Ben Thompson: Agritech Centre project and industry engagement manager, Hartpury University and Hartpury College
A passionate advocate for sustainability in agriculture, Ben is working on a new initiative to support agritech businesses and food producers during the Covid-19 pandemic. With extensive experience in farm management, his ambition is to offer solutions to the problems facing farmers not just now but into the future. He says: “I come from a practical background in farming livestock. I have come to the research side of the fence because I realised there is a big knowledge transfer gap between companies, researchers and farmers where the communication needs to improve. “There is a lot more work to be done to improve access to new technology products and I have experienced it from both sides now, so I understand how to engage with the end users.”
Like many other professionals, ways of communicating with farmers and agritech businesses significantly changed and warranted a revised approach. Ben says: “Once lockdown started we shifted to online services. A lot of my work in terms of networking with farmers has improved, but platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been a revelation for people working in agriculture. I think we will be making more use of them in the future.”
Recognising the need to support farm businesses further during the Covid-19 crisis, the team has launched Hartpury Agritech Talk Week (May 11-18) to provide the agriculture community with a platform to share their views and discuss the latest Government support packages. It is also helping farmers to find out how they can benefit from using the latest technology to make businesses work smarter and harder. He says: “We understand agriculture and farming is a 24/7 industry and now busier than ever as a result of Covid-19. “Ultimately, it is about supporting all organisations across the food supply chain during these unprecedented times. “Securing food security and continuing the upwards curve of efficiency in food production will be key in riding out the storm.” With social distancing still in place, the event is not taking place at a live venue but instead through an open phoneline from 7am to 6pm, Monday to Sunday. He says: “This digital event is an open door opportunity to allow their voices to be heard and who can take part around their daily tasks, such as milking or lambing. “I have already taken a few calls this morning from farmers asking what help is out there.” Alongside this week, the centre will continue to support agritech businesses and help them unlock and make full use of new Government support packages over the forthcoming months.
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Rebecca Hadaway: Fundraising officer, The Prince’s Countryside Fund
Rebecca began her journey at The Prince’s Countryside Fund when she first learned of the unique challenges facing rural communities in the UK. Inspired to get involved and support the vital work of UK agriculture by her degree in geography, Rebecca secured a role as a fundraising officer. Her average week would involve travelling across the country visiting different corporate partners the charity works with, meeting different people and potential partners. Covid-19 has turned all this on its head. Events which were once part of Rebecca’s working calendar have been cancelled or postponed. Luckily, as a team already accustomed to remote working from the London headquarters, Rebecca and her colleagues already had the equipment and experience to make working from home a success. She says: “We have been really busy and have given out a lot of emergency grants and relief.” Quick to adapt its priorities, The Prince’s Countryside Fund set about plans to provide relief for rural communities from the coronavirus crisis. It is one of six charities teaming up to provide a boost for existing farming helplines operated by the Farming Community Network under the Farming Help initiative. The Prince’s Countryside Fund is offering emergency grants of up to £2,500 for charities and community initiatives helping with the response. This could be a farmer offering to deliver hot meals to the elderly or a charity offering to pick up and deliver prescriptions to the vulnerable.
With regular travel and meetings off the table, all members of Rebecca’s team are helping secure help for the vulnerable. She says: “We have all had to get stuck in with the grants. We are small team and normally grants would be done over several weeks, but this time it is more urgent to get the money out.” Reviewing the grant applications has been a change of pace for Rebecca, requiring her to quickly and critically assess the eligibility and scale of need of the requests. She says: “You have to take your emotions out of it and look at key indicators of success. Do they have volunteers and the practical elements to deliver what they want the money for?
“The amount of people phoning in has been incredible, we have had more than 400 applications and so far we have approved 62 grants and distributed about £126,000.”
Even in the midst of all this urgent action, Rebecca and The Prince’s Countryside Fund are looking ahead to what the landscape might be in two to three months’ time. She says: “It is difficult to say how the situation will change. If lockdown is lifted, the need for food deliveries will decrease. “I think we will be looking at how farms will deal with their cashflow and how their business plans will be affected, so we will have to play it by ear. “We will surely be doing a lot with farming help charities to support mental health as a priority.”