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'I think Brexit really has been overshadowed by Covid': Suffolk farmer reflects on the last 18 months




Farmers are continuously plagued with battles that are often beyond their control.

In recent times, it has been Brexit, although that has been overshadowed by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Weather patterns is another long-term battle that they have to deal with.

Hall Farm, in Fornham St Martin, a fourth generational farm near Bury St Edmunds that is owned by Andrew Long, has suffered similar effects.

Tractors out in the field. Picture by Mark Westley
Tractors out in the field. Picture by Mark Westley

They have nine full-time staff, as well as 24 agency staff. Although this is what their usual harvest workforce numbers look like, Paul Francis, managerial director and farm manager at Hall Farm, highlighted it as one of the main difficulties of the pandemic.

“I think Brexit really has been overshadowed by Covid, in terms of the effect that it had,” said Paul. “Brexit happened and then Covid hit, and suddenly Brexit is in the background.

“And the ramifications of Covid have overtaken in some ways, like the disruption and the supply chains. The things that directly affect us has been, I would say, more of a talking point than Brexit at the moment.”

Paul Franics, Hall Farm. Picture by Mark Westley
Paul Franics, Hall Farm. Picture by Mark Westley

Charles Hesketh, county adviser for Suffolk at the National Farmers Union, has had a similar experience.

"Across a range of different roles our usual overseas labour and people didn't want to move," he said.

"If you can't bring in the workers you are going to struggle."

Onions in storage. Picture by Mark Westley
Onions in storage. Picture by Mark Westley

It has been a whirlwind last 18 months for the industry and Hall Farm, which stretches across 4,500 acres. While people have been locked up in doors, they have been ploughing on with their day-to-day lives.

He said: “It was quite weird when it initially hit.

“We were farming while everyone else was stuck at home, and the A14 was dead - it was really quite ghostly."

Despite the public remaining indoors, sales remained 'strong', according to Paul. Supermarket sales rose, but other industries, such as the restaurants, were down, leading to a 'tale of two halves'.

Hall Farm deals predominantly with onion seeds and potato farming. They store 750 tonnes of onions in a total of 11 containers, as well as two 1000 tonne containers of potatoes. The latter can command up to £170 per tonne.

Hall Farm, Fornham St Martin, is one of many farms harvesting their produce. Picture by Mark Westley
Hall Farm, Fornham St Martin, is one of many farms harvesting their produce. Picture by Mark Westley

In the height of the harvesting season, the farm is a hive of activity, like their numerous counterparts across the region. 2020 has seen them carry over some of their crop due to slow movement as a result of their usually buyers, such as restaurants and pubs, being shut.

Despite the challenges - import tariffs on seed potatoes is currently at 4 per cent - Brexit has not hampered the fact that there will always be imports and exports from the EU.

"There is always going to be a sale, and there is always going to be parts to sell in Europe," said Paul.

"We are not going to be short out of parts from Germany, whether that is for an Audi car or it’s for a tractor. We are just not, they are not going to allow that to happen. It hasn’t been affected, Brexit hasn’t affected it as far as I can tell."

Paul highlights the biggest challenge has been the supply chain disruption has been the biggest problem for those industry, meaning that is has not been a 'normal year'.

However, the UK has banned imports of seed potatoes, with UK ministers set to deal with applications to import them individually. According to Charles, the industry will be in a 'real muddle' as a result.

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