Farming: As AGM looms, a seat at home is no substitute for a seat at the bar - Andrew Arbuckle

It is quite difficult to keep count of the pluses and minuses emerging from the combined effects of Covid and Brexit. Hardly a day goes past without there being a “well I never thought about that” moment.

Willie Ross was capabe of a bravura performance at AGMs of days gone by

Taking one of the bonuses from the current restrictions, as my colleague Brian Henderson has remarked, he can join via Zoom or Teams or other meeting magic, conferences all over the country without leaving the comfort of his office and, also without getting out of his “I have just been out feeding the cattle” gear.

So that is one plus but it comes with a negative as we, press people, miss the chat and industry gossip that forms an essential information gathering session before and after meetings. We can be described as having been zoomed out of such contacts and that is a big minus.

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Twelve months ago, NFU Scotland held its annual jamboree which is officially called the AGM with hundreds of farmers and crofters coming from all parts of Scotland. They came from the Highlands and the islands and they came from the arable areas in the east of Scotland and the grassland growing regions of the west and south west.

And after listening to the union leaders pontificating on the matters of moment, the troops then gathered for the traditional meal highlighting high-quality Scottish produce. It may have to be whispered but, for many delegates this was the highlight of the agm.

After the repast, some members may even have meandered into the bar and renewed friendships made in previous years thus emphasising the AGM was far from being a business event. It was also a very social occasion.

This coming week sees the 2021 version of the annual gathering but Covid restrictions have seen the traditional gathering banned over the danger of transmitting the deadly bug.

Instead, the event will be carried out virtually with those having the savvy to operate the technology beaming in on the talking heads seated artfully in front of impressive looking bookcases where the reading material in the background can often be more enlightening than the spoken word.

This virtual meeting will bring more politicians than ever to the gathering and it all seems a world away from AGMs of only 50 years ago.

One of my first recollections of such NFUS meetings was my father coming back from them and telling my brothers and myself about the various discussions that dominated in these far off 1960s days.

While the intricacies of price reviews, quotas and other details of concern to the farming industry may have whistled in one of my youthful ears and very rapidly out the other, some details stuck in between.

One memory from my father was how the then Secretary of State single-handedly fielded questions from the gathering of farmers on a whole range of issues. With his chief civil servant keeping him right through a series of scribbled notes surreptitiously slipped between the two, a politician with the nous of someone like Willie Ross could give a bravura performance. While occasionally smiting a delegate who like David Copperfield had asked for more, on other occasions reminding those in the room that Government policy did not always mean NFUS policy.

This year, there are politicians of all persuasions appearing at the meeting and one of the big problems for the organisers must be keeping them socially distant especially since there are major schisms on future non-EU farm policy. A bout of verbal fisticuffs seems almost inevitable considering the line-up

Although the virtual AGM is not a primary forum for debating wider purely political issues such as Scottish independence, inevitably there will be reference to a survey carried out by Farm North East, a trade paper based as the title suggests in Aberdeenshire but with responses from a far wider field.

This survey showed that there was zero support for Scotland going it alone as a nation, a view which might, figuratively speaking “ca the feet” from some of the main speakers.

Surprisingly, most of those surveyed were optimistic about the future even if there is still no firm future policy for farming set out by the Scottish Government.

In fact, the more one looks at the entrails of this survey and the various possible policy plans for the future of farming the more an informal discussion in a real bar might seem an excellent idea.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​


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