Coronavirus: the agricultural and rural community

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Posted by Jennie Wheildon on 22 April 2020

Jennie Wheildon - Agricultural Property Lawyer
Jennie Wheildon Senior Associate

Jane Hampson from Warwickshire Rural Hub discusses the current pandemic and the impact on farming and the rural community.


Can you tell us a bit about Warwickshire Rural Hub? What it does and how long it has been running?

The Rural Hub is a business support organisation for farmers and rural businesses across Warwickshire and Solihull.  

We offer free membership and currently have just over 1300 members.  

Members receive a monthly e-news which gives them the up to date news which is relevant to the rural sector, and we also organise a range of free events on subjects that will help rural businesses to become more innovative and profitable.  

We don't work in isolation – the Hub liaises with lots of other organisations in Warwickshire such as the NFU, Wildlife Trust, Severn Trent, the County Council. They sit on our steering group, and we often hold joint events with them.  

All our work is funded by a charitable trust and 11 business supporters who work closely with the rural community, such as Wright Hassall, Sheldon Bosley Knight and Ellacotts.  

We've been going for 17 years and started in October 2003 when a group of farmers who wanted to take control of their destiny came together, led by Kenilworth farmer Henry Lucas. Henry is still the Chair of our Board of Directors, and he is very much involved in promoting the Hub to his network of contacts and sourcing funding.

After initially being supported by the Royal Agricultural Society for England with office accommodation and co-ordinator support, we started to attract funding and registered as a community interest company in 2009.  

I now run the Hub on a part-time basis from my home office.

I don't think I need to elaborate on what coronavirus is and what it has meant for us, but can you explain what issues the farming community is facing?

The main issue facing farmers is a general disruption to the food supply chain – there has been a reduction in demand for some items like milk, and more expensive cuts of meat because of the closure of cafés and restaurants, in the UK and EU. 

However,  supermarkets have been a surge in demand for cheaper cuts of beef, such as those used for mince, as people at home have changed their cooking habits to batch make meals for the freezer.   

They tried to meet this demand by importing beef from Poland in particular. This change in buying habits has resulted in a reduction in milk, beef and lamb prices for farmers

Horticulture is facing difficulties with seasonal sourcing labour to pick soft fruit, salad crops and vegetables

This workforce would normally have travelled over from the EU, but with global lockdowns currently in force their travel has been impacted. There is also the impact of fly-tipping in field gateways, which has increased, which may be due to the closure of council tips. 

It is costly and time-consuming to remove the rubbish and is also a danger to human health and wildlife and livestock

NFU is working tirelessly to support farmers through these issues 

Is social distancing relevant for farmers?

Yes, it's relevant for everyone!  

Farmers don't just rely on the people they live with for labour on the farm; many of them have staff who live off-farm. 

They also use contractors who visit several farms, e.g. vets.

Social distancing can be more of a challenge on a farm – for example; two people are required to handle a cow to get it into a crush for treatment.

Most public footpaths cross farmland, and there has been concern expressed by farmers that increased numbers of the public are using these during the lockdown and walking close to homes where elderly farmers are self-isolating 

There is also an issue with multiple members of the public touching metal gates which as we know can be a method of transmitting the coronavirus

We are anticipating coronavirus to have long term effects on how many businesses operate going forward, can you say what changes you think we may see in farming?

The first thing to say is that farming has been used to reacting to change for many generations.  

The industry was already preparing to adapt to the changes required after the UK left the EU 

And farmers are also working towards reducing their carbon emissions to help tackle the challenges presented by climate change 

Moving forward hopefully more farms will be employing seasonal workers from the UK 

Although the future is always unknown, it looks as though that there might be an increased interest in home-produced food and food supplied by local farm shops. Certainly, at the moment these outlets are bustling making up food hampers for customers so it would be good to see this continue.  

It is fair to say that some of these changes can be viewed as positive?

Supporting British farmers is always a positive move as the food is being produced to high welfare and environmental standards.  

It's also been great to see UK farming and food production having a high profile during the coronavirus crisis 

NFU President Minette Batters has up with both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to outline the challenges facing the industry and discuss food supply issues. Let's hope this high profile can continue.

Warwickshire Rural Hub has started an initiative to support farmers, can you explain what that initiative is?

When we heard that Princes Countryside Fund was grant aiding the Farming Help charities to come together with NFU and Young Farmers to support the farming community during the coronavirus crisis, the Hub wanted to see how we could become involved too.   

So, after liaising with Farming Help, it was decided that the Hub would initiate a call for volunteers to help on farms where the farmer, their family or the staff team had been forced to self-isolate 

So that could mean they were short of people to feed animals, help with lambing or help with any other farming activities.  

We used our database of members, the NFU contacts and social media to reach out to interested people.  

We had loads of shares on Facebook and re-tweets, so thank you to everyone who has helped get the call for farming volunteers out to residents in Warwickshire.  

Can you explain how people can get involved? What qualifications/ experience they need to have?

If people want to get involved, they need to email me on info@ruralhub.org.uk, or you can visit our website www.ruralhub.org.uk and read the news item on the home page.  

We are asking for contact details, where the person is located and any experience of farming.  

You don't need any experience of farming, but if this is the case, you will not be asked to undertake any unsupervised duties or handle animals.

The data will be held securely by the Rural Hub, and specific details of a volunteer will only be passed to the Farming Community Network or NFU in the event of a farmer in their area requiring help. So, we do need volunteers to consent to these conditions.

If any farmers are listening and would like assistance from those volunteering, what do they need to do?

If farmers found themselves in need to help during the coronavirus outbreak, they need to contact the Farming Help helpline which is operated by the Farming Community Network. This charity helps farmers in crisis.  

The number is 03000 111 999, or you can also email on help@fcn.org.uk

FCN can also help farmers draft a contingency plan and find local support organisations to help with collecting shopping and prescriptions during the coronavirus outbreak.  

But FCN operates all year round, so the helpline is 365 days a year from 7.00 am to 11.pm.  

Do the farmers need to be aware of any specific health and safety or employment regulation by accepting the assistance of the volunteers?

The volunteers are not being paid for their work; most employment regulations do not cover them.

But the farmers do need to ensure that they follow all the health and safety regulations that would apply to any member of staff and complete a risk assessment.

They also need to check their insurance policy to ensure that they are covered for volunteers working on the farm.

We will be asking volunteers to confirm their experience with farm work before they are asked to help on a farm. They will never be put in a situation which is alien to them, i.e. people with no experience of livestock will not be asked to handle cattle or sheep. 

No-one will be allowed to operate machinery without them presenting evidence of appropriate certification. 

And, of course, everyone will be expected to practise social distancing while on the farm. 

Thank you for telling us about this initiative, and I hope this raises some more awareness and generates some more volunteers for your scheme.


About the author

Jennie Wheildon

Senior Associate

Jennie advises on commercial property including land acquisition and disposal, landlord and tenant, refinance and charging, residential development and site set up, overage and clawback agreements.

Jennie Wheildon

Jennie advises on commercial property including land acquisition and disposal, landlord and tenant, refinance and charging, residential development and site set up, overage and clawback agreements.

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