I've often joked with friends that dairy farming is a bit like being in an open prison, and that's even more true now than before. The difference now is that much of the population is also feeling that isolation and lack of social contact.

Rather than feeling like an open prison at this point in time, I feel incredibly lucky to have a huge amount of space around us.

It's a massive luxury - back to basics - nobody cares about the usual bling at the moment - it's all about the basics, and surviving both mentally and physically.

If it all went really Mad Max we've got water, meat and other produce available on the farm, between what we grow and our neighboring farmers we'd potentially survive fairly well.

I can't imagine how difficult it would have been being locked down and having kids to keep entertained during this period in our old life in the center of Reading.

The price we pay for that luxury is the big mortgage. It's pretty scary having big mortgage and bill commitments and not knowing how our businesses are going to fare.  

We're really lucky but also, like many people, quite scared about how this all plays out.

I guess worst case business wise, it all goes horribly wrong, we lose it and have to start over again - health of ourselves and loved ones is the top priority.

Best case we all stay healthy, the farm keeps ticking over and we can welcome some glamping guests later in the year, and it's a cash-flow and profitability blip that we get through. I suspect reality will be somewhere in between the two.

Farming

On a day to day basis the main farming business is largely unaffected.

The cows are still grazing, making a mess of stuff, having calves, needing to be milked and looked after.

The fields still need planting with crops ready for the next season.

Our milk is still being picked up, and in turn I'm (hoping and) expecting to be paid for it the following month as normal.

Pretty much everyone in the wider agricultural supply market is still working all be it with additional safety restrictions.

The suppliers of the bits and bobs we need to keep running are mostly all still delivering - obviously we're all being careful keeping our distance, having to phone ahead with orders of products so they can be prepared and put outside for us to pick up, but we're all largely continuing as normally as we can.

There have been a few horror stories of some milk processors telling their farmers to dump their milk, and other processors asking their farmers to pull back production - my heart really goes out to those affected.

Farming margins have been driven down to be pretty razor thin most of the time.

Those farmers having to dump milk will probably not be able to afford to continue for very long like that and perhaps may not even be farming once we're out of the other side of this pandemic. Heart wrenching seeing others go through that, and a worry about how safe our milk buyer is.

I've done some spreadsheet disaster planning if I had to do 3 months with no milk pickups or payment it's not pretty.

The updates from our milk buyer inform us that they, along with everyone else, have had their food services business disappear which will of course have an impact on their finances.

Only time will tell how much of an impact and whether that impact is manageable by them or forces them to push the pain to their suppliers....us....

Whilst that's all a bit of a worry ... I'm sure the reality will be somewhere in the middle of it.

There's going to be tough times ahead, but we'll get through it, and with luck we'll be a much stronger nation the other side.

Diversification

Our Glamping site is very much not business as usual.

As the extent of virus became more apparent we started looking at what others in the industry were doing regarding helping customers that had already booked.

We simply didn't have the cash to refund every deposit and booking made. That would of course been a nice position to be in, but we use that income to carry out repairs and maintenance, on-going running costs, and of course live prior to getting up and running for the season.

Thankfully most people have been understanding and worked with us to change dates, or just accept they can't come when they wanted too - there have been a couple of groups that have been awkward, I guess it's understandable. Sadly it's a tiny business and we're not sat on thousands of pounds ready to return any and all customer payments just in case - it's felt horrible referring people to our booking T's & C's, but that's all we could do.  

Frustrating for both them and us.

We've personally lost money on the first holiday we've booked in 10 years.... we were hoping to escape the farm for a cheapish week in Spain later in the year. Thankfully we hadn't paid for accommodation, but flight and car hire payments gone.

It sucks, but that's life.

We're still optimistically doing maintenance work at the glamping site in the hope that we're open later in the year.

As soon as we're allowed to be open and our customers are allowed to travel we'll be ready.

Self sufficiency

Along with toilet rolls, people have been buying up loads of seeds and chickens.

Understandable to want to be more self-sufficient at a time like this.

The supermarkets have worked really hard to keep shelves stocked - but it has exposed how tight supply chains are.

In normal times that's great for efficiency and their margins, but it's been eye opening how those supply chains have been impacted by the change in demand - and to be fair to them it's been a massive change, both in the initial volume of panic buying, and the subsequent change in "form factor" of product. Demand shifted overnight away from bulk food service product and consumer product demand jumped. It's hard to change machinery and product lines producing 20kg tubs of something destined for food services industries when consumers want it in 1kg bags.

Last year we (mostly my wife!) got a pretty decent veg patch up and running on in a corner of a field next to the farm house.

We had loads of produce over the course of the year, potatoes that did us 6 months, purple sprouting broccoli, parsnips and onions from last year that's we're still eating now, it's something we're working on repeating this year and probably expanding on further.

We're giving serious thought to starting selling milk directly from the farm. It's something we discussed last year, but couldn't afford the equipment to facilitate it. I'm not sure how we'd make it work right now with the disruption to our businesses, but it's certainly moved up my priority list of things to cost out.

I'm hopeful that perhaps one of the good things that comes from this pandemic is that more people want locally produced food.

I'm sure the majority will go back to the cheapest route possible - i.e. the supermarkets, which is understandable given that many people (us included) are going to be on tighter budgets - but perhaps there will be a percentage of the population that will value less food miles and a more robust supply than before and are willing to pay a small premium to support local suppliers.

We're looking at offering milk and eggs, and perhaps in the future some veg and meat - perhaps even set up a local box scheme. If we could get 100 or 200 regular customers I think it's something that could be a useful business for us to run.

Kids, schooling and staying sane

Thankfully when the lock down was announced our kids we at the end of their term so we've not had a try with any home schooling yet.

That joy is something to look forward to next week.

For the last couple of weeks the older two have been putting in serious hours on Minecraft.

We of course nag them to come and spend some time outside ... and a reluctant reasonablish balance has been struck with a few hours outside and lots of hours on a Minecraft server. We've got to remember it's their holiday time until the middle of next week.

To be honest I'm kind of liking their ability to work remotely. Using Discord to chat with their friends around the world, solving Minecraft problems together ... not a bad skill to develop.

Something that I believe, and is likely expedited with this pandemic, is that remote work is going to become more the norm for a reasonable proportion of the population and the kids are just going to be natives at it - I love tech.

Next week we'll be having to instigate a different routine.

Worst case I have to block the Minecraft hypixel servers on our network ... "sorry boys their servers must be down, I'll contact the helpdesk" ... :)

Their school have put in enormous effort to be able to offer tuition remotely - we've been getting laptops and iPads set up with Microsoft teams, Class Dojo and some other school related SASS type products.... I can see it being a bit of a challenge with 3 boys obviously all of different ages, but fingers crossed we can make it work.

The effort the teachers have put in to make remote tuition a plausible option has brought a tear to my eyes. I couldn't do what they do.

The way out

I hope you're all doing as well as possible through this period.

As the Queen said we will get out the other side.

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