Can East Anglia’s farming industry emerge stronger from the coronavirus crisis?
- Credit: Chris Hill
East Anglia’s farmers have continued the essential job of providing food for the nation during the coronavirus pandemic. We asked industry leaders what positive lessons could be learned from the crisis to improve agriculture’s future prospects.
• Cath Crowther, East regional director for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: “While it is hard for any rural business to consider there to be too many positives to have arisen during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has presented those who work in the food and farming sector a chance to increase the understanding among the general public of their vital work.
“While the big supermarket chains struggled for many weeks to supply eggs, flour and yeast for example, it was the local independent farm shops, with short supply chains and high quality, locally sourced produce, which have filled a much-needed gap.
“They have kept local communities stocked with the vital supplies they have needed.
“Those at most of risk from Covid-19 have been receiving doorstep deliveries of meat boxes and fresh fruit and vegetables from their local farm shop and food stores. In a time of adversity, it has been the local food and farming sector that has risen to the challenge and been the lifeblood of many rural communities.”
• Tony Bambridge, Norfolk council delegate for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said: “There have been quite a lot of positives. The most stark lesson was how valuable these supply chains within the food industry can be. It didn’t take a lot of disruption to see supermarket shelves being emptied and I think that really made people think about where they are getting stock from, and what sort of relationships are in that supply chain.
“The supply chains that have been the most resilient are those that work together with a higher degree of transparency and integrity. They have withstood the storm and have been able to supply their customers more readily.
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“For example, the farmer supplying his local butcher’s shop has worked tremendously well. They have supported each other and continued to provide the shopper with assured beef. If we jump into the more general beef trade, the majority of them tend to be more trading-orientated and therefore quite adversarial because it is all about price. That chain broke down, which resulted in some retailers having to go and buy Polish beef.
“It illustrates where a chain works really well, and people in the chain see what they are doing as a partnership approach. So I hope that one of the positive things that will come out of this is that people will realise they are part of a supply chain. The farmer is important, the person who hauls it and supplies the packaging is important, and the person who sells it to the public is important – and we all have to work together.”
• Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at the Euston Estate near Thetford and vice-chairman of the Red Tractor farm assurance scheme, said: “I would love to think it has opened people’s eyes up to more local shopping and local sourcing of food and British produce and all the rest of it, but I am very nervous it won’t. There will be an element of people who have come to appreciate that more than usual.
“One of the key ways of ensuring that continues is to lobby our MPs to make sure all the trade deals that are done ensure all the food that comes in is to the same standard as ours. Red Tractor has had a massive advertising push over the last months to emphasise to the British consumer that British produce is what they should be buying. Equally, we as commodity producers can help farm shops continue to point people in that direction.
“Commodity producers are always susceptible to what the multiple retailers want to give us for our produce, but through successful lobbying is how we can continue to see success.
“We need to continue to lobby the customers too, so when they go into retailers they say where are the British beans? Where is the British sugar? We’ve done some work on this and if just six people go and ask a supermarket for a product, that is phenomenal demand because people don’t usually ask the manager why there is not British beef on the shelf. Even if three people go and ask the same question it can have a result.”
• James Beamish, farm manager at the Holkham Estate, said: “This is the big question the industry has been asking itself. Certainly a more resilient home-grown food chain has come to the fore over the last three months. Perhaps we should look a bit more towards flexibility and moving that food chain about.
“We all went to the supermarkets and there was no milk on the shelves and then two weeks later there were reports of people pouring it down the drain because the cafes and restaurants had closed. So perhaps the food chain has not quite been flexible enough to move food to where it needed to be. There has not been a shortage of food.
“It is not just for us as producers, it is the processors, the retailers, the supermarkets. As a food security trial we should take lessons from this. We all hope it doesn’t, but something like this might happen again and how can we re-direct raw ingredients and food to where it is needed rather than milk being poured down the drain and commodities stuck in stores?
“But the positive message is to try and build on the momentum of how the food supply chain has worked over the last few months and the promotion of what we do.”
• Will de Feyter, a north Norfolk lamb and pig producer, also chairman of Norfolk Young Farmers’ Club (YFC), said: “People have suddenly realised food security is an important issue. By and large the public are on the side of farmers. The optimist in me says that will carry on, but the realist says most people are still price-driven. A lot will come back, but we have got to keep engaging with the public. They are the consumer and while they may not be your customer directly we have got to keep shouting that we are providing the best food you can buy, at a decent pice.
“People have short memories. I think the majority will go back to their own habits but even if we keep some of them buying from small producers we have done something good. Hopefully it will be a valuable lesson to people in terms of the food supply.”