‘We’ve got your back’ – Farmers’ reassuring message over food supplies for the lockdown
- Credit: Brian Finnerty / NFU
East Anglia’s farmers are pushing on with the essential job of producing the nation’s food during the coronavirus lockdown – and they have reassured worried shoppers there will be “plenty to go round” throughout the crisis.
While many businesses have been forced to close and people instructed to stay indoors, the region’s agricultural industry is working “flat out” to ensure crops and livestock are cared for.
And although some supermarket shelves were stripped bare as concerns over the pandemic deepened, the farmers supplying those large retailers said there is no shortage of food in our fields, or in storage.
Tony Bambridge is managing director of Marsham-based farm contractors and potato specialists B and C Farming, and also keeps a herd of Lincoln Red cattle on the Blickling Estate.
The former Norfolk NFU chairman said: “Farmers have been out doing our stuff, whether it is lambing, calving, planting potatoes and sugar beet, or looking after the barley for that all-important bottle of beer. These crops are all growing and farmers are looking after them.
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“There is going to be plenty to go round. You don’t need to ‘panic buy’. The things that are at risk of being in short supply will be the things we import, but your bread and your beef and potatoes and vegetables – all these things are going to be there.”
Andrew Blenkiron, estate director of the 10,600-acre Euston Estate near Thetford, is also vice-chairman of the Red Tractor assurance scheme and vice chairman of NFU Suffolk.
He said there was still “a massive supply of British food” and, while the closure of major food services businesses such as McDonald’s had added to the short-term spike in retail demand, he was confident the “incredibly flexible and nimble” supply chains could quickly divert food to shops where consumers can buy it.
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“There has just been a shock period of immense demand, which is similar to Christmas, or even more – exacerbated by the cafes and restaurants being closed down, putting added pressure on retailers,” he said. “But all that food going into the food service chain is being redirected into retailers.
“There is still a massive supply of British food. We are 60pc self-sufficient in the UK and there is plenty of food to see us through the next three months. The grain stores are full, the sugar beet factories are full, and all the onions and potatoes and carrots are just the same as normal. The processors are having to up their game in terms of increasing their output, but the raw material is generally there.
“One thing people may have to do is accept that things which are seasonal or imported – like beans from Egypt or raspberries from Israel – might be in short supply, but there is plenty of cabbage and potatoes and pork, beef and lamb. There are tonnes of those products and all these commodities are very available.”
Rachel Carrington, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said: “Farmers are working flat out, with the rest of the supply chain, to help keep shelves stocked with food. We would urge the public to help by heeding official advice not to buy more than they need.
“We have seen some innovative solutions from farm shops, launching delivery services to reach customers who are self-isolating, and farms working with community groups in Norfolk and Suffolk to help ensure food reaches those who are unable to shop themselves.
“With pubs and restaurants now closed, the NFU is also working with government on ensuring food supplies can switch from the service sector to the retail sector.”
In a video message on Twitter, NFU president Minette Batters added: “I want to give a massive shout out to each and every one of you from farmers right across the United Kingdom. We are working 24/7 and we are absolutely determined to keep producing the high-quality affordable, high-welfare food that you enjoy. I just want you to know, on behalf of all farmers – we have got your back.”
SOCIAL DISTANCING FOR FARMERS
Mr Bambridge said although the isolated nature of many farming operations lessened the risk of spreading coronavirus, the age profile of the workforce meant “social distancing” and hygiene measures were absolutely vital to the industry.
“We have got to be careful, because the average age of farmers is quite high and often you have a farmer on their own or maybe with one or two staff, so maybe they rely on a retired member of staff for relief if someone is not well.
“If someone goes down it could be 50pc or even 100pc of the workforce, and where are we going to get the replacements? People might be willing to work, but do they know how to calve a cow, or drive a GPS-guided tractor, or what the seed rate is for the drill?
“This is why we need to keep the people who work in the industry as safe as we can, because if we lose 15-20pc of our farmers we have a problem. But we are in a good place. The nature of our work means we are not coming into contact with many other people.
“And, as an industry, we are operating a system where we are not swapping tractors, not having communal rests and meals, and where there is a shared item that has to be handled they have got alcohol gel and procedures to clean it down, so hopefully we will keep people safe.”