NFU vice president Stuart Roberts writes for Agronomist and Arable farmer and Farm Business about the lessons of the COVID-19 outbreak
At the end of February well over 1000 NFU members all gathered in Birmingham for our annual conference. Looking back I can’t now imagine how long it will be before fifteen hundred people can gather again in the same place to share ideas, debate policies or renew friendships.
Except for an occasional weekly escape to grab our food shopping I am not sure I have ever spent as long on the farm in my entire life. Whilst lots of the time appears to be spent staring at a screen waiting for the next teleconference to pop up I don’t mind admitting it has also been nice to be able to grab a daily cup of coffee with Emma and the boys.
One thing I have really enjoyed in the last few weeks is a bit more time walking the farm and seeing the crops more often. After the atrociously wet Winter which had led to us abandoning drilling, we were really grateful for the decent spell of weather we have enjoyed more recently.
Other than five acres of rye we held over all our drilling to the Spring with an equal split of spring oats and wheat. So far the wheat has got off to a great start and is looking as good as anything I’ve seen for a long time, however the 7 day later drilling date for the oats is causing some distress and I, like many around the country, am desperate for some rain.
The last twelve months really have been a lesson for all of us about the importance of water. It is clear we are going to see more droughts, more floods and more extreme weather events in future but for too long policy and investment in water infrastructure has been hugely under resourced.
This is an area farming needs to talk much more about especially as I fundamentally believe we have a major opportunity in the UK. In years to come we may have too much at times or too little water at other times and often it may be in the wrong place but at least we will have it.
There are plenty of agricultural sectors around the world who would be desperate for the water we have, and we must make sure the Country invests in years to come to make the most of this competitive advantage.
Whilst the weather in the last year has been a big reminder about the importance of water the events of the last few weeks could not be a bigger reminder to Society about the importance of food supply and the central role farming plays in feeding a nation. I have been enormously proud of how farmers and horticulturalist up and down the Country have simply got on with the day job and produced the food needed in some exceptionally challenging circumstances.
The recent launch of ‘pick for Britain’ is very welcome news and not only will this help provide some of the labour we need to pick our fruit and veg it will also give a very wide group of individuals a first-hand experience of what happens on farm and that has the potential for a long term legacy when it comes to understanding the food supply chain.
Something else we have seen which I believe has the potential for a long-term positive legacy is the use of footpaths. Yes, I understand the frustration about we all have in people not knowing where a footpath is or leaving behind litter or hanging those bags we all see on hedges like they are a Christmas bauble. I would be the first to stand up and argue it is vital that everyone using the countryside does so responsible and we should call out irresponsible use.
However, seeing an entirely new population of people using our footpaths and seeing first-hand the countryside we have created and maintained gives farming an opportunity in my opinion. Talking to an old friend of mine who has a ‘strained relationship’, two children and is currently living in a two bedroom flat it is easy for us to forget quite how lucky we are during this lockdown.
To be able to maintain the countryside and allow others to enjoy it and learn from it is something I take huge pride in and as farmers we must ensure we strike the right balance in terms of ensuring people use the countryside responsibly but are also made to feel welcome when it may be the only opportunity in the day they get to escape from their four walls.
Time to get back to the teleconferences and consider again whether I am brave enough yet to let the kids loose on my hair!! Stay safe.