Your plate needs you! Army of pickers sought to help feed the nation
First came Brexit. Then flooding. Now coronavirus - described as the biggest challenge farmers have faced since the Second World War.
It’s fair to say farmers have faced a difficult 12 months, which has included continued Brexit uncertainty and many seeing land damaged by devastating flood water.
Now the coronavirus pandemic has seen farmers, growers and the wider farm community have to deal with sudden and very major disruption in the past weeks including loss of their usual markets and income as pubs, caterers and major restaurant chains close, a lack of workers from having to self-isolate, and losing European and other workers to pick and pack crops.
Farmers are facing cashflow disruption, transport challenges and regulatory issues arising from new supply chain expectations. Many are also helping the most vulnerable in their communities to access food – which is especially difficult in rural areas.
“This is the biggest challenge to hit farmers since the Second World War,” says Richard Yates, who operates a mixed farm from his Middleton Scriven base, near Bridgnorth.
“Like every business, trading has been restricted by coronavirus.
“The value of beef has gone down. I should be selling cows which would have been used in McDonald’s burgers.
“The sheep trade is extraordinary. I had 500 lambs born just after Christmas which were destined for the Easter trade, but lamb value has diminished by about 40 per cent.
“Also, abattoirs are low on numbers and some have not been operating, while lorry drivers travelling to Europe have been worried about being quarantined and not being able to return.”
Richard stressed farmers were doing “all they can to feed the nation” despite the challenges facing the industry.
“Restaurants, pubs and schools closing has affected demand, but supermarket shelves are empty and need filling so all we can do is keep the wheels turning,” he added.
“There is so much uncertainty and the goalposts change every day. But farmers don’t like crying wolf, we want to continue feeding the nation through this desperate crisis which is upon us.”
NFU West Midlands regional director Robert Newbery, based in Telford, says the union is busy, staying in close contact with its extensive network of farmer and grower members to gather and relay important sector and Covid-19 information.
He says: “Like everybody we are concerned with developments and how the virus is evolving, farmers are feeding into us so we can build up a picture of the impact on their businesses.
“The NFU is looking at a variety of key industry issues in relation to labour availability and market difficulties, among others.
“Our industry is resilient and contingency plans are in place to ensure the smooth running of food and farming supply chains, which are absolutely vital at this time.
“Regardless of the timescale, we’ll be farming throughout this emergency, producing high quality, tasty, nutritious, affordable and traceable food for the nation.
“We will continue to work with government and the food industry to do our utmost to minimise any disruption to the supply chain or to farm businesses.”
The crisis has also sparked concerns that mountains of perfectly good food will be left to rot in fields up and down the UK. The reason? There’s nobody to pick it.
The farming industry says it faces a huge shortfall of workers to harvest fruit and vegetables, even though many thousands of people have expressed an interest in joining a new “land army”.
The campaign to recruit as many as 90,000 is being backed by Environment Secretary George Eustice who says: “We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months. I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.”
NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw adds: “Growers that rely on seasonal workers to grow, pick and pack our fresh fruit, veg and flowers are extremely concerned about the impact coronavirus restrictions may have on their ability to recruit this critical workforce this season.
“We are in talks with Defra Secretary of State George Eustice to find innovative and creative solutions to this urgent problem. It is vital that the Government takes the lead in putting in place a range of measures to co-ordinate and support the logistics involved in mobilising the tens of thousands of British people who will be needed to bring in our fruit and veg harvest.
"We are urging the British people, university students, anyone looking for work, to mobilise behind British growers in this time of national importance and pick for Britain.”
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