Cultivating farming leaders for successive generations

In past years, it seemed that the words 'young farmers' were inextricably linked to stories of petty vandalism or juvenile drunkenness.

SAYFC chief executive Penny Montgomerie
SAYFC chief executive Penny Montgomerie

Fire extinguishers were set off in hotels or the drinking of two pints of lager tops temporarily suspended common sense among some of the younger generation and encouraged them into foolish actions.

It is only fair to record that these problems normally occurred after they had competed in a whole range of more practical, self-improving activities ranging from stock judging through to reversing tractors and trailers round Z-bend circuits made temporarily by fence posts.

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Generations of farmers had many of their practical skills honed in such competitions and training to place animals A, B, X and Y in the correct order has stood stockmen well in bringing out the best in their cattle and sheep.

Equally, the ability to get up on their feet and construct reasonably coherent arguments, as encouraged by Young Farmers’ Speechmaking competitions, has helped many farming leaders to put the case for Scottish agriculture.

However, we may now be witnessing another dimension being added to the activities of the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs (SAYFC) as they are becoming more involved politically as well as dealing with some of the long term more complex issues facing practical farming.

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Earlier this month, a group of the next generation of farmers went through a course immodestly, yet cleverly, called Cultivating Leaders. Those on the course were challenged on such multi-faceted problems as leadership, cash flow control and business skills.

In promoting the course, national chairman Scott Wilson stressed that the move was not an abandonment of traditional practical skills training. He pointed out that recently introduced courses on health and safety and first aid had added to the multitude of improving options open to the membership.

The organisers of the Cultivating Leaders course also lobbed in a session on Succession in Farming which has to be the elephant in the room as far as family farming is concerned. Everyone in the industry is either personally involved or knows of cases where generations of the family grind each other down within the confines of the business; two generation battles are commonplace, three generation tussles are far from unique.

And yet these youngsters were challenged to come up with solutions to this vexed issue. Under the guidance of one of Scottish agriculture’s bright sparks, Heather Wildman, they were also encouraged to work with their accountants, bankers and lawyers as opposed to seeing these professionals as hurdles for farm businesses to overcome.

Those who observed the young farmers deliver their findings at the completion of the course were so impressed that the project to deliver more leaders for tomorrow’s farming will sponsor another course later this year.

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Another example of the growing maturity and involvement of the next generation in farming policy was seen at the recent NFU Scotland annual meeting where president Allan Bowie broke with tradition and held back his normal attack dogs from challenging the rural affairs minister at question time.

Instead he went to Sarah Allison, who chairs the Young Farmers Agri Affairs committee and she succinctly fired a straight question on new entrants at the politician.

So impressed was Bowie, she was then offered another opportunity to question Lochhead and again, without the clichéd hesitation, repetition or deviation, she came up with a sharp verbal query.

Later this year she will lead a group of young farmers to New Zealand where, apart from seeing the importance and scale of farming in that rural country, delegates will learn how farmers in that country tackle the issue of handing the farm on to the next generation. Membership of this group was keenly contested and the successful 16 are now planning the details of their ground breaking trip.

Much of the credit for this new dimension in SAYFC activities must go to chief executive, Penny Montgomery and her colleague, rural affairs manager Rebecca Dawes. Between them they are quietly adding to what used to be an educational-cum-social organisation into one where tomorrow’s leaders are much more capable of dealing with the challenges that will lie ahead.