ranges in the short term to maintain supply. It’s all a rapidly moving picture right now, as you know.
I’m experiencing it from all sides through our businesses here. We have had to mothball all our ‘hospitality’ ventures, furloughing most of the staff, struggling with cash flow. We have opened a shop in the village, and home deliveries for those self isolating locally; will this demand for local food sustain beyond the lockdown, or will people resume their normal habits as soon as the crisis is over? On the farm, we have gone from ultra wet to ‘could do with a drop of rain’ in three weeks, but at least the spring drilling is finally finished, and so far the virus hasn’t hit the team…..though our herdsman has had to self-isolate for 12 weeks; that was a moment of panic! And then our marketing business is in overdrive; after months of too many pigs and freezing surpluses, suddenly we can’t keep up with demand.
At the Soil Association we have had to change how we do things very quickly too. All our staff are working from home, and while that has gone fairly smoothly thanks to the investments we’ve made in IT over recent years, much of our work involves bringing people together. So we are very rapidly developing webinars and on line training. Certification have moved to remote inspections where that is possible, setting up new systems commendably fast. The farming team is also starting to move online, and there’s a helpline and farming support page on the Soil Association website. We are also keen to hear from you by phone.
The Innovative Farmers network continues with a full programme of field labs. It’s brilliant that most of our farmer trials hosts are able to continue, with field labs on topics such as the maintenance of a permanent understorey for arable crops (I’m particularly excited about this one, having trialled it rather unsuccessfully over 30 years ago!), alternatives to plastic mulches for horticultural crops and much, much more. We are also working with an increasing number of farmers who have asked us to help them to benchmark their farm performance on soils and biodiversity. It’s great to be doing this, and helping demonstrate the benefits you are delivering.
The big question is how this will play out longer term, and what we can do to ensure that the impacts are positive. There is no doubt that the focus on resilience within our food system will increase, but as we know, this can mean very different things to different people. The good news is that there is a much greater degree of collaboration across the farming community, helped by the Food, Farming and the Countryside Commission which we have been very involved in, and the progressive leadership of the NFU under Minette Batters. Minette chairs weekly phone conferences with the farming bodies, including the devolved, which helps us all stay appraised of the challenges, and communicate together into government.
The Commission, you will recall, had a headline recommendation that the UK should transition to agroecology over the next ten years. Over 130 organisations, including all the mainstream farming ones, signed the open letter that went to government backing the report, and flagging that all this would be in vain if the wrong trade deals were done. Building on this consensus about the direction of travel and working on the detail of what support farmers and growers need to make this transition successfully, is a big part of our and the Commission’s workload in the coming months and years. A key initiative is the work that we have secured funding for, to allow IDDRI -the French think tank who have modelled what an agroecological Europe would look like, and the benefits that would accrue- to do a more specific model for the UK. They use organic data on yields, and so this work will be an important contribution to building confidence, detailing the challenges and benefits that this transition could bring. We will also be commissioning work on the economic and social impacts.
When every aspect of our lives is so fundamentally disrupted, there is a chance for rapid change that is impossibly hard in achieve in peacetime. Our economy will be in a mess for a long while, and the normal mantras have already been thrown out of the window. And for the first time, this is a global crisis, and while it will impact unevenly, we are all in it together. None of us can predict how this will evolve, and just how much suffering there will be. But as farmers we are accustomed to taking the long view, continuing the day to day, season by season routines, while planning often decades ahead.
I would love to hear your news and views from the frontline. The more intelligence we have on what the challenges are, and what we can do to help in both the immediate and longer term, the better. Do email me directly at email@example.com if you have a spare minute.
Meanwhile, I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well, and that you can take some joy in this spring despite the massive challenges.
All best wishes