Grassroots issues still key factor for NFUS future

A week today, several hundred farmers will arrive in Glasgow for what looks set to be one of the most exciting and eagerly anticipated annual general meetings NFU Scotland has ever held.
Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon are both attending the NFU Scotland annual meeting. Picture: Toby WilliamsRuth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon are both attending the NFU Scotland annual meeting. Picture: Toby Williams
Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon are both attending the NFU Scotland annual meeting. Picture: Toby Williams

For not only is there an all-or-nothing tussle between the three members of the current presidential team for the top position, there is also a ding-dong battle between three new candidates for the two vice-presidential posts.

And if this wasn’t enough to fuel anticipation at the two-day event, with Brexit acting as a lightning conductor, the highly charged political scene has also seen Scotland’s leading politicians queuing up to get a slot in the conference timetable.

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Not only will the event see Fergus Ewing take his first stab at the conference’s traditional address from the rural economy cabinet secretary, but First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson will also be there to battle for hearts and minds.

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So, the fiercely contested election, the politically charged atmosphere together with the big city setting is likely to see some real fireworks, some old fashioned razzamatazz and a cart-load of media attention thrust upon what, to all intents and purposes, appears to be an organisation in rude health and ready to do battle.

And with such vigorous competition to lead the union – from candidates with so much to offer – there can be no doubting the pre-eminent strength of the union as the voice of Scottish farming.

But take a step or two back from the big city and this picture of challenge and exhilaration and perhaps compare and contrast it with the not-so-heady ambience encountered recently in the back room of an NFU Mutual office on the edge of an industrial estate – where a handful of NFUS members came together to discuss local matters under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent strip lights.

No names, no pack drill – for the agenda is probably the same at many union meetings which take place under the yellowing ceilings of meeting rooms in shabby hotels in the less fashionable side of market towns around the country.

For here, even with the extraordinary circumstances currently facing the industry, one issue is likely to figure: the thorny problem of getting a better attendance at branch meetings – especially those from younger age groups.

There’s no denying that the union’s commendable efforts to recruit members against a backdrop of a declining numbers in the industry has returned a praiseworthy stasis in membership numbers in recent years – with new recruits broadly balancing natural attrition of the current harsh economic climate.

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However, getting people to commit scarce time to local efforts is becoming an ever more difficult proposition – and, if not addressed, could ultimately disrupt the supply of top-notch contributors to the workings of the union.

And while the “sexy” gigs like donating samples of lamb to hungry shoppers outside Aldi on a Saturday afternoon can usually drum up a fair number of volunteers, getting someone to serve as a committee branch monitor can be a different matter.

Not a new problem – but, with the pressures on those in the farming sector to either expand their enterprises or take on additional jobs to subsidise their agricultural activities from outside sources, devoting precious time to union activities is a daunting commitment.

And, as for younger members, when you throw in the search for a mate and the ensuing child-minding requirements of a two-, three- or even four-job family, the problems of attracting this demographic to a “greetin’ meetin’” are substantially magnified.

I might be misrepresenting the venerable members who currently attend such meetings, but from the general dismay at proposals to use e-mail and texts to keep the committee informed, we might safely preclude the use of Facebook, Twitter or any social media channels as a channel of communication at the moment.

So, later next week, after the heads of the new presidential team have cleared from the excitement – and as they roll up their sleeves to tackle the myriad issues facing the industry – it would be worth applying some thought to this grass root issue.