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‘Crisis pushed us all to take action’

Jo and daughter Daisy.
Jo and daughter Daisy.

Since I last wrote in March, the world and society as we know it has changed beyond recognition.

Nick had already taken precautions to make the farm “Covid-secure” for himself and staff, including social distancing between farm employees and shift working for the dairy processing team.

Additional cleaning of the honesty shop was implemented and we set up a one-at-a-time customer policy to adhere to social distancing.

However, the sheer volume of people coming to the farm – by car, on foot and on bike – soon saw folk queuing outside the shop with cars parked everywhere, making the two-metre rule difficult to observe.

Like so many local food businesses who have reinvented themselves in the crisis, we were overwhelmed by demand.

The 100-litre capacity milk vending machine was being refilled twice a day and the yoghurt, cheese, eggs and pork were selling out.

By Easter, Nick had set up a one-way system with hay bales, directing customers to stay in their car until reaching the shop (cyclists and walkers simply join the car queue), which facilitated easier restocking and safer social distancing.

We have also partnered with local businesses to offer customers more produce when they visit.

In sharp contrast to the thriving retail sales on the farm, the main milk supply has been less buoyant.

With the closure of restaurants and hotels, our milk buyer Highland Fine Cheeses lost a substantial amount of their trade overnight.

For us, this means they have gone from collecting milk five times a week to twice a week, a drop of 40%.

To decrease the volume of milk production here – and feeding costs – Nick has had to dramatically reduce the number of milking cows.

He dried off around a third of the herd, put calves on half a dozen of the low-yielding cows, then sold off the poorest performing cows.

The next step was to find more retail outlets for our pasteurised milk.

Local businesses including Corner on the Square, Highland Farm Café, Loch Ness Lodge Hotel, Ryefield Farm Shop, The Storehouse and Williamsons all stepped up to buy and distribute milk and yoghurt across the Black Isle and beyond, for which we are very grateful.

Yet it’s bittersweet to note the huge surge in popularity of local shops, delivery services and our own little honesty shed.

Like other farmers and retailers, we are very happy to be busy during this challenging economic time, retaining our staff and helping people stay safe and well-stocked, but sad it has taken a pandemic to bring about this revolution in shopping habits. We hope that when lockdown eases society will continue to support local businesses.

Meanwhile at home, the girls really have been amazingly accepting of the situation and I am grateful to our resilient rural school, Mulbuie Primary, for providing such an exceptional interactive virtual learning experience.

Home-schooling has its challenges, but I remain thankful I am safe at home with the girls right now.

We are also mindful of how lucky we are living where we do; not only are we surrounded by lots of green space, but friends regularly visit the honesty shop, so we have been lucky to catch up with several over the garden fence.

Another distraction is new addition Cocoa, our very lively chocolate cocker spaniel puppy. We tentatively viewed the litter in February and decided it was the perfect time for a family pet. Sometimes, though, my house and garden disagree.

l Jo lives at Rootfield Farm, just north of Inverness, with husband Nick and their daughters Daisy and Mollie.

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