Even panic-buying tractor diesel is a thing. At the local pump its one-in-one-out, with tractors queuing at the gates. “And the long number?” the cashier shouts through the open window of his office as you bark your card details from a distance of 20 feet. Social distancing is fully observed by a profession that, by its nature, is socially distant.
In the far West of England, Cornwall grows some of the earliest crops. It starts with daffodils in January for bulbs and flowers, then onto early spring vegetables like cauliflower, new potatoes and cabbages.
Even those Forbes journalists-come-farmers are conscripted now. Farm mechanics are also considered essential workers, which is just as well as our tractor is so ancient that it regularly needs parts. Phone ahead and they’ll find a “series two linkage bolt.” Phone again when you arrive and they’ll leave it on the doorstep. Again, social distancing in overdrive.
But a dodgy tractor is the last thing on the minds of neighbouring dairy farms. Cornwall is the home of clotted cream, that delicious and essential ingredient for cream teas as well as most deserts.
However, with doors at the Ritz and pretty much every other afternoon tea institution firmly closed, there is less demand for the stuff. Not that there is anywhere else dairy farmers can sell their milk. With catering and export markets diminished demand and prices have fallen off a cliff.
“Cows are not a switch,” says one local farmer. “You can’t simply stop milking them and then start again two weeks later.”
Nor is milk is like oil. You can’t store it until the world gets going again or buy it in futures. The result is milk thrown away. Gallons of it washed down the drain.
Secretary of state, and local minister of parliament (MP) George Eustice, has denied a bailout to the dairy industry, saying that prices are steadily picking up again. But many Cornish dairy farmers, who in normal times boost their income through tourism, have already suffered devastating losses.
However, Cornwall’s biggest farming worry right now is who will pick the vegetables currently ripening in the fields. Normally migrant workers come from Eastern Europe to pick fruit and vegetables that cannot be mechanically harvested. But with borders now all but closed, Eustice has called for furloughed workers to step in. ‘Feed The Nation’, and ‘Pick For Britain’ are two campaigns dedicated to recruiting more local workers.
Only desperation will determine whether Britain can find the 80,000-or-so workers it needs. Most farms pay minimum wage, expect workers all summer long and then want them to live on site six days a week, often in squalid trailer parks in muddy yards. Even Cornwall’s knock-out scenery can’t make up for that monotony. No wonder thousands have already turned down farm jobs.
Agritech To Accelerate
However, like so many things, coronavirus is accelerating changes that are already overdue in the industry.
Innovation in harvest robotics is happening. Cabbage, leek and fennel, which are currently picked by hand, have already been rustled by machinery from the likes of Belgium-based Vanhoucke Engineering. Prototype picking robots from nearby University of Plymouth were tested on cauliflowers last year.
Agritech (agricultural technology) was already a growth area pre-coronavirus, but now it could see a boom. It is not just Cornwall that is struggling to attract migrant workers, most Western European countries are having the same issue. Technology that not only harvests crops, but also milks cows and fertilises fields will become more widespread still.
But here’s another idea: What about looking to the past as well as the future? London families used to decamp to Kent for the summer picking season, as depicted in George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter. Students would flock to French vineyards hoping to pick up some language skills alongside vines.
Backbreaking and long hours? Yes, but in return you could be rewarded with ploughman’s or “vendange” lunches, not to mention fresh air and a healthy tan.
Now, in a country craving for camaraderie, harvest villages could become a thing. Following a summer of cancelled music festivals, maybe harvest festivals will make a comeback. “Make farming fun again” is surely a slogan for 2021 harvest season?
Then being furloughed to the farm might even be desirable. Only technology needs to help us on our way. That starts with fixing a broken tractor.
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