Can farmers lead East Anglia’s economic recovery from coronavirus?
- Credit: Lovewell Blake
Farming is in a good position to lead Norfolk’s economy towards recovery, says CHRIS SOLT of accountancy firm Lovewell Blake.
While the current crisis is enormous in both scale and seriousness, it is far from the first that farming has had to face in recent decades.
Agriculture is a sector which has proven itself to be resilient and adaptable whatever is thrown in its path, from foot and mouth and mad cow disease to disastrous flooding and Brexit uncertainty.
So how ready is the sector to emerge from the coronavirus crisis? Will the region’s farmers be leading the way back to prosperity for our economy, or will they become part of the ongoing problem? The answer is, of course, nuanced – but I see much reason for optimism.
One of the striking things about the current crisis is the extent to which we have seen improved communication and a collaborative approach as farmers, food producers and retailers all fight to adapt. It has brought businesses together, in the realisation that a challenge this big cannot be faced alone. And that collaboration must be a key part of the recovery.
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Food security, and the necessity to increase self-sufficiency when it comes to feeding the nation, have rocketed up the political agenda. Hopefully, that will translate into more concrete support for our industry. We must capitalise on the popular (ie voters’) sentiment to make this happen.
Likewise, farming must build on the success of engaging with consumers to buy local during the crisis, and be proactive in making this stick as we emerge from the virus. Alongside this, the general public have reconnected with the countryside more than ever before, as the daily walk became the lockdown highlight for many.
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What about the barriers to recovery? Clearly, shortage of labour – already an issue with Brexit looming – is a big worry; simply bringing in the harvest is going to be a challenge for some. A new pool of unemployed and furloughed local labour may mitigate this to some extent and will be the first test of post-Brexit labour supply.
For those farm businesses which have diversified into tourism, the picture is mixed. In the short-term, consumer reluctance to leave their homes, coupled with strict social distancing guidelines, may prolong the slump. But in the medium-term, with overseas travel problematic, they can expect to see a staycation bounce which could last well into next year.
Overall, a renewed awareness of the need for food security, a growing public realisation that farmers are the guardians of the countryside, and a gathering momentum for increased environmental stewardship should all combine to help farming emerge from coronavirus in better shape than most sectors.