The tightening COVID-19 virus control restrictions continue to disrupt daily life in the UK as in many other countries. Supply trade bodies are working with government to ensure the work of delivering essential supplies to farmers can carry on.

The last week has seen further cancellations of major industry events, including Cereals 2020 in mid-June (although the organisers intend to host an online trade show); and the Royal Welsh, Great Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Shows amongst a raft of smaller events.

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Following the government advice most industry companies and organisations – including the AIC and NFU – have closed their offices with personnel working from home as far as possible. AIC chief executive Robert Sheasby says member companies are acting responsibly, while the Confederation has secured key worker status for roles such as delivery drivers, storekeepers, mill operatives and lab technicians who need to be in their usual place of work, albeit under stricter conditions. Farmers, farm workers and veterinarians are already classed as key workers.

Drivers’ hours extension

An extension in drivers’ hours has also been secured, initially to the end of April, along with a more understanding approach from test centres, to ensure enough driver hours to make critical deliveries as the situation develops. This is the busiest part of the year – the animal feed industry is already at full stretch in the period before spring turnout, while arable marketing and fertiliser businesses are launching into the spring growing period.

Deliveries of feeds and essential crop inputs continue, but with strict protocols on sanitisation and social distancing on farm. Mr Sheasby emphasises that farmers customers can help their suppliers by placing orders well in advance and advising of problems where they occur.

Last week, the AIC moved to suspend onsite auditing of its assurance schemes. “In line with responding to the pandemic, AIC Services has suspended all physical audits in its feed, fertiliser and seed portfolio and is working on a range of remote auditing techniques, states John Kelley, managing director of AIC Services. “We are supporting industry in these difficult times to ensure feed, food and fertiliser safety are maintained at all times.”

Some delay to farm red diesel fuel orders is reported as prices fall in line with the weaker currency and the dry, warm spell sees the resumption of fieldwork. “We have maintained a full service throughout this turbulent period and have noticed a slight extension to lead times,” says AF Group fuel manager Spencer Hill. “Our supply chains have held up well. The falling price of oil, along with increasing demand due to the COVID-19 outbreak has seen lead times extend to around 10 days for commercial fuel and slightly longer for domestic.”

Rural retail chains such as Carr’s Billington and Mole Valley Farmers have either closed their outlets to self-service customers but are open for online and phone orders while customer collections can be made under strict isolation protocols or have reduced lines available to essential supplies only for livestock and pet animal health and welfare with clear in store guidelines on sanitisation, social distancing and controls on the number of customers in store.

Livestock markets are continuing, but for finished stock only, not breeding animals, and again with strict controls over attendance numbers and distancing.

Essential role of agronomists

BASIS, in close collaboration with the AIC and Association of Independent Crop Consultants, has written to Defra secretary George Eustice to highlight the essential role that agronomists on its Professional Register play in crop inspections as part of the UK’s safe and efficient food production – especially at the start of the spring growing season.

“Agronomists, an essential part of the food and feed supply chain, frequently travel to undertake field crop inspections alone, on private land, with no interaction with members of the public and by prior arrangement by the farmer, grower or landowner,” note the organisations.

“In continuing to carry out their roles, they present negligible risk to the spread of Coronavirus. Therefore, we request that the agronomists are recognised as undertaking an essential role, and classified as essential workers, so that they can continue to inspect fields to enable them to provide agronomic advice to UK farmers and growers during this cropping season.”

If agronomist availability should be compromised by the virus, the bodies propose that recently retired agronomists and trainees, whose Professional Register status may either have lapsed or not yet be in place, be permitted to undertake field inspections and recommend the use of plant protection products, subject to checking and countersignature by a member of the BASIS Professional Register.

With so many events being cancelled, BASIS is proposing that the usual CPD requirement of 50 training points per year be spread over two years.

Some farm bodies are calling for the government to delay the planned reduction in Basic Payment Scheme support from 2021 and for an extension to the EU withdrawal transition period that ends on December 31st, considering the COVID-19 disruption. But Mr Sheasby says the government’s overarching priority must be to maintain liquidity in the agricultural industry in these unprecedented circumstances, rather than worrying about individual mechanisms.