Will is a leading Welsh farmer who runs Natural Wagyu alongside his dairy operation in Pembrokeshire, Wales. We sat down for a chat with him about how Covid-19 is affecting his operations, what he has been doing differently, and what his vision of is for the future of farming after the pandemic.
How is the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown situation affecting your business?
To be honest it’s been quite good - we’ve probably never been busier. However our one challenge is that we were using staff from Eastern European for the milking work, and we lost those guys after about a week as they couldn’t get back from the EU to work. So we’ve had to re-jig the starting rotas and get a little more hands on.
We’ve also got a few other little projects on at the same time, so the in-house joke is that ‘we’ve never been busier’.
What are the main challenges you’re facing because of this pandemic?
The staffing issues are definitely top of the list, as it is at the centre of everything we’re doing. It's interesting because figuring out the rostering and staffing issues is eating into our management time, but we are also viewing this as an opportunity - and a good time to look to recruit full time staff.
We come across people who are looking for part time work continuously, but we are now looking to actually try and nail down one or two potential stars of the future for us, as there are many people looking for work in this climate.
For now however, our priority is actually getting enough time to do more things, like admin, job descriptions, interviews, as it is proving quite difficult to do so at the moment whilst undertaking crisis management jobs.
Do you think your business is well equipped to handle this outbreak?
Different parts of the business will perform in different ways. The majority of our income will come from dairy farming, as all of our milk goes into a local cheese factory which is about 15 miles away, which is contracted through retailers. So yes, realistically we’re in the most solid position we could be in terms of our supply chain. We do need to be cautious, for example the whole industry could collapse, but we’re relatively confident we’re in the best position we could be in!
The other part of our business is producing Wagyu Beef, and that's been quite challenging in this climate. The market dropped off for steak meat straight away, and actually managing drop in demand has been really tricky. But in the medium term and looking into the future for that, we’re having really positive conversations with retailers, so we’re not overly concerned about the future of this operation.
Our meat is a premium product - so we’re not particularly affected by the general beef price. But we are affected by the supply and demand within our own economic bubble.
It feels like the economy has had a little reset. There had been a build up of frustration in agriculture over the last 20 to 30 years, that the value of our produce wasn’t there. I’m not sure we’ll get greater financial returns for our products, but what we may see is a slip in the rest of the economy which may propel us further up the ladder. So the percentage of people's income that is spent on food is going to increase even if the actual price of food doesn’t increase. That’s ultimately a good thing for our industry, and some of the arguments that have been made to the government over the last 20 to 30 years about the importance of food security and agriculture, which is typically one line added into most policy papers. I’m hoping this means they’ll take it a little more seriously from now on.
“As long as we can stay fit, healthy, and alive, there could be some positives coming for the industry.”
In the face of the virus, have you been working more closely with any of your advisers to adjust your plan to cater to these challenges, or is it largely business as usual for you?
Largely it’s been business as usual for us. The bank manager calls for a friendly chat from time to time to make sure we’ve got a milk cheque coming next month. However beyond that not really, nothing specific to this situation. It's been more work internally, we have some of our managers working on policy at the moment to see what we want the business to look like. We’ve been able to use Figured for this - our managers all have individual access to their enterprises and at the moment they’re looking toward employment costs and how we can structure the business.
It was actually LHP who highlighted that there was some loan support coming in from the Welsh government though - so we’ve been able to set up a government backed loan to cover some of the cash flow issues. The accountants have been proactive to be honest, they’ve kept the information coming at us. They’ve always had a fairly strong social media presence with updates too.
"The accountant, of all the people we deal with, has been one of the more helpful."
How do you think agriculture in general will fare compared to other industries after this pandemic?
My vision is that agriculture will potentially fare quite well, and it will probably be in a better position at the end of it all. I think there's been a pressure building over the last 10 years, almost a frustration, around the fact that people couldn’t see the benefit and value in what we’re doing in agriculture. It felt like there were a lot of people having a poke at agriculture from all these different directions. None of that's going to go away, but maybe there’ll be a more balanced vision of the importance of our food supply chain.
The other thing that's going to be really interesting is to see how people's buying habits will change. Whether people get used to ordering online and getting it delivered; is this the final wave that's going to finally propel Amazon right to the top of the tree? I think people have had a guts full of going into the supermarket already - so will they be ready for a new form of e-commerce? It will be interesting to see how the agriculture industry interacts with these changes.
We love hearing from farmers like Will in the UK and around the world, and we want to share their thoughts and experiences with others, and connect those in agriculture across the globe.
If there are any farmers who want to sit down for a chat and share their thoughts, knowledge, and experience, feel free to reach out!