Hamish McCall: Agriculture is changing, and so must our thinking

Recent years have made for challenging times in Scottish agriculture and the livestock trade.

Auctioneering is deeply entrenched in Scotlands rural heritage
Auctioneering is deeply entrenched in Scotlands rural heritage

Delicate optimism has all too often been undermined by economic misfortune and administrative mismanagement. Combined with catastrophes including BSE and foot-and-mouth, many farm businesses have struggled, particularly traditional farms with smaller herds and estates.

Lawrie & Symington has been auctioneers for 150 years and a lot of has changed during that time as you’d expect. The Sunset Song days of communities working the land together are all but gone. Demand for hands-on farm workers is dwindling, the farming population is ageing, and young farmers are less inclined to take over family farms and attend market days. Industrial-scale farming is becoming more normal and traditional farmers are seeking other ways to earn a living.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Brexit has not improved the situation. Doubts over the future of farmers’ subsidies have left Scotland’s rural community very anxious. This hasn’t been helped by ongoing political uncertainty closer to home. We know changes are coming, but we don’t know what or when.

Where next for Scottish agriculture and auctioneering, an industry deeply entrenched in Scotland’s heritage, is a question farmers and rural communities need clarity around – and soon. Michael Gove’s appointment to Defra hopefully shows the new Government is taking the situation seriously, but whether or not he’ll be an effective operator in the rural space is yet another unknown.

Whilst this might paint a disheartening picture of what is to come, the next short while is also an opportunity for Scottish agriculture to be proactive about preparing for the future.

If negotiated with craft and precision, the coming years could be a chance for us to remove the shackles of regulation and red tape that has dogged the industry. Today’s farmers spend as much, if not more, time in the office doing paper work as do they do working the fields and tending livestock, which is not an efficient way of doing business.

Global pressures conversely may mean global opportunities and with that the chance to develop more robust rural businesses that are less susceptible to political change. Scotland is in the fortunate position of being an internationally renowned producer of quality goods; from beef, lamb, pork and whiskey to porridge and wool. We need to take advantage of that at every opportunity.

All traditional industries, including farming, are vulnerable to clinging too dearly to the past. A forward-thinking, innovative attitude is critical to the future of the sector if it is to be sustainable.

At the same time, however, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of where we came from. Small farm businesses and rural workers need to be supported else our agricultural heritage may disappear altogether. Responsibility for striking a balance and securing our future lies both with politicians and with industry, and the more we can do to present a unified voice the stronger we’ll be in the days to come.

Hamish McCall, managing director, Lawrie & Symington