This is the time for our farming and food sectors to shine again

Michael Brady.Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group:  1st published in the Farming Independent 07.04.2020

Many people are presently confined to their homes contemplating life and wondering what’s coming next, but for farmers life goes on as normal. Early to rise and late to bed, cows must be milked, cattle, pigs and poultry fed, sheep lambed, and crops sown, on-farm, the show must go on.

Life has now been divided into ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ services. Farmers are unquestionably on the essential services side of the fight against COVID-19.

Greenhouse gas levels have dramatically fallen, food availability trumps food preference and yes, farming is smack-bang back in fashion.

At this time, we must first consider family and those around us, particularly the elderly and those in vulnerable groups. Most farmers are fit hardy people and well able to withstand whatever the virus may fire at them, but the best advice of this crisis has been to ‘assume you have the virus’ and do not risk passing it on. This is the best defence against the virus attacking yourself, your family and your farm business.    

However. if one takes a step back from the frontline it is time to recognise and celebrate the robustness and resilience of our agri-food industry.

We are often told to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. Well, who would of thought, taking a walk around the farm alone would be a sought-after luxury or that drinking cow’s milk, eating beef, sheep, chicken, bacon and cabbage would trump sushi, falafels and avocados.

Farmers can rest assured the fruits of their hard work are required and much sought after, one thing for certain in this country we will not run out of food and go hungry, that’s a big thank you to our agri-food industry.

During the recent recession (2008-2016), the agri-food industry was the only show in town.  It allowed us as a nation to figure out our strengths, natural advantages and focus on we do well.  It also boosted government finances and supported / created jobs, now is its time to shine again.     

The supply chains for delivering food from farm to fork appear to be holding up well in this crisis. Hauliers are a sector often forgotten about and not appreciated, but their role in ensuring food leaves farms and gets to processors, distributors, retailers and ultimately on consumers tables, is now centre stage.

The biggest risk to the food chain appears to be if an outbreak of the virus occurred amongst workers in a meat plant or milk processing facility. I understand processors are putting in place crisis management measures such as splitting workers into different teams so that if one team goes down another is ready to step in.

It appears most healthy people who get the virus are back up and running again after 2 weeks, this is a saving grace for large dairy, pig, poultry and tillage farms. In fact, an unexpected benefit on farms has been the availability of new labour. With so many people losing their jobs due to the crisis, farmers have been receiving calls from laid-off workers who would rather work and earn €500+ in their hand per week, rather than sit at home for €203 to €350 on the dole.  Maybe this will have a lasting affect and the security of jobs in the agri-food sector will be taken into account by employees when applying for new jobs in the future.          

There is some concern about the price or beef, sheep, pork and milk. Take for example the decision from McDonalds to close their outlets will disrupt the beef supply chain and it may take some time to redistribute this beef through supermarkets. This is where I expect the EU to come to our aid and reintroduce measures such as intervention and aids to private storage which were in vogue when we produced mountains of food and could not sell it in the 1980’s.    

Finally, people confined to home are now recognising the benefits of a routine and getting out of home for work, sport and socialising. Routine for most farmers has not been affected by the crisis, the work must be done, the nation fed, therefore its business as usual. The sometimes-perceived burden of being tied to farming 24/7 by sole trader, owner operators, now has both physical and mental health benefits not considered before. 

Yes, our healthcare workers deserve all the plaudits for their front-line battle with virus COVID19, we would be lost without them, but farmers and those in the agri-food industry should be equally proud of their efforts to feed the people of this nation and beyond.

Farmers in particular, should hold their shoulders back, chests out and heads high as feeding our nation trumps all other wants and needs. It is often said farmers a re price takers but now they are the pace makers.