Thursday 12 March, 7.30am.
Hugh and I walked into our yard and broke the news to everyone. Gathered round us, staff waiting for the day’s instructions.
“This is the last day we shall meet like this for a while. From now on, all group gatherings on the farm are suspended. The kitchen has been set up as a wash-hand station. Before you touch anything on the farm, please wash your hands with soap. For 20 seconds. Piece time – the morning cup of tea and sandwich, literally “piece” of bread – cannot be had in a group. You must do this alone. For this next week it’s a drill so we can all practice, but next week it’s going to be for real.”
The previous week, we had noticed a strange thing happening with our meat order business. Our usual eight moderate parcels a week had trebled to 25 large ones. The butcher patiently explained to me that people were stockpiling.
I’d been resisting this since Monday 9 March. My husband Hugh, known and joked at in our family for being the harbinger of constant doom, had been trying to engage me with it since the weekend before. He hadn’t been able to buy ingredients for chicken feed. Not just a price spike, but there was nothing available. On Thursday morning, I had an epiphany, finally realising the enormity of what a global pandemic means.
So we began the process of re-configuring our business. Individual staff members were assigned to dedicated vehicles, except there were not enough vehicles to go around. Then there are 5 people who use the quadbike; they each need separate equipment.
Decisions need to be made on what is an acceptable level of risk; how long to leave a tractor cab free of one person before another one can get into it? Is overnight enough? Turns out, it has to be. No one is going to tell you what to do. We have to decide. I explain to staff that there’s no point doing things just to be seen to be doing it; whatever we implement has to have meaning. So wash your hands when you get to work, rather than wear a face mask.
And then we have to implement two-metre social-distancing measures. You’d think easy to do on a farm, being outside. But process by process, across a cattle herd about to start calving, a sheep flock heading into lambing, a small but demanding herd of pigs, flocks of chickens, and running two butchery processing and packing lines… this taxes our brains and problem-solving capabilities.
As farmers, this is what we do well, we are used to machinery breaking down in the middle of perfect weather for sowing or harvesting, and ruining our plans for the day or even the week. We often spend days taking continual steps backwards, as one piece of equipment breaks down after another, before we can turn the ship around and move forwards again.
I slept so well at the end of each day, my brain overloaded with information and some fear. How do I make people stay apart when they have to discuss how to solve a problem or calve a cow? I watched our forewoman’s natural instinct in stepping forward – to make her point carefully, using her instinctive personal charm – so she can persuade someone to solve a tricky problem with minimal resources. I have to ask her to step back. Staff would find me lurking and yelping at them to separate. “Two metres!” I’d say. “Imagine Hugh lying on the ground. I’ll stand at his head and you stand at his feet. That’s two metres!” So I started painting lines on the ground in the yard.
And then the phone rang and rang; anxious customers ordering and ordering. The government request for the elderly and already sick to self-isolate for 12 weeks prompted a flood of requests for home deliveries of food. They explain with patience about their illnesses. It’s sad to hear someone explain why they need someone to deliver some nice food to them because they are in stage 4 cancer and food is difficult territory anyway. And then there are those who complain bitterly about having to wait two weeks for their order and use words like “ridiculous” with anger on the phone. And our office administrator is so patient and calm with them all, gently talking their anxiety down. I am less kind, so I take myself off the phone one day, as I’m not helping.
The old order system and timelines stopped applying. We made a new one, shut down our butchery counter and spoke to people outside the door, and said: “No, you can’t come and collect a nice piece of pork, we have to keep our butcher safe.” All with one hand out to fend people off, taking a step back, and asking them to respect the two-metre rule, please.
One person at a time in the egg shop, please. Take only what you need, there will be more eggs tomorrow. Explaining that hens lay eggs every day, and we have 6,000 of them. There’s no need to take 90 eggs today.
Then people are grateful: “Thank you for doing what you do.” It makes me cry. I want to give a customer a hug because she’s so worried about her small son with severe asthma, and her face is so drawn and pale, and I go to do it and so does she, but we stop.
The government talks about this being like a war. That does not help. Everyone says, “the world will be different after all of this”. My hope is that here, on the land, things will be just about the same.