THERE'S a positive side to COVID-19, because with a nation that still needs feeding, the value of UK produce and the work of British farmers has come back to the fore, according to agri-sector banking chief Brian Richardson.

“As an essential service, used to dealing with the unforeseen, farming has tackled this crisis head on," said Mr Richardson, the UK Head of Agriculture for Yorkshire and Clydesdale Bank. "The industry is having to think on its feet to overcome any negative impacts, which will continue beyond the pandemic.”

Mr Richardson said that his bank was focused on supporting its farming clients through the crisis with practical and financial support, while requests were coming in for adjustments to current lending arrangements, the recently launched Bounce Back Loans, and for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan, a UK Government initiative providing financial support of between £10,000 to £5 million to SMEs. Under the scheme, existing customers that are losing revenue, and seeing their cashflow disrupted as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, can apply for this financial cushion.

“The agri-industry has risen to the challenge that the pandemic has presented and truly demonstrated its resilience and robust nature," he said. "However, with these changes come a certain level of anxiety about adapting and sustaining services, as well as income. That’s why it’s unsurprising that during the last few weeks, we at the bank have been adjusting existing arrangements or providing advice on Government support schemes.

“With decades of experience of working in this sector, it is important that, as a bank, we can react quickly to changes in the markets. This ensures that our agricultural team can talk through individual requirements with their farming and rural customers and provide the necessary specialist advice to help them mitigate current and future impacts.”

Mr Richardson suggested that, in recent weeks, the farming industry has been in a state of flux. As supply, demand and specifications have changed rapidly, farmers and the food industry have adapted at speed, but this has not been without its challenges, with shifts in market pricing, some very negative: "For example we despaired as we watched dairy producers on the news throwing milk away, but thankfully this was short lived although there is still a lot of challenge in the dairy sector. In fact, around 20% of supplies that would normally go into food service (restaurants, fast food outlets, coffee shops schools etc.) saw their markets disappear literally overnight. Increased demand through supermarkets compensated for some losses, but it still disrupted the supply chain and, for some, had a significant effect on the price they were receiving."

Farming is a very long-term business, he noted, with the marketing of products running through the seasons, so some of the impacts of this pandemic, such as where premiums are lost or marketing has to be delayed, are yet to be felt. Some businesses have lost sales at their peak trading time – a challenge for any business. Others had diversified into businesses, such as farm shops, that have been forced to temporarily close. Despite this, Mr Richardson felt confident about the future for a sector that evidence shows has more than risen to the challenge, and concluded: “When I talk each week to many of our customers and their trade organisations, I am always impressed by the resilience of the sector. Farmers’ adaptability and innovative thinking takes place on a daily basis. We will, as we have always done, continue to support them throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”