Scotland’s economy: agricultural innovation key to secure farming future

Mark Donald is chairman of the New Generation Committee at NFU Scotland.
Mark Donald is chairman of the New Generation Committee at NFU Scotland.
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Innovation will be key as tomorrow’s farmers take on the challenges of the land.

With an ageing workforce where just 9 per cent of farm occupiers in Scotland are under 40, it’s encouraging to hear there is significant interest from the next generation in carrying on agriculture’s vital traditional skills and, increasingly, in pioneering new ones.

Farming as a sector has always survived and will always survive because fundamentally we need to eat

Mark Donald, NFU Scotland

The uptake in some capital and new-entrants grant schemes has been such that they are now oversubscribed.

Support of £2.5 million for new entrants into farming was announced by the Scottish Government in April, and there are plans in the pipeline surrounding the release of parcels of publicly owned land to further start-up farming.

“Nobody has appreciated just how much drive there is from the younger generation in farming to try to get into active agriculture,” says Mark Donald, new generation chairman at NFU Scotland.

He says most young people looking to plough a career from the land come from a rural background – they might be the children of farmers or farm workers – but when it comes to new entrants over 40, it’s often people bringing transferable skills from elsewhere who are trying to beat the rat race with a change of direction, away from the city streets and into the countryside.

Professor Wayne Powell, principal and chief executive at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), also says that among the institution’s 8,065 students most come from farming backgrounds or have connections to SRUC alumni.

“I think one of the things we need to look at is broadening that horizon and the way we need to do that is to get more connected with schools,” says Powell.

“We need to look at how we bring together agriculture and innovation. Young people are interested in technology and the application of technology.

“I think that innovation and new technology will help with attracting young people.”

The vote to leave the European Union has sparked its fair share of uncertainty across a whole range of industries and the rural sector is no exception.

A survey published by SRUC in November found that one in five Scottish farmers and crofters may retire early due to fears over Brexit, so the onus is firmly on the next generation to carry the baton.

And while Donald says there is certainly interest from young farmers in doing so, there are barriers which must be overcome in the process.

The availability of land is one challenge. Cost is another consideration, and there are issues around how early-stage farmers can grow their business.

“If you were to go back to the 1960s, to buy a tractor you had to sell 100 lambs,” Donald explains.

“Now you would have to sell a lot more lambs to buy essentially the same piece of equipment. That margin is very, very difficult.”

In terms of taking a business forward, it’s a case of being able to find enough land to scale up.

“There are two main schemes being run by the government,” says Donald. “The first is to run ‘starter farms’ and I have one – that’s my road into farming.”

In addition to his role on the committee of NFU Scotland, 37-year-old Donald farms 63 hectares of grassland at Port of Menteith in Stirlingshire.

“There are nine of those in the country, most of which are livestock units, although there are one or two arable units.

“These units are scattered from Dumfries and Galloway all the way to Caithness.

“That’s the government taking a positive step to further start-up farming. They are also looking at releasing parcels of publicly owned land but that’s just in the pipeline at the moment.

“We back them on that. It’s a good thing that this land is being utilised and providing another entry point into the food producing sector.”

It’s the current emphasis on promoting Scotland’s food and drink offering which SRUC’s Powell says is helping to highlight the importance of agriculture to the economy.

“If we look at the food and drink industry in Scotland, which has the ambition to more than double turnover to reach £30 billion by 2030, we need to be connected to that,” says Powell.

“The big society issues are diet and health so the connection between agriculture, food and health is vital.”

Fruit growing, which is especially prevalent in Fife, Angus and Perthshire, is one area in which Scotland has really showcased its talents in scientific research.

The James Hutton Institute has been using new plant breeding technology to develop blueberry cultivars which should increase our home-grown blueberry crop, and benefit Scottish fruit growers as a result.

The amount of blueberries grown in Scotland did increase by 10 per cent in 2016 but most of the fruit is still imported, meaning this innovative project could be key to further growth.

When it comes to innovation, Donald says he would be “doing a disservice to older generations” to say it was just young farmers who are embracing it.

“If you look at GPS on tractors, that’s not being run by 25-year-olds,” he says. “Most of the farms that are taking that on are already big businesses.

“Every generation is innovative, be that the advent of tractors and mechanisation, new breeds, more intensive systems to more up-to-date land mapping, computerisation, robotics. What is cutting edge yesterday is forward thinking today and standard tomorrow.”

Powell also points to robotics as an area of particular relevance. “It is critical that we expose our students to these disruptive technologies,” he says.

“One of the things I think we need to do is demonstrate how new technology can make a difference.”

While exciting technological developments certainly should not be ignored, there are traditional skills which are holding their ground.

“If you look at something as mundane as building a stone wall, there are only so many ways to do it,” says Donald.

“It’s a skilled job, the same as a joiner hanging a door. These are the skills that you have to learn and they are vital.”

Powell agrees: “Traditional skills still have a really important place. Those practical skills are critically important and in some ways we mustn’t lose sight of the role that SRUC plays in terms of nurturing those skills in young people.”

So what does the future hold for Scotland’s farmers – young and old?

“We have to be enthusiastic and we have to generate that confidence around the future of this industry and be ambitious about it,” says Powell.

“We have to provide leadership around this and create the kind of confidence and inspiration that is needed to take this forward.”

In the end, though, it all comes back to our appetites.

“Certainly in the short to medium term the crystal ball is somewhat cloudy,” says Donald.

“There are a whole range of issues. Independence keeps raising its head, Brexit is there, there seems to be a lot of change in world trade as well and agriculture tends to be one of the first chips to be used in any sort of negotiations.

“There are a whole host of problems coming but where there’s a problem there’s an opportunity and I think with the highly educated and highly motivated younger generation that we have in farming in Scotland, they will find a way of succeeding.

“There’s maybe a lot of natural wastage in that process and that will be very difficult to deal with, but farming as a sector has always survived and will always survive because fundamentally we need to eat.”

Land economics

Just 9 per cent of farm occupiers in Scotland are under 40. The average age of Scottish farmers is 58.

New entrants are essential to the long-term sustainability of the Scottish farming industry.

Membership of the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs is open to anyone aged between 14 and 30. There are 80 clubs across Scotland.

Funding of £2.5 million to help and develop new entrants into farming was announced by the Scottish Government in April. The funding will support the 
next generation of farmers and 
increase opportunities for young people to establish a career in agriculture. The application window for the young farmer and new entrant start-up grant scheme closes later this year on 30 September, 2017.

There are nine starter farms in Scotland, including livestock and arable units.

Scotland’s universities and colleges offer a range of courses which can prepare students for a career in agriculture, including animal science, conservation, forestry, gamekeeping and land management.

There are 8,065 students enrolled at Scotland’s Rural College, including those on workplace learning and short courses.

This article appears in the SUMMER 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.