Andrew Knowles was appointed Chief Executive of agricultural cooperative Fram Farmers in July, following a lengthy career in the pig sector. Here, Andrew outlines his views on what’s to come for rural businesses and how we are adapting to change.
As we started 2020, I doubt many of us had heard the expression ‘new normal’, and yet for the past 6 months that is exactly what we at Fram, our members and the wider farming community have been wrestling with. I started my new role at a strange time, being one of only a handful of staff in the office at the start of July, but we continued to support our members and their businesses remotely and it has made us rethink how we do things, hastened our use of technology and opened up new opportunities.
We recently joined up with a supplier to host a virtual trials day, in place of our usual popular trials event. Whilst you clearly cannot replicate all elements of walking plots, it did make the event more accessible for members from all 39 counties, and running the event from morning until midnight made it easier for members to ‘drop in’ to the event in a flexible way to suit their busy schedules.
We combined zoom forums, used drones to deliver short trial plot videos and ran live question and answer sessions. The result was an alternative delivery of new knowledge and innovation in crop husbandry in a flexible format, that we had never previously considered. The feedback was very positive from those who ‘attended’.
A replacement for a traditional trials day? No, but it opened our eyes to new ways to provide members with even greater access to the latest knowledge and innovation, at a time and place convenient to them.
Covid has also accelerated the use of digital services and data. There was already significant momentum in precision farming, getting more from less, especially in crop production technology, but restrictions have increased the uptake and adoption of digital tools and services that increase efficiency, reduce labour or enable remote management of crops. We are also seeing this becoming more prevalent in livestock enterprises such as broiler production.
Adapting to a ‘new normal’ also applies to UK farming post-31st December, which will be the largest change in the sector and the supply chain since joining the EU in 1973. Much of the important detail is still unclear, but income streams for farmers will become more complex as UK government redesigns previous EU agricultural policies to fulfil broader environmental, sustainability and animal welfare agendas.
At the same time, giving third country producers (sometimes less regulated and therefore lower cost) access to UK markets may be the bargaining chip used by UK government in wider trade negotiations. We are expecting markets to undoubtedly be more volatile and price drivers more complex.
So, can we survive in this ‘new normal’? Absolutely, but we will all have to adapt and change, and we have certainly started that within Fram Farmers.
Maximising the value from what we produce will be key, and this year’s harvest is a great example. With variable yields and quality following a difficult growing season, extracting every penny from the market for what is in the grainstore has never been more important. Through proactively supporting our members to segregate varieties, precisely assess quality and volumes we’re identifying the most lucrative contracts in the market. Going forward, we could see even more volatility, with the impact of currency exchange and trade tariffs underlining the importance of trusted specialist grain marketing teams.
When it comes to a ‘new normal’ for UK agriculture it’s a more complex world with potentially greater volatility, but also new opportunities for farming businesses to grow and prosper. The key is being able to access expert advice to navigate this new world.