COVID WILL not last forever, so the farming industry must take this time to tidy up their businesses and prepare to showcase their offering to a public which is eager and willing to listen.

This was one of the take home messages from the online SAYFC Agri Affairs panel last week – a replacement for the popular annual event held in November, cancelled due to restrictions.

It featured an expert panel of four speakers who have all been personally affected by Covid and came together to share with delegates the lessons of the past year and the opportunities which lie ahead for the farming community.

First up, attendees heard from Caroline Millar, Owner of the Hideaway Experience in Auchterhouse and founder of Scottish Agritourism organisation, GoRural. “Our tourism business is closed and last week we refunded £30,000 just for one month of bookings - so it doesn’t feel like an opportunity every day,” said Ms Millar, but added that the newfound public interest in the outdoors could provide opportunities for businesses longer-term.

“When we are under stress we revert back to basic needs as human beings,” she continued. “The need for good nutritious food, fresh air, green space and for engaging with nature. Covid has allowed all of us including consumers who buy our produce and the general public, to appreciate those and also appreciate health and community.”

During Lockdown, GoRural hosted daily live farm tours which gave the public a welcome insight into farming life from the comfort and safety of their own homes and has hopefully built relationships with a future customer base.

With light now in sight at the end of the Covid tunnel, Ms Millar is hoping for a return to ‘normality’ which she believes will include significant demand from the public to come on to farms and to buy produce directly. An opportunity which she added is really important to the industry to take advantage of: “Consumers facing farmers are really important,” she continued. “Even if you don’t want to open up a consumer facing business, sell meat directly or have an agri tourism business. More of an awareness about the customers we have, who is buying our produce at the end of the day and the relationships we have with them is really important.

“We can’t let this be a flash in the pan. We must convert this trend of an increasing interest in agriculture, food, the environment and Scottish landscapes, into a permanent fixture.”

She recognised that the increased number of people visiting rural Scotland has attracted some real challenges for farmers but added that work is underway to increase signage in the countryside, and that VisitScotland has taken on a new member of staff with a dedicated focus on sharing information on responsible access.

She also stressed that farmers must use this increased footfall to their monetary advantage: “With more people in the countryside, it is important that they are not just out there to enjoy the landscape and walk on our farms, we need to get money out of them. It is an economic opportunity, and it is a great opportunity for us to make our businesses more sustainable.”

Fellow panellist Jock Gibson of Edinvale Farm, Dallas and Manager of Macbeths Butchers, Forres, urged delegates to see Covid as an opportunity to tidy up their businesses and be ready to showcase their offering when the pandemic lifts.

When lockdown was announced ahead of one of his busiest trading weekends of the year – Mother’s Day – he found himself in a position which could have sunk their business. Despite losing 60-70% of their business overnight with the closure of hotels and restaurants, he rose to the challenge to explore new routes to customers.

“The first Tuesday of Lockdown our website went into meltdown with demand for our meat –all of a sudden, we were doing a months’ worth of online trade every four to five days and had to adapt to that bloody quickly.

“Like butchers up and down the country we have set up new delivery routes,” he continued. “We have got a lot more in touch with our local customers and been a lot more ready to be what our customers actually need us to be, rather than us being what we think our customers need. We have become a lot more community focused as well.”

Despite losing the food service part of his business, Mr Gibson’s retail mail order trade more than made up for the gap, which he said allowed him to invest and sort out some issues with the business. Off the back of this demand, he built a wee shed shop at the end of his drive and has teamed up with local farmers to provide meat, veg and household essentials to the local community.

“We are now in a time where arguably the consumer wants to be closer to the farm than ever before,” he added. “Certainty with our wee business we are seeing more consumer interest in where their meat is coming from, coupled with this, we are seeing more interest in demand for farms to have their beef, lamb and pork processed through our butcher shop so they can reach consumers directly. This demand we cannot currently meet and we are turning people away daily,” he reported, calling for a ‘closer, more integrated processing chain with increased margins and more capacity’, which he argued would be beneficial to butchers, farmers and consumers alike.

“As a farming industry we have the opportunity to tidy ourselves up and invite the consumer into our world. Covid will not last forever, when we come out of this, the consumer will want to be out and about and we need to be ready. There will be a massive opportunity to showcase what we do, diversify, and hopefully make our businesses more resilient and profitable. I often say I don’t sell beef I sell a story, as an industry let’s now tell our story,” he concluded.

The delegates also got an insight in to how Covid has impacted agriculture in Australia from Anna Playfair-Hannay – formerly from the Scottish Borders, but now works as the sustainable agriculture and animal welfare manager for Woolworth Australia.

She explained that coming off the back of a drought, the industry is beginning to get back on track, having just recorded a bumper harvest and increasing beef and lamb prices due to lack of available livestock.

However, she added that the government’s decision to close borders early on in Lockdown had some repercussions: “We faced big challenges with the border closures and getting product into the country, especially chemicals and agricultural parts. From a retail perspective, there were problems with packaging and a backlog of containers in china which had a global impact on the supply chain. There was lots of product stuck in lots of countries across the world. It was a huge project for our teams to try and keep food on shelves for customers.”

Border closures also stopped the flow of migrant seasonal workers into Australia for fruit picking. “We would normally have lots of students on gap years coming in who do a lot of the harvesting, so we have seen cases where crops just haven’t been picked. This has had a big impact on availability which might continue as we still have the borders closed and don’t know when they will open.”

Quality Meat Scotland’s chief executive Alan Clarke rounded off the evening with an update on Covid’s impact on Scotland’s red meat sector, which he stressed has been a mixed bag but with plenty of opportunities to hammer home the positive actions being taken by the sector in mitigating climate change.

“A new generation has now started to reconnect with their food, farmers have gained a positive reputation for feeding the nation during this worldwide health crisis. The world wants to eat local and this gives us many opportunities as well as many challenges,” he continued.

“Beef and sheep farmers have seen prices increase, butchers and farm shops have reacted brilliantly and are benefitting, pig farmers have seen a decline in prices, catering butchers have had to totally change their business model and chefs and restaurant can’t even open their doors.”

During the second part of last year, he revealed that the price of lambs at Scottish auctions were 18% higher than that of 2019 and butchers saw their market share of retail beef sales right across the UK increase by 8%.

However, pig farmers have been up against EU prices which are running 18% lower than last year and were hit by a number of Covid outbreaks in pork plants in the Autumn, resulting in significant backlog – adding to the downward seasonal pressure on prices.

Mr Clarke concluded by sharing the news of a new QMS campaign highlighting the positives of Scottish meat, hitting tv screens from this week.

“In the eyes of many consumers, farmers are the food heroes, and to support the Scottish red meat sector we will capitalise on this consumer good will and shout about our actions to mitigate climate change and the contribution red meat sector is making towards national targets.”