THANKFULLY FOR the rest of society, farmers are not self isolating. They are instead a key part of the challenge of supermarket shelves being well stocked, so ensuring another round of panic buying can be avoided.

This is no mean challenge and farmers have again shown that whatever is thrown at them, they can rise to it. This is arguably easier when the challenge is about doing what they do best, rather than trying to second guess what politicians decide is the best solution for an industry most fail to understand.

That does not mean farming families are immune to the pressure others are experiencing. They have spouses trying to work from home and children off school when they should be the there. Farmers do not face being temporarily laid off, but they do face deep financial problems as an indirect result of what is happening.

Sterling has plunged in value, which in theory should be good for farming. However that gain would come from an export boom, and for now the export trade for most agricultural commodities has ground to a halt. The price of inputs priced in euro or US dollars is however rising, so farmers are in a Catch 22 position. They cannot gain from the weakness of sterling, but they are suffering the consequences.

There are already signs that beef and lamb prices are coming under pressure as a result of the dislocation of normal market patterns. Problems with milk prices are also beginning to emerge and will only get worse over the coming months. This has prompted calls for the European Commission to think about opening private storage to take surplus butter in particular off the market in bigger than planned volumes.

This is further evidence that successful trade deals, most importantly with the EU, must be central to the final Brexit arrangements. It is equally important to maintain the benefits of the Fortress Europe approach to cheap imports that has protected the industry here for a long time. Before the virus struck. politicians at Westminster were ready to put that at risk. For now they cannot do so, but when the government puts the coronavirus crisis behind it this will be back on the agenda. The challenge for the farming lobby is to ensure the wider public makes clear to politicians that this would be an unacceptable risk to food security.

Over last weekend Boris Johnson was continuing to insist that the decision to leave the EU in December, with or without a trade deal, stood regardless of the pandemic crisis. He even suggested Michael Gove would be holding a teleconference meeting with EU officials and that there was no reason for those discussions not to continue. I suspect this was a one way wish list, since there is no evidence officials fire-fighting the fall out from the virus across the EU-27 have any interest in discussing trade.

The same will apply in Washington, despite Johnson's belief that he and Donald Trump have a special understanding. The message from Brussels is simple. Play politics now and the answer to demands for a special deal will be no, regardless of the consequences. As this week wore on there were faint signs of a climb down over the December date for the end of the transition period. This is written into legislation, but just one week into the lock-down, plenty of legislation and political commitments have already gone by the wayside.

The one thing keeping us all sane is a hope that the virus will eventually be controlled and ultimately beaten. How quickly that happens remains an unknown, no matter what experts may say. What is certain is that the longer it takes, the bigger will be the bills to be repaid.

That has implications for agriculture, given the negotiation the industry faces over future support arrangements. However things are no better in the EU, with the Commission making clear to farm ministers that, much as there may be a case for additional funds, its scope to act is limited by budgetary constraints set to get worse.

Those hardest hit by the virus – Italy, Spain and France – have already been told funds to rebuild their economies are limited, and that will inevitably add to anti-EU sentiments in Italy in particular. For now we are in a war, which must be won – but when it is over, the peace will bring new financial challenges to every country.


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Thanks – and stay safe