Taylor Edgar (onlinewords.co.uk) looks at market gardening in the Falkland Isles and how a locally-based producer facing up to lockdown and pandemic emergency, supplies local population with salad vegetables despite average wind-speeds of 16 knots and average monthly temperatures of 2-9C. (Outer Hebrides – 5-14C and 10-17 knots)

Tim and Jan Miller run a market garden in the Falklands. They are now locked in a battle with the weather to keep the South Atlantic islands supplied with fresh vegetables throughout the year during the Covid-19 pandemic.

By now, they would usually be winding down their heated greenhouses for the winter and be relying on green salad imports by air from Chile. But with air links to South America hit by bans on international flights, Tim and Jan’s company are doing all they can to extend the growing season and keep the Falklands going in salad vegetables until the end of May.

A market gardener of British descent that stretches back to 1847, Tim, along with wife, Jan of Shropshire farming stock,  has operated his business on the edge of Port Stanley, the Falklands capital, for the past 30 years. Speaking to welovestornoway.com from his Stanley Growers headquarters, Tim explained: “We keep the Islands self-sufficient in salads most of the year, and grow a range of vegetables and hardy fruits. What we cannot grow,  we bulk import, so we are the main fresh produce suppliers to the retailers here as well.”

With so many people relying on Tim and Jan for their five a day, Stanley Growers have been pulling out all the stops to meet the challenges presented by Covid-19 social distancing. Despite their heroic efforts, Tim concedes that by June, most salad items will be off the menu but replaced by the basic fruit and vegetables they always have in stock. (https://www.facebook.com/Stanley-Nurseries-Garden-Centre-649403781746985)

The lockdown introduced in late March by the Falklands government did, he notes, promote them from being farmers to key workers and receiving a request to remain operational.

“Once our old and vulnerable folks were sent into isolation Jan, and I thought ‘Well - these folks still need fresh food and cannot come to us - so let’s take it to their homes instead,” Tim recalls.

“We run the Islands Garden centre with our farm shop, so we are also able to deliver their gardening needs at the same time. It does keep us busy as sometimes over 20 home deliveries a day, but it’s nice as we can chat with the folks from a few metres away for a bit, and they enjoy it.”

At the moment, it is believed the Falklands are Covid-19-free after an initial outbreak of 13 cases confined to the British Army base near Stanley airport, some 30 miles from the town. All the cases were mild symptoms and effectively isolated, with all the cases now recovered.

Since there were no testing facilities on the islands at the time, the Falklands had little option but to impose a lockdown on non-essential businesses and schools.

Now, with a three to six-day turnaround on Covid-19 tests flown to the UK and local testing now getting underway, a partial relaxation of the lockdown began on Monday with most businesses and schools reopening. Hairdressers, pubs, and restaurants remain closed, and some higher-risk islanders are being told to stay in isolation.

Comments Tim: “A benefit of a small place like ours is that in March, the doctors went through the entire population’s medical notes and contacted all those they wanted to go into isolation and away behind their doors they went, including every one of 70 years or more.”

Interestingly, the Falkland Islands have a nest egg to fall back to offset the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.  “Luckily also our government has been careful with reserves over the years and has maintained a multimillion-pound ‘Rainy Day Fund’ -  and so it can offer cash schemes to employers, the self-employed and businesses from our reserves and know we can still carry on, says Tim.

“World wool prices have crashed due to the lockdown everywhere. Our government is going to buy farmers wool at pre-pandemic prices, so they have cash - and then aim to resell the wool in a year or so. And if there’s any profit that will go back to the farmers as well.”

While they are a British Overseas Territory and inextricably linked with the UK, the Falklands are outward-looking and will be keeping an eye on other similar parts of the world for their response to the pandemic.

Commenting on how the lockdown and social distancing have impacted his company, Tim says the most significant change has been in their little staff hut. Usually, this is the venue for their daily shift meeting of the 15-strong workforce. Under two-metre social distancing, this number was reduced to four. Instead, Tim spends the first 15 minutes of each day walking the site to give instructions to each of his two to three-strong teams.

This limited contact was a fact of life, too, when five Antarctic cruise ships were allowed to dock in the Falklands after being denied entry in South America. They were allowed to offload passengers and fly them out of Stanley on pre-arranged repatriation flights with LATAM, a large Chilean airline. The ships were then refuelled and restocked so they could continue to their home ports in the US and Europe.

Since these humanitarian landings in the Falklands, ships that do call in now can only do so on a ‘no contact’ basis. Explains Tim: “Their crews have been at sea for a long time so they know they are virus-free. We, of course,  are only Covid-19 free until we get a positive. On balance, the ships’ crews fear us more than we fear them, so they stay on board!”

Supply orders are emailed ahead and transported alongside and left on pallets, which are then unloaded by the ship’s crew. All the paperwork is done electronically without the need ever to meet face to face.

And last week, Falklanders waved off the Hebridean Sky. This vessel had been chartered by the British Antarctic Survey to transport their scientists and work crews back home to the UK. It is now under passage without the passengers ever setting foot on the Falklands for the return leg.

But as others head for home, the islanders they have left behind are left to ponder the future and what a post-Covid-19 future looks like. For now, geography has at least dealt the Falklands a decent hand for their tourism industry, the second most crucial component of their economy.  In this part of the Southern Hemisphere, the 2019-2020 tourist season was, at the time of the lockdown, 95% complete. Only time will tell now if, and under what rules, cruise ship tourism can recommence next year.