Vision Scotland: A challenging road ahead

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A recent east-to-west drive across southern Scotland, from the Berwickshire coast to Port Patrick in good weather, suggested all is well with Scotland’s rural economy. Sheep and large herds of beef and dairy cattle grazed in the sunshine, grain crops and the distinctive yellow-flowered oilseed were growing well.

Ruler-straight drills of potatoes ran into the distance, in the east vegetable crops were being planted, towards the west silage making was at full tilt.

Every few miles there was evidence of rural entrepreneurship from fish smokeries and farm shops to caravan parks, holiday lets, trail biking and activity centres and a steady flow of bed & breakfast signs.

There were garden centres and countryside-based machinery makers such as Jock Bryce, whose family firm now exports specialist fencing equipment to 15 countries from Morebattle, evidence of Hawick’s strenuous efforts to revitalise its economy after the woollen mills closed, Wigtown’s specialist and successful re-invention from dead-in-the-water to book town, farm ice-cream makers, craft shops and cafes.

Wind turbines that generate controversy as well as a large annual income for a limited period for landowners and some local communities are prominent in several areas.

Forests are being felled as part of good management and cashing in on present high prices, part of an industry worth £1 billion a year even though 80 per cent of our timber is imported. Most forest areas will be replanted.

Farming can seem a long-term business, but forestry is a once in a generation crop, one of the reasons that sheep farms being converted to forestry by landowners, as at present with Buccleuch Estates, cause controversy.

In every area the vans of local plumbers, builders and electricians fretted behind idling tourists, tractors and farm machinery, or shot past on a mission.

Many have been or are involved with the erection of big grainstores and livestock sheds, some encouraged by last year’s farm income figure, after costs, for Scottish farming plc of £917 million, up more than one third on the year and third highest yearly figure since 2000.

The National Farmers’ Union for Scotland (NFUS) points out that costs also rose steeply.

Most farmhouses and steadings as seen from the road were tidy and well kept. It seemed a busy, prosperous countryside from east to west.

That is not quite the reality in spite of those farm income figures. Farm incomes of all types can fluctuate violently. Many smaller rural businesses work hard for small returns.

Tourism across Scotland is increasingly looked to for income, but like farming can be severely hit by bad weather.

Businesses dependent on tourism have to invest heavily as visitors expect more. Holiday lets, caravan sites and bed and breakfast farmhouses must provide every modern facility. The clientele prepared to rough it and queue to use a bathroom have gone.

And of its nature, tourism is seasonal. South-west Scotland in startling late May sunshine is a different proposition to being there with a living to earn through wet, if mild, winters.

Sights seen from the road can be deceptive. Ewes and lambs looked well, but most sheep farmers have come through one of the worst lambing seasons in a generation.

Lamb losses caused by bad weather during the cold, wet, often snowy, spring are officially estimated to be up three per cent. But shepherds and sheep farmers think losses were worse than that, running to several hundred on individual farms in some cases.

Farming as a primary producer is still dependent in too many cases on a direct and volatile link between supply and demand and buyers for supermarkets saw lamb prices at auction in early summer of more than £100 per head.

That price was also influenced by demand from the French market, which is open to British exporters as it has been for more than 40 years within the European Union.

Did those farmers who voted to leave the European Union, as many did because they claimed to be fed up with the bureaucracy linked to farm subsidies worth an average of well over £20,000 a year and a total of more than £550m to Scotland, think what might happen if they can no longer export lamb to France?

Or what will happen to British beef prices if trade agreements are ever reached with, say, the United States or a number of other countries to import lower-price beef?

The handful of massive supermarkets that dominate Britain’s food provision have little loyalty to home-produced food if supplies can be bought more cheaply elsewhere.

Nor do their customers. A shift in the market to free-range eggs in recent years rather than battery produced is one of the rare signs of customers showing much concern about where their food comes from as long as it is as cheap as possible.

The same concern has not been shown so far about intensively produced chicken, our most popular meat.

Jim McLaren, chairman of Quality Meat Scotland, said: “We benefit from thousands of family farms that share generations of livestock skills and also embrace innovation and new technology – there are 10,000 members of our whole-chain meat assurance scheme that makes animal welfare a priority.

“Red meat production generates several billion pounds for Scotland’s economy and supports about 50,000 jobs, many in fragile rural areas.”

Scotland, he believes, has unique selling points for quality meat no matter what happens with Brexit: “What we offer from Scotland could not be more different to what is produced by most of our overseas competitors.”

Beef remains the cornerstone of Scottish meat production, indeed Scottish farming, with an output of more than £850m a year – sheep £271m, pigs £115m, compared with salmon at about £200m – most beef of high quality and much of it from grass.

Lamb production is almost entirely from grass. But as with crop growing, the inexorable trend in farming is as it has been for at least two centuries and can be summed up in three words: fewer and bigger.

Half a century ago when there were about 7,000 dairy farms in Scotland and prices were controlled by statutory milk boards which bought all milk, the average size of a herd was less than 50 cows.

Today there are fewer than 1,000 dairy farms in Scotland, the average size is heading for 200 cows and several herds have almost 2,000 cows.

The ups and downs of contracts between dairy farmers and the few big milk companies fill the pages of the farming press.

Last year ex-farm milk prices rose again to average 28.2p per litre and those dairy farmers who had survived several years of low prices prospered. But costs rise and investment has to be continuous.

Increase in size of herd is also true of beef, with a number of farms now managing more than 1,000 breeding cows.

Where a shepherd used to care for 400 or so ewes, one shepherd with a quad bike today will be responsible for 2,000 and more.

Most arable farms used to grow at least a few acres of potatoes. Today’s specialist growers rent thousands of acres to maximise use of machines that can cost up to £500,000.

They have to invest in storage sheds where every physical factor is regulated and controlled to meet supermarket specifications. Planting, growing, spraying against disease, irrigation and harvesting are carried out like military operations.

Days of the legendary berry pickers from housing estates in Fife, Angus and Perthshire and the dubious ways in which some added weight to their baskets of rasps and strawberries are gone.

Most picking is by seasonal East European staff. Meeting supermarket specifications is mandatory.

Those who succeed, like Lochy Porter with strawberries and Ross Mitchell with strawberries, now also with blueberries and cherries, run multi-million pound businesses.

In the uncertainty about Brexit men like these, and others such as Peter Chapman and John Campbell with superbly managed egg production businesses, give Scottish farming hope that it can compete whatever happens in the early 2020s to EU farm subsidies.

The £554m keeps many smaller scale farms and those on the hills and moorlands solvent. That means beef and sheep.

There is some encouragement for them in a combined approach from the Greening Review Group set up last year under the chairmanship of Professor Russell Griggs by the Scottish Government.

A recent statement by the group noted that a financial support system was needed that encouraged farmers to think how best their land can be used to produce food but also maintain an environmental benefit for farmers and society.

Brian Pack, one of the most original thinkers on farming and chairman of two recent inquiries for the Scottish government, one on future support, the other on how to reduce bureaucracy, argues similarly.

He said: “There has to be an acceptance that producing food is a public good to be positively encouraged if we are to play a part in helping feed a hungry world.

“It is particularly important for Scotland with agriculture playing such a vital role in the sustainability of rural communities.

“It is even more important in the context of land classified as ‘less favoured’ – and that’s 85 per cent of Scotland.

“Rough grazing of hills and moorland is only good for one thing as far as farming is concerned and that is breeding high quality cattle and sheep.”

Landowners throughout Scotland point to grouse and pheasant shooting and game sports in general as a viable alternative use for such land.

These activities generate useful income, but total return is small compared to beef and sheep.

Farmers argue that when they prosper there is a trickle-down effect for the whole rural economy. Buildings are put up, demand for local tradesmen flourishes instead of making do and mending, diversification by farmers such as farm shops, livery or equine enterprises makes local jobs, machinery dealers and car dealers and suppliers of every imaginable farm sundry thrive.

Farming subsidies complicate that argument. Critics claim that all subsidies do is encourage farmers to pay more for land or offer higher rents to get one of the plethora of types of short to medium term tenancies now available as Scotland’s parliament continues to struggle with land legislation.

Little of this is obvious to the layman from a passing car. Nor is the pain and misery, loneliness and mental health problems that are as common in Scotland’s rural areas as in cities.

The pressure of family relationships in a rural business can be severe. Low income for long hours can be a reason, but the stresses of simply working closely day in day out with family can cause as many problems.

A newcomer to the family with marriage can add to those. Expectations change. Suicides among vets and farmers, especially younger men, are higher than in almost any other industry.

Mental health problems have only been openly recognised in recent years. Great efforts are now being made by RSABI, Scotland’s leading rural charity, to offer counselling with a 16-hours-a-day helpline.

The Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs, is working with the Scottish Association for Mental Health to eliminate the stigma of mental health problems in young farmers.

That is encouraging in several ways, not least young farmers showing more responsibility than some of their predecessors.

Another reason is that young farmers are the future for what could be, in spite of whatever Brexit brings, a more do-it-yourself industry, one dependent on technological and management skills and entrepreneurs rather than arguments with government about subsidy.

The frequently quoted figure that the average age of a Scottish farmer is 58 is misleading.

Many nominal heads of farming businesses refuse to retire and are still classified as the farmer, but younger men and women are taking the decisions and working on new ideas.

It is encouraging that there are increasingly more women involved at the top levels. Women in the background, as family organisers, office worker, frequently bringing in income with an off-farm job, business gofer at harvest time, and a dozen other duties, have always been vital to farming, but usually uncredited.

Now more are getting credit for what they have always done and also have more direct influence at every level of staffing.

The most cursory look at many other rural businesses indicates the same is true for them.

Women are not just important in the rural economy, they are vital. Recognition of that has taken centuries, but developments such as the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland (NFUS) Women’s Network group is a step forward. As is the union’s Next Generation committee.

These are group’s looking at long-term changes. Union president Andrew McCornick is involved with these, but has more immediate concerns. No matter how it is considered, or will be resolved.

Brexit hangs over every rural sector from fishing to forestry, field sports and the environment.

McCornick said: “The only certainty we have had since the vote to leave the EU has been uncertainty.

“The reality is that all the crops to be harvested and sold this autumn and beef calves born this spring won’t reach retailers’ shelves until final agreement on Brexit. We’ve got a short-term transition buffer from March next year to December 2020.

“But in that time we’ll be out of Europe while running parallel to it, meeting their rules and regulations while trying to create new free trade deals with Europe and the rest of the world. There’s a lot of ground to cover in a few months and the clock is ticking more loudly.”

There are lessons to learn from the past. When Cupar sugar beet factory was closed in 1971, removing a market for 16,000 acres of beet in a move by British Sugar endorsed by the UK government, a disaster for Scottish East Coast arable farming was predicted.

Instead farmers proved as adaptable as ever leading to today’s impressive vegetable growing and processing industry with processors and makers of well- known brands now providing hundreds of jobs that sugar beet never did.

In a similar way farming bounced back from the horrors of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak that saw the slaughter of about 10m animals in the UK, several million of those in southern Scotland.

Farmers re-stocked and re-built, but many also diversified and re-thought their approach to life and farming. Many new rural businesses date from that year.

The future might be uncertain, but the capacity of farming and other rural businesses to adapt must never be under-rated.

Those who move with the times, or even better stay ahead of them, have always been noted for being more optimistic in private than in public.

Scotland’s rural areas face problems, from Brexit to poor broadband connections and IT inefficiency, from narrow winding roads to isolation, from low incomes and seasonal unemployment to miserable winters.

But there is a solid core of optimism, youth, skills, education, management, and native entrepreneurship to deal with these successfully.

That positive view is shared by Wayne Powell, principal and chief executive of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), which provides a unique blend of research, education and consultancy for rural Scotland.

He said: “Scotland has an extraordinary history of innovation, punching well above its weight in helping to shape the world in which we live.

“Many farmers in Scotland have already shown their ability to diversify and adapt but, with the agricultural landscape likely to be transformed following Brexit, we must continue to encourage and nurture that entrepreneurial, innovative mindset and ensure their businesses remain sustainable and profitable.

“The pace of scientific technological change, together with globally disruptive forces such as Brexit, climate change, population growth and dietary shifts, present clear challenges.

“But these come with significant opportunities, particularly to Scotland which has outstanding assets across knowledge, expertise and business and we are already a world leader in key fields of global significance, including plant and livestock genetics and health.”

This article appears in the SUMMER 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version is available here.