Farming in the time of Covid

It has been a year like no other, in all our lives. Few of us escaped unscathed: some suffered personal tragedies; for most of us there was increased anxiety; mental health problems proliferated and businesses were shut and jobs lost, with economic effects that are still to be fully revealed.

Having written that, Covid has had a minimal effect on our farming practices. Farmers tend to lead socially distanced lives at the best of times, so in March last year we splashed out on expensive sanitiser, made sure tractor drivers kept to their same vehicle and warily kept our two metres from each other – and kept calm and carried on. There was a lorry driver delivering pig feed who casually told me how annoyed he was as his boss had told him he had to have two weeks off – just because he had this really bad cold. Whoa, I backed away hastily, a look of horror obviously on my face as he got the message. Now so many of us have been vaccinated and levels of Covid are low it is hard to remember how scary it was when the pandemic first appeared – partly through fear of the unknown.

One direct effect of Covid on farmers was the closure of some abattoirs where Covid infections seem to run riot. We were lucky and although we had the odd load of pigs put off for a week, we coped with minimal disruption. In fact we suffered worse problems when our abattoir was unable to take pigs due to Brexit this January and February. Sow prices came down from £1.30 a kg to 30p a kg as meat exports to Germany came to a halt while they sorted out the red tape due to Brexit. Understandable – they had so little warning that Brexit was happening! When Covid first struck, finished pig prices remained firm until about August and then fell away 15% before picking up a few pence in the last three weeks. This has been accompanied by very high feed costs and a particularly high straw cost (more of which later). It has been a difficult time for pig farmers – difficult enough for us to order a banner promoting British pig meat – I hope you have seen it!

This reminded me of a catastrophic time for pig farmers in the year 2000. Someone had the bright idea of taking a pig up to Downing Street as a protest. She was named Cherie and I think a couple of barrow loads of her muck were delivered to No 10 (for the roses). In contrast to what might have happened in somewhere like Paris, it then all became rather British. Someone found out that while the police could remove a pig from the pavements of London they did not have those powers off the pavement in Parliament Square. A Pig Arc appeared and the new resident of Parliament Square moved in under the statute of Winston Churchill. Cherie disappeared to retirement in an animal sanctuary but her replacement, Winnie, stayed there for about three months. Alistair Campbell called it the best political protest he had ever seen. Much press attention was attracted when Tara Palmer Tomkinson spent a couple of hours with Winnie. Pig farmers volunteered to take shifts looking after Winnie and I remember a very uncomfortable night sleeping in a cramped pig hut (not Winnie’s) on some bales with 2 other burly pig farmers. I missed Tara but quite a few M.P.s would make a point of coming for a chat and scratching Winnie’s back. I do not think we would get away with that today.

2020 was a much more challenging year for the arable enterprise than the pig business however. I think I have previously written of the very poor harvest in 2020 when very little corn could be planted in the autumn and then the crops planted in Spring suffered from a very dry spell when the first lockdown started. At least our friends were saved our moans about the dry weather while they were loving time to walk in the sun or at least relax in the garden. Alongside poor yields and the poor quality of the corn we had to sell there was also a great shortage of straw. The contractor who bales our straw said although he had the same acreage to bale that he normally has, he only got 12,000 bales this year compared to the 60,000 he would expect in a normal year.

This year we are hoping for a better harvest. Although autumn followed the pattern of last year with a very wet planting time, we were better prepared, having bought a second drill that coped better with wet conditions. We managed to plant all our winter crops, including a new crop for us – rye, in the narrow window the weather allowed. This spring has also followed the pattern of last year with a very dry spell which thankfully has just broken as I write this at the end of April. We have not planted any spring barley this year but have planted more spring wheat. We hope this is a better crop in a dry spring. Whereas we do not want spring barley to take up nitrogen into the ear as this ruins the malting quality, a high nitrogen content in the spring wheat will boost its milling quality. It has also been a very cold spring with late frosts. In an earlier cold spell in February, particularly with the cold wind, our winter linseed was badly damaged and we plan to replace it with spring linseed but cannot do that while the weather is so cold despite the optimal planting date having long passed.

With the bright yellow of flowering oil seed rape and the verdant green of new leaves emerging on the trees the countryside is becoming more vivid and on the farm and throughout the country we can look forward with a new optimism after a year like no other.

Mike Hartley

June-July 2021