Mo Metcalf-Fisher is spokesman for the Countryside Alliance.
It remains a constant battle not to be overwhelmed by the tragic stories circulating in the media as a result of Covid-19. But among them are stories of hope.
The examples of communities up and down the country working together to look out for those most vulnerable are incredibly touching. We are discovering heroes among us. From our excellent NHS staff and emergency services to those small businesses going out of their way to keep an eye on those most in need – all while keeping people in jobs.
Understandably, a lot of praise has been on supermarkets for staying open and supplying the nation with food during this crisis. While many of us follow guidelines and remain at home, so many people up and down the country continue to work the tills and stock the shelves, often dealing with anxious and uncooperative customers. Commendation has been earned.
However, at the centre of food production are our excellent farmers. They, too, are going out to work, often in isolation, for long hours with the unique mission of providing enough produce to feed the nation at a time of crisis. Without them, the situation would be bleak and they cannot be ignored.
Farmers battle so many obstacles and those who work in the diverse field of agriculture seldom have an easy day. From untold stress caused by concerns over bereavement and its consequences; succession issues; financial pressure; excess paperwork & administration, as well as abuse from animal rights groups for carrying out pest control to keep their flocks safe…the list goes on.
On top of this, they must regularly deal with tackling misinformation about their work and its environmental impact, especially those in beef production. Anti-meat voices in the media continue to regularly attack farmers and deliberately fail to differentiate between the sustainable British grass-based, grazing system and those different systems used in other countries.
It’s sadly no surprise that farmers can often be left feeling hurt and underappreciated, which has a negative impact on the mental health of many in the profession.
The Coronavirus has presented further challenges for our farmers, and help is desperately needed to fix the shortage of people on hand to help bring in the harvest this year, as travel restrictions and tighter border controls around the world are having a major impact on the number of people able to travel to the UK. A number of employment schemes have been set up, and George Eustice has joined calls for those who are able to sign up to join the Land Army.
Once we have beaten Covid-19, we must ensure farmers have access to enough British workers who are able to carry out all-important seasonal work, if we are to avoid a similar scenario in the future. The UK requires approximately 60,000 – 70,000 seasonal agricultural workers every year.
In the light of Brexit, the Coronavirus has also reminded us of the importance of rolling out a seasonal agricultural workers scheme to allow farmers and rural businesses access to labour from abroad, to cover the shortfall . Farmers have always been vital to the countryside and they are its custodians. As produce continues making its way to the shops for us to purchase and consume, we should remind ourselves of the heroic efforts of farming communities for their role in making that possible.
One of several ways to recognise the value of their work would be for the Government to pursue a policy of mandatory ‘country of origin’ for food labelling. Consumers want to buy British produce and are generally taking much more notice about where the food they eat originates. Currently, sausages containing Dutch pork can be labelled ‘British’ because the meat has been processed in the UK.
It is only right that food marked as British must come from British farmers and producers so as not to mislead, a charge that the current set up is open to. This would ensure a level playing field for our farmers now we have left the EU.
Once we beat this virus and return to normality, we owe farmers a long overdue, mass thank you for their sterling efforts in fuelling the nation at this crucial time. British agriculture should be celebrated in the mainstream, like never before. In the meantime, please do what you can to buy British and reach out to any farmers you may know, to offer a note of gratitude.