When I am not in the office, I am at home on the farm, and this Christmas I had a clear-out of old farm files. By chance I came across one from the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) crisis. It brought back memories of lockdowns, movement restrictions and that sense of vulnerability trying to keep the invisible enemy from the gate, armed only with disinfectant. Little did I think that a few months later we would be facing similar challenges on a global - and human - scale in the form of COVID-19.
The similarities are, in some way, informative. FMD spread rapidly through livestock movement, and reached various parts of the country at unprecedented speed. The response was to lock down, isolate, and then gradually allow licensed activities in a controlled manner. This took time to roll out; the limited movement licenses and the licensing scheme for sheep shearers being two examples.
The impact of COVID-19 is, of course, significantly more far-reaching, but it is the Government's "Stay at Home" message on 23 March that puts the rural community in a similar position to the FMD lockdown stage of 2001.
COVID-19 has highlighted the fragility of "just-in-time" supply chains and their ability to flex under unexpected pressure. Supermarkets, and food supply chains have been overwhelmed by the unprecedented demand. Red meat processors have experienced pressure on their beef supply chains, with a shift from some of the steak cuts to mince as the catering trade shut down. In recent times, the frequency of eating out has increased massively, so when that demand for food is suddenly diverted to the domestic shop, it's a big challenge. The food may be there, but redirecting it to a different market and specification is not easy.
There has been much discussion about business continuity in many sectors of commerce, and but less so for the rural sector. Soft fruit growers have been quickest off the mark to recognise that limited movement of people will have a significant impact on the ability to grow and harvest crops. Initiatives have been promoted by NFUS and others to encourage UK workers to step in.
In other sectors of agriculture, business continuity is less clear. Many farms rely on small hubs of family and local labour, and this busy time of year requires all hands on deck for spring work and lambing. These businesses are vulnerable to the loss of labour through illness or isolation, and may not be easily substituted. The potential issues facing larger pig, dairy and poultry units is enormous. It is imperative that businesses of all sizes consider contingency plans and take social distancing seriously. The space that exists between rural properties is a great starting point, but it does not make rural workers immune.
Uncertainty exists as to who should continue to operate, with mixed messages about essential businesses and key workers. At the time of writing, there has been some guidance from DEFRA in England for key workers in production and processing of food, but not yet in Scotland. Perhaps the flexibility of uncertainty is an advantage; allowing most of the food and drink supply chain, from primary processor to retailer, to continue to operate at this critical time. It may be that a permitted list or licensing scheme will be introduced, like the one for sheep shearers under the FMD regime.
The "Stay at Home" policy inevitably brings unexpected consequences and challenges. Many farms and estates have embraced diversification through holiday lets and other forms of agri-tourism. Some of those businesses have invested heavily and are reliant on that cashflow. The prospect of refunding deposits and loss of future revenue will potentially put many of these businesses under financial pressure. Various schemes, grants and reliefs have emerged to try to relieve the pressure, and banks are actively supporting customers where possible. Unfortunately, not all rural businesses may qualify for government support when farms themselves are available as security to borrow. It is important that businesses facing these challenges understand the terms of their contracts with customers, engage early with banks (if necessary) and consider what, if any, insurance cover they have to deal with these situations.
Perhaps one of the most curious aspects of social isolation is the increased interest - and pressure - on access to the countryside, from dog walking and exercise. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code still applies because legally, the countryside remains open. For some farms and estates, this not only increases management problems during the busy spring period but also increases the COVID-19 risk to families and employees. If you are in any doubt about your rights when managing access, seek legal advice.
For now, the Land and Rural Business team continues to work remotely, but we are contactable through the usual lines of communication. We will also provide further comment and advice on some of these themes, and others, as they emerge. In the meantime, stay safe.