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Waitrose farmers up efforts to keep shelves full in spite of challenges
Friday, 10 April, 2020, 12 : 00 PM [IST]
Bracknell, UK
Farmers working to supply the UK’s supermarkets have reassured customers there is plenty of food available. From milk to meat and vegetables, produce is continuing to arrive at retailers, despite the challenges posed by the Corona virus pandemic.

Brian Barnett, chair of the Waitrose and Partners Dairy Farmers Group, said, “Our farmers are coping well, and there is plenty of milk. The cows are going out to grass after the winter*, which results in an uplift in yield because they’re happier when outside.”

“The challenge is making sure we have enough people to look after the cows, but we have  put a lot of contingencies in place – farmers are pulling in family members and taking on extra staff,” he added.

Stephen Shields, technical director for Lancashire-based Huntapac, which supplies carrots, parsnips and salads, said each of the company’s growing, packing and distribution arms had faced its own challenges.

“We’ve ‘fleeced up’ more crops to bring them on quicker and we are harvesting more often,” he said. 

Meanwhile, workers’ welfare is being protected by a range of measures. “Packing staff are classed as key workers, so we have made it safe and comfortable for them,” added Stephen. 

That includes taking employees’ temperatures before their shifts and providing protective clothing and caps. The cabs of lorries with sleeping facilities are being treated with aerosol disinfectant ‘bombs.’ The cabs are then valeted and the keys sterilised before the next driver takes over. 

To help complete retail orders, Huntapac has also taken on around 40 people from restaurants that have had to close due to the crisis.

Dovecote Park, Waitrose supplier of beef, veal and venison, has extended operations at its factory in Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire, from a five-day week to six longer-hours days. 

Another factory in Pontefract, North Yorkshire, is now working seven days a week. Managing director Andrew McAllister is holding daily meetings with staff to hear their concerns, and the firm is offering its 800 workers free breakfasts and lunches, and places to eat while keeping apart.

Howard Revell, production manager at British Quality Pigs, which looks after 250 pig farms for Waitrose pork supplier Dalehead, said, “We are working with all our farmers on protocols to make sure people are not mixing unnecessarily and have cut out all non-essential visits, although vets will keep going to maintain animal health and welfare.”

The National Farmers’ Union is urging anyone who has lost their job as a result of the current crisis to help feed the nation. Christine McDowell, who is the union’s chief food chain adviser, said farms had been experiencing a labour shortage even before Covid-19 struck.

 A recent recruitment drive has been successful, but is not enough to provide the 80,000 seasonal and permanent workers needed each year.

She said,“Farmers continue to farm, continue to plant crops for the coming season and continue to harvest those crops. But the biggest challenge is a lack of labour. If you have lost your job, there are plenty available on farms, and we need your help.”
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