Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is also a cliche that we can lump together with many of the other phrases which have become part of standard terminology in 2020, such as ’these are unprecedented times’, or ’stay safe’. But it is true that nobody, if they are being honest, could have stood on the cusp of the new decade and predicted that this year would have unfolded as it has done.
Ironically, in wake of the Conservative Party General Election landslide 12 months ago, we wrote in this very section of the December 20, 2019, edition of Farmers Guardian that ’certainty might be the best gift of all this Christmas’. The thinking was that a Government with a huge majority could finally get the job of Brexit done and stop the endless back and forth of negotiations.
But then again, we also reported in the same edition about how Royal Highland Show bosses were thinking they might have to start limiting visitor numbers to the event due to its runaway success. How they would love to be in that position now, especially as the Royal Highland had to launch a fighting fund to secure its future after it, and every other show, was cancelled due to Covid-19.
In the words of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, ’events dear boy, events’ have derailed the best intentions of almost everyone in what has been a remarkable start to the 2020s.
When I chaired the Semex conference in Glasgow back in January, the theme of that event was ’be extraordinary’. It seems, however, 2020 took that as a very real challenge and, listening to speakers at the time, it was clear many were starting to see their business dealings in Asia disrupted by coronavirus.
By March the virus had taken a hold in Europe and FG staff, along with millions of others who were office-based, took their laptops home and decamped to the corners of rooms, kitchen tables or outdoor office spaces, without productivity taking a dip in a process.
Our March 20 edition spoke of ’virus disruption’ on its front page as the first swathe of show cancellations started to emerge, while by the start of April there was a clarion call for a new ’land army’ of British workers to help feed the nation, with mixed results.
By May 22, FG was reporting on how charities were calling for much needed funds as, by then, it was clear the usual rhythm of farming life and fundraising would not materialise in a disjointed year.
By then we were into the flow of the ’new normal’ of restricted travel and events, with Zoom and other online platform use surging and replacing face to face meetings. However, while online events and sales undoubtedly offer a new angle in future, nothing can replace the vibrancy of meeting people in person.
For farming it has been a year of contradiction, with the agricultural community, like everyone else, battling the pandemic and the changed reality enforced social distancing has wrought. However, what it has also done is bring some positive elements, whether that is in terms of commercial returns across many sectors, or the rise in public understanding of farming and a demand for British produce, as evidenced by our October 23 front page (Brand Britain Boost).
Farmers have been among the unsung heroes of 2020, working tirelessly to keep the nation fed at a time of great unrest. And while vaccinations are starting to roll out and people look ahead at the start of a New Year with as much hope as trepidation, there could be a number of testing months ahead for everyone.
With a Brexit trade deal finally secured, our commercial relationship with Europe will now begin to shift and, as more details come out and the true pictures emerges, challenges and opportunities will present themselves for UK agriculture.
It will also mark the start of great change for this country’s agricultural business as, in England at least, direct payments start to be reduced and policy shifts towards an environmental focus, with many scratching their heads as to how it will apply to them and their farms.
The past 12 months have illustrated that farming is one of the cornerstones of a functioning society and, with our supply chains once again exposed, this time by wrangling with the EU, let us hope there is a New Year resolve from our governments to give agriculture more credence than it currently receives.