Comment: Producers need proper rewards

Whisky is a large part of Scotland's food and drink exports. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Whisky is a large part of Scotland's food and drink exports. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IT WAS the worst of times, it was the best of times ... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. Not just A Tale of Two Cities but a tale of two industries as well – and one which was drawn into sharp relief last week.

You could certainly excuse most farmers, mired not only in the wettest winter since records began but also in coming to terms with the complexities of the current Common Agricultural Policy reform, from wondering what the Dickens all the celebratory noises coming from further up the food chain were about.

Last week saw two major flag-waving events for the food and drink end of the chain take centre stage.

First off was the announcement of a major export drive, aimed at pushing what is already an extremely fast-growing segment of Scotland’s economy further into the limelight with the aim of making our contribution a truly global one.

Now, make no mistake, there’s no way that either our size or our climate would ever let us be major players in the global agricultural commodity markets – but it looks like our geography, our history, our landscape and our diaspora all act very much in our favour when it comes to cornering a chunk of the high quality, luxury end of the world’s food market.

There was no end to the statistics which were rolled out showing just how fast this sector of the Scottish economy has grown – and could yet grow. Whisky fuelled it might have been, but the sober statistics showed that targets which had looked optimistic when first set only a short time ago had already been passed, years ahead of schedule.

So, no-one could grudge the £4.5 million initiative announced to give it that extra wee push.

The bunting was out again the very next day when, under the auspices of Scotland Food & Drink, the same sector held a major conference on these opportunities.

It was simply a million miles away from the doom-laden, pessimistic “woe, woe and thrice woe” air adopted at any farming event – optimism leaking from every pore.

From the boy-band-member-gone-solo charm of the organisation’s irrepressible chief executive, James Withers, to the laid-back, homely Gallic charm of legendary chef Albert Roux, a rosier picture simply couldn’t have been painted without running Dulux out of anything that had even a hint of pink.

It was also the first conference I’ve been at where everyone was asked not to switch their phones off but to put them on – and then to get tweeting as the conference progressed.

The message was loud and clear – we’re a hip and happenin’ industry that sees social media as a primary tool. So, as someone at the conference put it, there’s no getting away from the “sexy” image that this end of the food chain is enjoying – with marketing agencies, advertising companies, packaging stylists, graphic designers and market sector analysts all making the event look a bit like an updated tartan version of Mad Men.

It seemed that the only poor relations left out in the cold and wet were the primary producers, the guys who provided the raw materials upon which all this extra value was built.

But to give Withers his due – and perhaps exhibiting remnants of his NFUS DNA – he did make the very point, more than once, that some of the feel good factor and, perhaps more importantly, some of the extra value had to work its way through to the farmers and the fisherman.

How this will be brought about might be a trickier one to answer, however.

Undoubtedly there is an element of truth in the suggestion that farmers do tend to over-obsess about support measures and the endless round of CAP reforms – but while that plays such an important role in farm income it’s an understandable response.

Spending more of the time and effort squandered on this CAP merry-go-round on issues such as production efficiencies, market development and, perhaps most importantly from those a couple of stages up the food chain, stemming the decline in production might be part of the answer.

However, if farmers are to continue using the artisanal production methods upon which much of the food and drink industry’s imagery relies, something must also be done to drive the cash flow deeper into the system and to reach the bottom links of the chain.

Then farmers might also look forward to Great Expectations.