From Britain’s farmyards to its shop shelves, confidence is in short supply | Supply chain crisis

Norfolk is the heart of pig country. “Every other farm round here has pigs,” says Tom Wright, looking at his empty sheds. Next week 2,000 piglets will arrive, weighing 8kg each. In five months, they’ll be 110kg and ready for the supermarkets.

If there are any butchers, that is.

Wright’s local abattoir took his previous batch two weeks late because they don’t have enough trained butchers. “They earn £40,000 a year,” he says. “It’s a skilled job, it takes about two years to train.” But most of the eastern European butchers they relied on have gone and he doesn’t know if his next batch of pigs will be butchered or destroyed.

The National Pig Association has warned of a mass cull of more than 100,000 pigs on welfare grounds, because farmers are running out of space to keep their animals. The NPA was furious when Boris Johnson made light of the problem saying the pigs were going to die anyway.

A pig farm in Norfolk
A pig farm in Norfolk. Farmers are currently running out of space to keep their animals. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

“Why the pig sector is having no help from the prime minister is beyond us,” says Wright. “We have massive demand from our supermarkets. We have the produce. There’s just one piece of the chain missing in the middle. It’s a real problem that the prime minister is not acknowledging, but it’s not going away. They can’t train butchers overnight. He helped the chicken farmers and the hauliers with visas, but not us.”

Covid and Brexit have frayed the web of supply chains that Wright and other farmers rely on, and Andrew Burgess is feeling the impact of a different strand. His firm, Produceworld, supplies about 150,000 tonnes of organic potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions and leeks a year to all of Britain’s major supermarkets.

“The thing I’m waking up about every night is labour,” he says. “We’re short of people already.” The government’s Pick for Britain campaign last year, to replace the 70,000 seasonal jobs filled previously by eastern European workers recruited for only 5% to 11% of roles. Burgess employs 600 people from around Peterborough, Newmarket and King’s Lynn and is 100 short, with 200 more needed for Christmas.

Lib Dem councillor Steffan Aquarone
Lib Dem councillor Steffan Aquarone: ‘This is also about how we’ve given away power to fragile systems we don’t fully understand.’ Photograph: Si Barber/The Observer

“We haven’t hit our Christmas peak yet,” Burgess said. “In the short term, my cost inflation is being hit – it’s fuel, it’s labour, it’s packaging, it’s seed and fertilisers.

“Our industry is working on a profit margin of less than 2%, and has been for several years. And Mr Johnson expects us to go and find a load of capital to invest to replace people to buy machines that haven’t been invented yet. He’s like a first world war general accepting there’s going to be 100,000 casualties tomorrow morning.”

Burgess needs to plant new crops soon, and the organic, blight-resistant seed potatoes he needs come from the Netherlands. “I can’t get seed for next season, because there’s an import ban. We’ve got some dispute over plant health with Europe.”

That doesn’t mean replacement crops, however. Burgess has contracts to fufil, which means he has to find potatoes for his customers, come what may. “If we can’t grow potatoes, we’ll probably end up importing them,” he said.

Mary John and her niece Louise Elard
Mary John, with her niece Louise Elard: ‘It’s a frightening time. I’m worried the whole thing is going to collapse.’ Photograph: Si Barber/The Observer

There are plenty of potatoes in Benbows, a greengrocer that is an institution in Fakenham, one of north Norfolk’s prettiest market towns. Until last week, Fakenham had avoided many of the recent supply issues, according to Steffan Aquarone, a Lib Dem member of Norfolk county council.

“Now we’re starting to see real disruption on shelves, because of supply issues,” he says. “This isn’t only about politics, it’s also about the way we’ve given away power to fragile systems we don’t fully understand – [things like] just in time ordering, food production that sends ingredients all over the world and back again.”

Fruit and vegetables on sale in Fakenham, Norfolk
Fruit and vegetables on sale in Fakenham, Norfolk. The import ban has left some suppliers unable to get seed for the next season. Photograph: Si Barber/The Observer

Jack Dadd, a waiter, runs shopping errands for the restaurant he works at, and has found more shortages. Even his hobby of keeping tropical fish is suffering. “There’s a new pet shop here but they can’t open up an aquarium section because they can’t get any supplies – a lot of professional fish-tank equipment comes from Germany.”

Outside Benbows, Mary John and her niece Louise Elard are both concerned about the supply chain crisis. “It’s a frightening time,” Mary says. “I’m worried that the whole thing is going to collapse.”

“We are learning the true impact of Brexit,” Louise says. “They knew this was going to happen and they didn’t do anything.”

Her aunt disagrees – she voted for Brexit. Covid is the problem, she says. “Covid has made this more complicated,” Louise says. “But there are other things too, the shortage of labour. Universal credit.”

Yet it’s important to maintain perspective, according to Iain MacBrayne, a retired lawyer, who says he is “concerned, but not overly concerned”.

“When I first came to Fakenham [in the 1970s] we only had electricity three days a week. There are difficult times and this is just another one of them.”

Will comparing the current situation to the winter of discontent be much solace to the prime minister?

“I’m not a great Boris fan, but I don’t think much of the opposition either,” he says, adding that he has confidence in Rishi Sunak. “I’m disappointed that the government don’t seem to work out what’s happening next. These highly paid people in Westminster don’t seem to be able to do their jobs properly.”