My own experience with co-operation began 20 years ago when I took over the tenancy of Leckerstone Farm, near Dunfermline, from my father. It’s an arable farm and I got involved with collaborative marketing of our crop. We were just a simple group, but it really showed the benefits of working together: we were able to guarantee supply and secure a good price.
Commercial co-operation models translate well to climate-friendly ones, and farmers really do want to make the changes required. However, some are understandably overwhelmed by the process, which can be unclear. The next generation are much more aware of climate change and the environment; indeed my own son is studying for a PhD in sustainable farming systems and regenerative agriculture.
Things have changed so much in just a couple of generations. During my grandfather’s day farming was much more sustainable and much less reliant on external inputs such as fertiliser and fuel. But then food policy changed, emphasising increased production with a high cost to the land and low cost to the consumer.
We’re still learning how to measure everything that happens on farm and how to design standard points of reference. SAOS is working towards a scheme that will cover all agricultural sectors, one that is flexible enough to be updated as new research emerges and that can be used easily on farms. Critically, we also need a single carbon assurance scheme that consumers can trust.
Farmers also have to be financially sustainable; you can adopt good environmental practices but if you can’t also make a margin then you simply can’t survive in business. This is another area where co-operation can help, for example by using machinery rings we can leverage co-operative buying power and increase efficiency.
Farm businesses also need to collaborate in order to counter certain market forces; if we let the market run free then we will end up with large corporations farming huge areas; the family farm will disappear and it would completely change the fabric of rural society.
All of society has a role to play. No government wants to see food getting more expensive, but the cost of production is likely to increase and the true cost of producing food is not accounted for. The public are conscious of the environmental and monetary cost of food, but they are often given woefully inaccurate information by the media. One easy win for carbon reduction would be to reduce the 30 per cent of food that we throw away.
Farming will always create emissions, but it is also uniquely placed to mitigate those emissions. The government, market and consumers must accept that regenerative farming systems cannot produce low-cost food. If we collaborate and co-operate, there is much that farming can achieve; but others in the supply chain must also play their part if our efforts are not to be in vain.
John Hutcheson, Chairman of SAOS, Scotland’s experts on farmer co‑ops and food industry collaboration