Perthshire boasts an attractive and diverse rural landscape. The eastern region, particularly in the lower lands, contains some of the best quality land in Scotland which is used intensively for horticulture and other arable crops. Highland Perthshire has a more scattered and less dense population, with hill and upland farming and high landscape values, and an important tourism industry. While the region benefits from a robust rural economy, the long term effects of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic are yet to be seen. This period of change has underscored the breadth of the industry – providing food, employment, tourism, and energy to not just the local area, but nationally and internationally.
One Perthshire based Thorntons’ client noted “a honeymoon period” at the beginning of lockdown where his sales to the retail sector increased, which contributed to March 2020 being the biggest month of grocery sales ever recorded in the country. However, the supply to restaurants, fast food outlets, work places, schools and entertainment events “crashed spectacularly” and companies who supplied the food service industry found their revenue source removed overnight. With the easing of lockdown restrictions in Perthshire this market source is picking up again, however new variants of the virus may lead to more local lockdowns, having an impact on the industry and trading.
While navigating the challenges faced by landowners and rural businesses throughout the last year, many of our clients have been reminded how vital diversification has become to ensuring a healthy and profitable rural business. Perth and Kinross’s farm sector is diverse and it has shown capacity for diversification into, for example, direct sales and farm tourism. This was evidenced in a recent rural survey with nearly half of respondents in the region operating a non-farm enterprise, which was well above the 28% national average. Perth and Kinross Council actively promote the development of local food supply chains and we enjoy several farmers’ and country markets and a significant number of suppliers of speciality foods. Similarly, the region has high potential for a range of renewable energy developments including hydro, wind and biomass from very large-scale installations to micro-scale installations.
While diversification offers some stability, the compounded problems of Brexit and the pandemic led to seasonal worker shortages in Perthshire. Approximately 10,000 seasonal workers are required for Scotland’s fruit, vegetable and ornamentals sectors each year and the Perthshire area makes use of a significant seasonal agricultural labour force, many of whom come from Eastern Europe. This posed an obvious concern at the beginning of the pandemic for those who rely on migrant workers, as much of Europe closed its borders to international travel, airlines were grounded and there was a threat of strict quarantining rules on arrival into Scotland. The Pick for Britain website was developed collaboratively to support the agricultural sector in avoiding labour shortages and charter flights from Eastern Europe were eventually permitted to bring migrant workers into the UK, who were classed as ‘key workers’. With tighter rules imposed on entry requirements and visas for foreign workers post-Brexit, the sector’s labour woes may present an ongoing challenge if not addressed and certainly the increased administrative burden documenting entry, have translated into increasing labour costs.
However, the recent announcement by the Tay City Deal joint committee, greenlighting the International Barley Hub and the Advanced Plant Growth Centre, two flagship innovation projects supported through Government capital investment via the Tay Cities Region Deal, bring welcome news for the recovery of the region’s rural and agriculture sector. Barley is one of Scotland’s most important crops, being key to brewing and distilling but also used for animal feed. It is estimated the two projects will create over 470 jobs in Perthshire and the Tayside region with a further 2,200 jobs across the wider Scottish and UK economy.
This continued growth in and around Perth and Kinross bodes well for the recovery needed after COVID-19. The focus on investing in a cleaner, greener society presents a chance for the rural sector in Perthshire to shine. The pandemic has shown that the rural economy is resilient but perhaps the sector now has the opportunity to revisit current working practices and make a positive climate impact, while assisting with the economic recovery.