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How our farms are ploughing on through Covid-19 crisis

By James Pugh | Features | Published:

Across the globe the coronavirus outbreak has caused disruption and restriction on an unprecedented scale for farmers and food producers.

Chris Barton of Canalside Farm

Supply chain disruption, concerns over on-farm labour, significant price volatility and delays in payments have added to issues with continued Brexit uncertainty and extreme weather over the last 12 months.

As the pandemic has worsened and lockdown measures enforced we have heard more stories of empty supermarket shelves, dairy farms dumping milk, fruits and vegetables rotting in the field for lack of harvest labour, and people in the food system turning toward online ordering and home delivery.

The pandemic has forced everyone from farmers and producers to retailers and independent brands to adapt overnight, whether that was through finding new routes to market, setting up online platforms or restructuring the business around furloughed team members.

Canalside Farm, near Stafford, is one farm that has had to adapt to the crisis.

“When lockdown first started back in March, we unfortunately had to close our cafe, which meant that a number of staff would be out of work,” says owner Chris Barton.

“But we were determined to redeploy as many staff as we could to work within the farm shop and on the farm itself.

“Luckily, we have now been able to achieve this, with just a couple of members of staff, who have decided to furlough for personal reasons.

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“We had to recruit two new members of staff to help us pick fruit, as we grow around 50 tonnes of strawberries a year and usually rely solely on European workers to help us. This year we have managed to recruit people to subsidise our usual workforce from our local area, in order to help our local community and to limit travel as much as possible.”

Marius Canstantinesco at Canalside Farm, Stafford

There’s one unusual new recruit that has been helping them with their fruit crops this year.

Owners Chris and Wendy have enlisted the help of local beekeeper David Rawsthorne and his bees, to help pollinate all of their strawberry, raspberry and pumpkin plants grown on the farm.

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Chris says: “We grow our strawberries in polytunnels on raised up beds, so that they are frost protected, which gives us an extended strawberry season, from May right through until October. We therefore need the bees to go into the polytunnels in order to pollinate the plants, but obviously it is difficult for us to ‘direct’ the bees into the tunnels.

“So we enlisted the help of local beekeeper David Rawsthorne.

Members of the public picking strawberries at Shawbury Fruit Farm

“We were already selling David’s honey in our farm shop, and as he is based locally in Derrington, it seemed a perfect solution and we now have three of his beehives here on the farm.”

David, has a staggering 120 beehives located in Staffordshire, which he then uses to produce and sell honey across the county.

David says: “I have been a beekeeper for the last 36 years and absolutely love what I do. I’m always on the lookout for great locations for my beehives and Canalside Farm seemed the perfect choice, especially as I sell my honey in the farm shop.”

Chris says they have had to implement new measures to be able to keep the farm shop open during the crisis.

Owner Chris Barton at Canalside Farm, Stafford

“When the coronavirus first hit, our prime concern was obviously to keep our staff and customers as safe as possible, whilst still providing a service.

“The farm shop remained open, but a lot of our customers are elderly and we wanted to make sure that we could get food out to them.

“So we had to develop a completely new way of working overnight, developing new systems and procedures, so that we could offer home deliveries and contact-free collections.

“We also had to implement new procedures inside the farm shop, to ensure that people were safe at all times. For instance, we had to make sure that there was a member of staff on the entrance door, regulating people coming into the shop, and that there was someone at the exit, with anti-bacterial wipes cleaning all the baskets and trolleys for the next customer.

Shawbury Fruit Farm where the Strawberries are ready to be picked

“Fortunately, we had just extended the farm shop, so it is much bigger than it used to be and we now have our own butchery, bakery and delicatessen, which means that customers can buy their weekly shop from us, without needing to go anywhere else. We have been extremely lucky, and even though we had to close our cafe, trade has still remained very good. I think because the weather has been so good, and people have been stuck at home for so long, they are desperate to get out and about again.

“Our ‘Pick Your Own’ has just reopened, with strict safety measures in place, and has been extremely busy.”

Looking ahead, Chris says it is difficult to predict what the future will hold.

“We don’t know what the next few months will bring, and we’re still not entirely sure when or how our cafe will be able to reopen. We also hold a large number of events throughout the year, our biggest one being our Pumpkin Festival in October.

“Of course no one can predict the future, but most importantly, we need to keep up-to-date with all the current guidelines, and to keep our staff and customers safe,” he adds.

Brian Humphreys, of Shawbury Fruit Farm, opened his gates to customers on May 29. “The first two days were manic. I have never seen anything like it in 25 years,” he says.

Shawbury Fruit Farm owner Brian Humphreys

“The takings for both days were up about 300 per cent on what we expected.

“I think people have been locked up for so long they wanted something to do which was a bit different. The weather also helped. The crops are looking good this year. This spell of mild weather has brought things on so we have opened about a week earlier this year than normal.

“The strawberries are coming ready and the gooseberries and asparagus are ready.”

Brian says his business has also had to make some changes this year because of the pandemic.

“We usually open seven days a week and have one lady who helps us out so we can have a day off but it is unfair to put her at risk so we are closed on Mondays this year.

Shawbury Fruit Farm

“We have also got a one-way-in one-way-out system, encouraged contactless payments, and put notices in place and paint marked out on the grass to encourage social distancing,” Brian adds.

Elsewhere, the almost blanket closure of fish and chip shops has had a major impact on potato growers, including one near Shrewsbury.

Geoff Cartwright, of Home Farm Condover, says: “With shops and restaurants being closed we have seen very little demand for our potatoes.

“We sell about 100 tonnes a day and they go all over the country with chip shops being our main trade.

“Hopefully we will soon see things go back to normal with more restaurants and shops opening. It has been one thing after another, not only with the virus but the weather as well. The wet weather meant we lost crop or didn’t even get it into the ground, and now we have had the drought, and both have done damage.”

James Pugh

By James Pugh

Shropshire Star Business and Farming Editor.

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