By Judith O’Leary, founder and managing director of agriculture PR and digital comms agency, Represent

THE COVID-19 pandemic has impacted just about every business, of every size, across every industry. And the agriculture industry is no different. In fact, according to research from the Syngeta Group, almost half of large EU farmers (46%) say their farming businesses have been impacted by the pandemic, with a third (32%) questioning the long-term viability of farming as a business due to declines in revenue, disrupted supply chains and increased costs.

At Represent, we are lucky to work with some fantastic clients across Scotland’s farming, food and rural sectors and so have seen first-hand how the wider agriculture industry has been impacted. Perhaps the saddest moment of the year came with the cancellation of the 2020 Royal Highland Show. As a show which celebrates the best of Scotland’s food, farming and rural life and one that has been going for over 200 years and has survived plagues, floods and animal disease, its cancellation really highlighted the devastating effects of the pandemic. And when you add in the uncertainty around Brexit, we can safely say 2020 has been an incredibly tough year for our farming and agriculture industry.

The importance of diversity

However, as we look toward a brighter 2021 with the prospect of a vaccine, we must also reflect on examples of businesses that have not only survived Covid-19, but have thrived this year.

Just look at Craigies Farm Shop near Edinburgh which runs a thriving café, deli and pick-your-own events business. As Covid-19 took hold, it quickly became apparent that it was no longer business as usual and Craigies had to adapt quickly in order to survive. The business pivoted to an online business model, transforming to a full click and collect and grocery delivery service, as well as a take-away service. This digital transformation not only enabled the shop and deli to continue to operate, it also helped Craigies manage its events business within strict social distancing rules, with customers booking slots for picking their own fruit, pumpkins and Santa breakfasts throughout the year.

Correspondingly, Rosebery Venues had to review its events business and understand how it could continue to market its event venues during lockdown amidst mass cancellations. A move to digital also played an important role in securing its future as the business quickly commissioned video footage which could be used to conduct virtual tours. It also adapted its wedding and events packages to cater for smaller, more intimate weddings thereby attracting those who were unable to be accommodated by their original venue.

And despite the huge sadness surrounding the cancellation of the Royal Highland Show, its organisers, the Royal Highland and Agriculture Society of Scotland, rallied and by working in collaboration with its partners was able to celebrate the show online, bringing thousands of us together to champion the industry and focus on what the future holds.

Looking to the future

So, what are the opportunities for the sector as we emerge from what has been a very dark time? The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly reinforced the connection between producer and consumer with a real focus on the importance of buying local and supporting local businesses. Now more than ever, the provenance of our food has become a household issue and this is a real opportunity for farmers to make their mark in a post-pandemic world.

As the above examples will show, those with the ability to take advantage of digital channels were able to act quickly and cope with the extraordinary circumstances of 2020. Farmers have always demonstrated innovation, and there has never been a better time to take advantage of technology to drive change.

By focusing on the opportunities that this new-found reconnection between consumer and producer presents for the industry, as well as considering how digital transformation can make that happen efficiently and effectively, Scotland’s agriculture industry can, and will, recover.

Let’s make this opportunity count for us, our businesses and our communities.