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How are British farms adapting to the COVID-19 era?

Many months after the initial outbreak of COVID-19, the global pandemic shows no signs of slowing down or disappearing any time soon. The circumstances brought about by the pandemic have posed extraordinary challenges to UK farms, jeopardising their future business prospects in many cases.

More and more agricultural businesses are having to accept that the unique demands created by COVID-19 represent a “new normal”, at least for the foreseeable future. As such, farms all over the country have been finding ways to adapt their operating models and day-to-day activities in order to stay successful and profitable in these trying times.

As farms embrace new, more flexible and agile ways of working, we take a look at some of the most significant trends and changes that have unexpectedly reshaped agriculture in 2020.

Adapting to new rules

One of the most unavoidable trends of 2020 for all businesses has been an avalanche of new rules and regulations, imposed by lawmakers as a means of keeping business premises open safely and preventing the spread of the virus among workers and site visitors.

The agriculture sector has been no exception to this, with farm owners now implementing a raft of new on-site safety measures, from the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), gloves and hand sanitisers to ongoing social distancing measures in the workplace. These steps, backed by thorough risk assessments to curb viral transmission, have been pivotal in helping farms to continue operating safely.

One of the most important considerations has been the introduction of new quarantine rules for agricultural labourers entering the UK for seasonal work. For many farms, this has meant having to rethink their approach to on-site accommodation in order to ensure that new workers can safely self-isolate on their farm for 14 days after entering the country, in order maintain access to essential manpower during peak periods.

As long as the quarantine continues, it is likely that farms will need to carry on reacting swiftly and proactively to the introduction of new safety rules, as and when they are announced.

Trouble for diversified business models?

A key trend in agriculture in recent years has been a move towards diversified income streams. Figures from Defra showed that diversification activity brought in £740 million worth of income for the UK farm sector in 2018-19, up 6% on the previous year, as farms expanded their operations to include cafés, farm shops, wedding venues, guided tours and other similar services.

With two-thirds of UK farms having diversified in this manner, 2020 has been an unpleasant shock to the sector. Many of these additional services have seen their demand plummet to almost zero this year, due to national lockdown conditions, reduced consumer spending and a general lack of enthusiasm among potential customers to plan events or outings of this kind.

In some cases, this could lead farms to abandon their diversification efforts to focus more on their core businesses, but for others, it will only underline the need to continue supporting these efforts for their long-term growth. As Stuart Roberts, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, recently noted: “The inability to maximise that revenue stream could prove the difference between some farms surviving or not. They may need to do some even more creative thinking.”

Embracing digital transformation

The increasing adoption of digital technology on farms is a trend that stretches back for many years, but there is no doubt that this will have accelerated significantly in the last six months. With many traditional ways of working becoming difficult or impossible due to COVID-19, farms are improvising and experimenting with potentially game-changing new technologies.

From the increasing use of video calls and other messaging tools to keep remotely-distanced teams in close communication, to the adoption of automated robotic systems for fruit picking, farms are embracing technological solutions in various new ways. Video services are also making it easier for farms to communicate across their supply chains, ensuring they keep close contact with their various customers, retailers and business partners.

Most farms that have adopted these new technologies are unlikely to go back. This, in turn, will increase pressure on the government and infrastructure networks to ensure that rural locations are properly equipped with fast broadband and other digital services in future.

Strengthening the domestic supply of products and workers

After years of accelerating globalisation, it would appear that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the UK agriculture sector to focus more intently on their domestic markets. At present, the UK is a net importer of food products, but data from Kantar shows that the pandemic has led to a major increase in the number of UK consumers choosing to purchase their groceries locally.

With international supply chains having been heavily disrupted of late, it stands to reason that more British farms will be looking to strengthen their domestic operations, creating a sustainable supply of UK-grown food for customers in this country. The longer the pandemic persists, the more ingrained this new approach could become.

Additionally, this focus on domestic supply is being mirrored in the labour market. As mentioned earlier, British farms are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit seasonal workers from abroad, resulting in schemes such as Pick for Britain, which encouraged UK workers to fill this gap.

Moreover, with the end of the UK’s Brexit transition period also right around the corner, there is a good chance that these recent trends could presage a more permanent shift away from farms relying on international labour from the EU and elsewhere. With widespread furloughing and job losses remaining a major issue for British workers, it is not difficult to imagine that there may be a plentiful supply of local candidates to fill these roles.

A need for flexible planning

Above all else, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of farms being able to plan flexibly and responsively in the face of fast-changing industry conditions. By remaining agile and open to change, agriculture businesses are much better equipped to evolve, survive and thrive in even the most challenging circumstances.

Making use of portable cabins for on-site accommodation from Bunkabin can be an important means of achieving this. By hiring these units on an ad-hoc basis, you can respond flexibly to the needs and demands of your workforce as circumstances change, whether you need to hire seasonal workers or alter your headcount in response to demand.

Bunkabin’s service model is flexible enough that you can scale your accommodation provision up or down at relatively short notice, and have the units delivered directly to your site in any quantity you require. What’s more, our cabins can be installed and removed with a minimum of fuss, as and when you need them.

To find out more about our offerings for the agricultural sector, visit our Agriculture page. You can also get in touch with us today by calling 0345 456 7899, or by filling in our online enquiry form.

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