The future is looking bright for farmers - Andrew Arbuckle

“I like the way nothing ever changes when I come to this part of the world,” said my friend as he surveyed the countryside. Forty years ago, he spent his university summer holidays earning cash by checking the health of seed potato crops.
Sugar beet is seeing a new lease of life on Scottish farms  (Picture: Getty)Sugar beet is seeing a new lease of life on Scottish farms  (Picture: Getty)
Sugar beet is seeing a new lease of life on Scottish farms  (Picture: Getty)

It was his superficial observation that nothing changes that got me. True, the crops still ripen and are harvested at more or less the same time every year; and equally, lambing and calving are the same as they have been since animals were domesticated in the year dot.

But beyond these broad truths, there have been dramatic changes that have taken place in farming in the past 40 years and, as far as I am concerned the industry is now on the cusp of even more radical change – in the coming years such is the potential for change that we could be on the verge of a Second Agricultural Revolution.

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Dealing with what has already happened before looking more closely at what is on the horizon, my city-based friend accepted that farms and machinery had both grown in size since he plodded up and down drills of potatoes looking for rogues. As we tootled along the country roads, we saw some of the modern-day leviathans that help to harvest crops these days. I pointed out the former rows of farmworkers’ cottages which previously housed the large workforce needed on farms but which nowadays almost universally house commuters who, daily, scuttle away to work in nearby towns.

Where the cottage gardens used to provide food for the agricultural workforce, these same patches of ground are now covered in concrete.

Moving the discussion on and accepting that neither of us were likely to be around to confirm the validity of my prediction, I said these changes would be as nothing when the clock was moved forward another four decades. Machinery would not see another increase in size in the coming years.

Much more probably, the countryside would provide a home for smaller robotic tractors operating with very sophisticated pieces of kit. These would be controlled from the farm office and have the capacity to work around the clock, unlike Tam or Willie who worked long hours but always needed regular piece times to refuel.

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There would be less spraying taking place; partly as a result of the crops coming through a gene-editing process making pesticide spraying superfluous and partly because the use of almost all sprays had been banned. Farms with cattle and sheep will also benefit in the future as Scotland’s research institutes produce breakthroughs, tackling some of the most debilitating of diseases that affect livestock.

That observation may not apply in Scotland as gene editing continues to be seen as good enough for other countries but not for us by the Government, but hopefully as more and more of these scientific breakthroughs come forward, our politicians will see the light.

Another major change on the horizon is that running a business in the countryside in the future may not involve producing food. Last month, a survey by the NFU Mutual Insurance Company revealed that one in six farms made money in “non-farming activity”. With home-based tourism being encouraged, that source of income is bound to increase.

Another area where change is underway is in the range of crops and livestock ventures that will be undertaken. For almost the past half century, farmers were discouraged by the bureaucratic and controlling Common Agricultural Policy from keeping crops and livestock outwith the support schemes.

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Now that artificial barrier has been removed farmers are looking afresh at the crops they can grow and the livestock they can keep. Some, such as sugar beet, are oldies but now enjoying a new lease of life as feedstock for anaerobic digester plants. Others, like medicinal cannabis, have been beyond imagination until now.

By this time, this vision of a different future had caught my friend’s imagination but just to keep to reality, he commented that farmers would still need potato roguers. “Not really as machines with cameras will be able to identify plants that are different or a bit off-colour and they will remove them, not sneakily heeling them into the ground rather than pulling them out,” I replied rather pointedly.

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