To the outside world, the daily routine for many farmers has been the “old normal” over the past 12 weeks. Lockdown aside, cows still needed to be milked, sheep lambed and wheats fed. But lift up the bonnet and you will find a wholly different tale.
The spectrum of economic effects across British farms from the coronavirus pandemic will be enormous. Dairying is having a torrid time, arable has had a year of weather to forget and the less said of the labour challenges facing the horticulture sector, the better.
But farmers are resilient souls. Since the early 1990s, farming businesses have been diversifying, with income streams of all shapes and sizes. Our farm is no different.
It’s only 25 miles from my front door to Marble Arch and, while I may dream of farming rolling parkland, grazed by hundreds of cattle and sheep, my farm backdrop is one of conurbation. Our bread is not wheat, our butter is not dairy. It comes in the shape of rented pig sties and cattle pens.
Brexit looked bleak for our middle England arable farm. It sharpened our focus to develop a non-farm income. This seemed a pretty obvious, pragmatic and forward-thinking approach. Then along came coronavirus.
It has delivered a hefty blow to on-farm diversifications such as hospitality and the renting of commercial and residential property. Many farmers are finding the lifeblood of their businesses seeping away rapidly.
The farm, a prodigal son of an enterprise to many businesses, will have to pull up its socks over the next couple of years, paying back some of the generosity extended by its sibling, diversification.
We should celebrate. Farming is showing how to thrive in the “new normal”. For while the British news media has gone “above and beyond” to find fault and place blame, the British farming industry has been magnificent, with individuals sharing ideas, collaborating on projects and promoting good news. How refreshing.
The united efforts of farming, wildlife and consumer groups to fight for UK standards in the Agriculture Bill has conjured support and momentum, culminating in a petition signed by nearly a million Brits.
It dawned on me that Zoom calls provide an excellent wireframe of how British farming should operate beyond Covid-19. I have had my fair share of them.
It’s not perfect and the novelty has worn off, but the benefits remain. They are simple to organise, save time on travel and there is definitely less flannel.
What I love most about Zoom is the egalitarian nature of the calls. It may feel like a game of celebrity squares, but somehow everyone is more equal. It does not pander to hierarchy and bullies. No more interrupting and talking over people – a raised hand is sufficient.
I was on a recent Zoom call of industry leaders. The big cheeses had no more clout than the “Baby Bels”. Everyone’s voice was valid.
For a Zoom meeting to work, it needs a really good chairperson – someone who draws out the knowledge and opinion from everyone present and doesn’t pander to the peacocks or allow duplication.
To thrive after Covid-19 and Brexit, we need to be more “zoomy”; more egalitarian. Let’s come together with one voice. It is time to appoint a food and farming tsar to make sure we don’t fall back into bad habits. A Zoom tsar, if you like.