The Coronavirus pandemic has drawn attention to our farmers. Seasonal migrant workers are unable to enter the country and thus some farms are facing the threat of being understaffed. With there being a great deal of concern that without enough workers, crops might be left to rot in the fields and food shortages could amount, British farmers have met the challenge head on.
In light of the pandemic, farmers have been receiving support from charities such as Concordia, whom have been attempting to assemble a new British Land Army. This has led to surges in the number of British volunteers willing to work on the farmland. Whilst some farms continue to experience staffing issues, it is important to celebrate the many ordinary people whom have stepped up to the challenge of providing food for our tables.
Prior to the mechanisation of agriculture, every available man, woman and child was involved in the harvesting process. The very origins of the school summer holiday are thought to derive from the need for children to work during the harvest period. Waking at dawn and sleeping when the sun fell, communities would flock to the fields in a joint effort to bring in the crops. It is a beautiful image of pure human solidarity. The days were long, the people worked hard but the farming spirit was, and still is, one of togetherness and sheer hard work. Even then, despite the entire community working hard, farmers in the pre-industrial age struggled to collect the crops before winter came.
In the new and industrial age, WW1 posed a modern staffing crisis. Since most men were sent away to fight in the war, a huge deficit of farmworkers became apparent. A solution was found through recruiting women. Contributing to the war effort, swathes of women tended the fields to keep Britain going. WW2 was no different. In the place of male farm workers, the Women’s Land Army set off to work once more.
The resilience of British farming has been evident throughout history. Farmers have triumphed in the face of war, failed seasons, staffing shortages and most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
Farming isn’t just a job; it is an integral element of culture. This is best remembered by the various festivals honouring the harvest. Thanksgiving Day, in the United States and Canada is a well-known harvest celebration which typically involves the sharing of a feast with one’s family. Within the UK however, many British schools celebrate the harvest through collecting donations for food banks.
In the damage caused through the Coronavirus pandemic, we have seen food bank usage soar. This is particularly evident in the US. Queues of vulnerable people, waiting to receive basic food packages has not been an uncommon sight. Whilst these people are victims of economic hardship, such an image reminds us of the importance of food and the essential efforts of farm workers.
This reminder is very much needed. It was only in 2015 that dairy farmers felt forced to protest against the unfair price supermarkets were paying for their milk produce. At the time, farmers were being paid 24p per litre of milk, a sum less than the cost of producing that milk. This unfair situation was fuelled by supermarkets seeking to maximise profits, alongside consumer pressure to pay less for milk.
Despite this, one interesting impact of the coronavirus has been the increase in demand for produce sold at local farm shops. Whilst these smaller shops tend to have higher prices than supermarkets, there seems to be an increasing willingness amongst consumers to pay a bit more for their food to support local business. While it may also have been down to farm shops presenting as a safer option than local supermarkets in avoiding Coronavirus hotspots, there is an indication of a renewed recognition for the value of farmers’ work.
It is important to celebrate British farming, not just because they are doing essential work at present, but because they are, and will always be, essential to sustaining our society. Farming has a capacity to draw people together and to complete a mammoth task for the common good. It is this spirit of resilience and unity embedded in farming which we should be very proud of.