NFU potato forum chairman Alex Godfrey writes about how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the sector and the work the NFU is doing to keep supply chains moving.
We have found ourselves in many ‘unprecedented’ situations lately, but few have materialised as quickly, and few have been so rapidly evolving as the one we find ourselves in now. Because this is such a fast moving situation, by the time you read this things will doubtless will have moved on. For the latest news please keep an eye on the NFU's coronavirus hub on NFUonline.
The potato markets have been turned completely upside down over the last weeks. Panic buying led to pressure on the supply chain described as being like Christmas day after day but without the time to plan for it. While some potato sectors may have benefited from this unexpected lift in demand, others have faced their markets disappearing almost overnight.
The closing of McDonalds and fish and chip shops has left a significant number of growers with a large stock of perfectly good and edible potatoes – a particularly frustrating situation when we see pictures of empty supermarket shelves. The NFU is speaking to retailers to ensure that they are aware of this stock, and are able to be flexible with specifications in order to take it. I would encourage growers to contact their nearest potato packers to see if they can take extra potatoes.
If these potatoes do find their way to supermarket shelves, we have to be realistic that there will be some serious logistical hurdles to overcome. I know that growers with existing contracts are struggling to find sufficient transport to get the potatoes to packers, and these packers are increasingly struggling with capacity due to staff shortages. In addition, introducing a new line of products into a supermarket isn’t something that happens overnight. For growers that may find they have little choice but to discard product, please be assured that the NFU is working hard to ensure that growers are able to access the support payments that government has promised.
As well as the market uncertainty we are facing severe disruption to supply chains we rely on to farm day to day. There are delays with fuel deliveries, difficulty getting seed deliveries through, and concerns with getting plant protection products. It does at least appear that currently supplies are getting through, albeit with delays.
One of the biggest challenges we are facing is about people. The NFU’s success in ensuring that agriculture workers are included under the ‘key workers’ heading has meant that we can more easily go about the day job without the sudden addition of extra childcare. It’s sadly inevitable that some of our workers may become sick and unable to work at some point, and we must prepare for a shortage of farm staff when the time comes.
All of this follows one of the most challenging seasons we’ve ever had where growers were faced with high losses from virus, and weather so wet that some are still lifting, while simultaneously planting on the same day. These problems may seem insurmountable but it is more important than ever that we keep moving forward as an industry to keep the nation fed. I’ll therefore end this on a note to say please look after yourselves, and remember that there is support out there if you need it.