Oxfordshire’s farmers and growers are finding opportunities as well as challenges through the coronavirus pandemic.
“Farmers are very inventive,” said beef farmer Matthew Rymer. “For example, there’s been a massive increase in direct sales from farms and farm shops.”
Michael Valenzia, regional director of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), agrees – to an extent. “Farming is robust, but where it has diversified, for example into rural tourism, it’s suffering. Domestic tourism is predicted to fall by around £18 billion, or almost a quarter, this year.”
The two countryside experts were taking part in a digital Q&A session run by the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP) to assess the impact of the pandemic on the local rural economy, hosted by broadcaster Howard Bentham. It also featured OxLEP’s CEO Nigel Tipple, who sees signs that consumers are changing their food-buying habits.
“A new group of people are shopping locally, as I’ve seen myself in Thame Farmers’ Market. Many more are appreciating the value and resilience of local supply chains and seasonal food.”
Matthew Rymer, who also founded Happerley, an organisation that demonstrates food traceability, thinks this is positive. “The seeds have been sown for realigning our consumer-driven supply chain. While not everyone will be willing to pay more for premium food, more people are appreciating the savings they can make through buying fresh food and cooking it at home.”
Rural areas have an inbuilt advantage in the current situation, according to Michael Valenzia and the CLA, because they have more space to implement social distancing and less reliance on public transport. The CLA is lobbying for a reduction in VAT to 5% for tourism businesses and is seeking a slow relaxation of the furlough so that rural firms can be sustained. He urged countryside holiday businesses to be flexible and offer free cancellation terms to help build confidence.
Small rural businesses should take up the latest government support schemes such as the bounce-back loans and the self-employed income support scheme, explained Nigel Tipple. He also pointed out a job redeployment service, supported by OxLEP, that can put jobseekers in touch with areas of the rural economy such as fruit and vegetable producers that are looking for seasonal workers.
Collaboration and technology are two key factors in helping the rural economy out of the current situation. Matthew pointed to a smart phone app being developed so rural pub customers will be able to order and pay for their food remotely when outlets reopen. The app will also let them see where their food was reared and grown, encouraging pubs to source locally. Another illustration is the development of the Blenheim brand of food, involving many local food and drink producers. “People around the world buy into the landscape, history and tradition that Oxfordshire exemplifies,” he said.
“We have a vibrant rural economy with the potential to adapt, to innovate and to adopt technology,” Nigel Tipple concluded. “We need to find ways of helping, whether with better connectivity, or by building confidence with consumers, for example through improved food traceability, to encourage them to support home-grown produce. The resilience that rural people have shown will help them build new markets.”