Shropshire farmers have not only been battling waterlogged fields caused by severe flooding at the start of the year; now there are of course the ever-changing working conditions due to the Corona-virus outbreak.
There has been no exception for Caroline Hulland and the workforce on her asparagus farm near Bridgnorth, who were forced to start harvesting a month earlier than usual – the same day the UK entered lockdown. With the asparagus season usually running from April 23 to June 21, Quatt farmer Caroline said a balmy winter followed by a sodden few months meant despite a slower turnover, the back-breaking harvest began on March 23.
"We're having a funny year. It's been very wet early on, but we also had a very mild winter which is not what asparagus wants at all," she said. "It needs a harsh frost to let the crops go dormant. It's slow producing this year and normally when we get hotter weather, as we've seen more recently, we get big peaks – but we're not seeing those peaks this year which is quite unusual."
The vegetable only grows when soil temperatures reach 8C and every single spear is hand-picked by Caroline and her 20 helpers at Lodge Farm, making it one of the most labour-intensive crops to harvest.
With increasing pressures forcing some Shropshire farmers to quit the industry for good, Caroline said the farm has had to make a number of alterations to ensure this year provides a successful harvest, including having to turn down the offer of volunteer help to keep her regular workers safe.
"We're continually under the pressure of the cost of labour. Asparagus is a massively labour-intensive crop," she said. "We were fortunate in that we got our labour in early but we've really had to focus on keeping our workforce safe – we had three that couldn't make it as their flights were cancelled from Bulgaria and I've had to turn down help from kind people that have offered. If one of our staff did fall ill it would take us out of production for two weeks and at that point, that would be it for us."
"We have lost a lot of sales from the catering and restaurant industry. We do a lot of restaurant sales which obviously just aren't there at the moment, but to balance that out, retail orders have been a lot higher."
Caroline said work will now remain constant, bar any major changes in the industry, until late June, when preparations for next season's harvest begin, along with a stone fruit and cherry harvest.