The annual IOD Jersey Executives Luncheon takes place on November 25. This is an opportunity for the former, current and future leaders of our island to help inform the debate ahead of next year’s elections. All sectors of the industry are encouraged to get involved as we try to get back on track after the pandemic and Brexit. Before lunch, IoD Jersey sat down with a range of industry experts to get their thoughts on the way forward with constructive and actionable suggestions. This week, in the last installment of the series, it is the turn of the agricultural industry. William Church was Director of Sales and Marketing at The Jersey Royal Company for almost eight years. He spoke to a wide range of people involved in the industry before answering our questions.
Q: What is the current “state” of the agriculture industry in Jersey?
William: Agriculture has been going through an increasingly difficult period for several years with rising costs and constant downward pressure on prices in a very competitive market. At the same time, more and more demands were placed on it with audit trails to justify and demonstrate good working practices.
The experiences of the past 18 months have made matters worse, with serious consequences following Brexit which increases the administrative burden and, of course, restricts the movement of labor. And then there was the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has not been good for agriculture. We have not received any financial support from the government despite being a vital industry. Overall, the Jersey Farmers Union tells me there were around £ 4million in losses last year.
When farmers hired staff, they had to keep them isolated for a period of time and also had to find the resources to keep a block of staff quarters empty in the event of an outbreak requiring someone to be quarantined. In the meantime, costs have increased dramatically and yet farmers are under constant pressure to keep prices low. It is unbearable.
Q: Is agriculture doing enough to help itself?
William: The Farmers Union has seen the increasing difficulties in recruiting seasonal workers in Europe, and so has set up a workflow, bringing in people from the Philippines. They are very proactive.
Industry has also done a lot to mechanize and master robotics. Work is currently underway to introduce robotics for planting potatoes on hillsides, and Pépinières La Chasse are studying a tomato picking robot for next season. This is a positive step as the machines do not need to be brought in every year and housed somewhere, or their welfare managed.
Agriculture has done a lot to improve the working conditions of its workforce. Accommodation is regulated and inspected, not by the government here, but through ethical audits for UK supermarkets. We had to encourage workers to eat and find shelter; it’s not just about salaries. If you keep your workforce happy and healthy, it’s better for productivity.
Q: So what problems do farmers face?
William: The problem we have is how do you define who is qualified and who is not. Driving a tractor around the island with six tons of potatoes on your back is a real skill. You also cannot enchant people who can milk cows. If you want a spray operator, he has to pass exams to do it. You also need people with the right skills and the right attitude, but licenses are only good for nine months.
How do you train someone in nine months, and why would you do it if they disappeared after that time? The Island needs to look at how it classifies skilled and unskilled labor.
The other issue that needs to be looked into is that we charge these workers to Social Security, but they don’t get anything until they’ve been here for six months, which means the employer often has to bear it. the weight if a worker needs, for example, to attend a medical appointment.
There is also the cost and administration of bringing a tractor just for the potato season. You have to pay duty on it and do all the paperwork, register it as a Jersey tractor, then start the whole process all over again when you return it at the end of the season – and yet you can bring a UK car and drive her here for six months without any of these issues.
The rural economy does not ask for handouts. He is asking for sympathy measures to prevent him from being kicked in the shins. Stop holding back businesses.
Q: Does the agriculture industry take the environment and sustainability seriously?
Guillaume: Absolutely, yes. Farmers are the largest users of land and this land contributes enormously to the public good. The maintenance is up to the farmer and this responsibility includes the realization of the branches.
The industry has engaged with environmentalists and there has been some very positive progress. Now for example if you have a ten foot bank they only cut the bottom part to keep the road safe and let the top grow wild. It also saves time and diesel.
Many farmers do not trim their indoor hedges every year, and there are hundreds of kilometers of them. They are cut just to avoid wasting space on the ground.
Five or ten years ago, we were more concerned about the quality of the water. Agriculture has worked with Jersey Water and formed a voluntary interest group – Action for Cleaner Water – to be proactive in this area. Nitrate levels have now dropped.
Because we are an island, it is very expensive for dairy farmers to bring in feed for the cattle, so they produce and manage as much as possible locally, with permanent pasture and silage to feed them. winter. This provides carbon offsets. The Jersey cow is one of the most efficient animals. It has a small frame so eats less, but has good productivity and high milk quality.
Q: What about the future?
William: We currently have a situation where the majority of landowners are not land users, and this is a consequence of the fact that so many farming families are leaving the industry. Succession is a big problem. What is the incentive for people to get into farming when wages and incomes remain the same but costs have risen sharply? Fertilizers have increased by 100%, freight by 20% and fuel by 40% over the past year, and these are just a few examples. It is inevitable that food prices will have to increase.
But it’s a really exciting industry to be a part of. It’s so diverse and provides opportunities for so many people, including those who don’t necessarily want to graduate and go to college. The industry also needs mechanical and electrical engineers, it needs accountants, computer technicians and robotics experts as well as skilled forklift and tractor operators. There is a great diversity of opportunities.
Jersey could become a world leader in the production of high quality CBD products. You only need a small area to produce the crop, so that is not going to take a lot of land out of potato production. We should aspire to create a premium product the same way Scotland did with malt whiskey.
In the meantime, we must remain proud of having two of agriculture’s biggest brands in the form of New Jersey Royal Potatoes and the Jersey Cow. They are world leaders.