Comment: Times have changed, but the union’s mission has not

Across the years, NFU has never wanted for a cause to fight.  Picture: Reuters
Across the years, NFU has never wanted for a cause to fight. Picture: Reuters
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As I ENTERED the room, the discussion was already well under way. I looked round the room and it felt ever so slightly spooky.

Some of the men I knew, but others I recognised only from grainy sepia-toned photographs from the early part of last century.

The 59 men – and they were all men – were discussing what were the big achievements of the first 100 years of NFU Scotland. Now, each one there should have declared an interest as each had led the union over that period.

Out of courtesy, the first union president, William Donald, from Kilmarnock was given the floor.

He was in no doubt the big issue of his day had been the poor price paid for milk and it was only through farmers getting together that this had been improved.

Sadly, he was interrupted by just about everyone else who wanted to describe their own battles on the price of milk, with present union president, Nigel Miller relating how mass meetings last autumn, a mere 99 years after the union started, proved this issue was still in the “unfinished business” tray.

The conversation changed to the union’s role in improving the health and welfare of livestock, with a certain smugness that several campaigns had been successful.

One claim was for the eradication of bovine tuberculosis, which the gathering pointed out was something the English union was still struggling with some 100 years after making it a priority.

Aujesky’s disease in pigs was eradicated in the 1980s as a result of union

efforts, said one, with another suggesting the same for sheep scab in the middle of last century but it was pointed out that this pernicious disease has now made a big come back. Others highlighted the major role of the union had in dealing with disease outbreaks. Both BSE and foot-and-mouth came under this heading.

With BSE, the great unknown magnified by political stupidity, the union’s role was in containing the damage and compensation deals such as the over 30 month scheme helped beleaguered beef producers.

Many of the early leaders had experienced foot-and-mouth outbreaks, but in those days with far less transportation of stock these were relatively easily contained. In 2001 and 2007, both presidents had potentially horrific outbreaks to deal with and both had their mettle tested with difficult decisions on culling.

What about the politics, a voice called out to a universal nodding of heads.

Tales of price review discussions lasting months were told by those in charge from 1945 to the early 1970s. Then, the UK’s entry into Europe came under scrutiny much to the surprise of those who had spent time earlier in the century fighting in Europe.

Getting Europe to recognise Scotland’s hill areas was seen as a major achievement of European entry, but some cautioned this was an ongoing battle.

Considerable time was then spent explaining the “green pound” problem experienced after joining Europe, with those from the early part of the union’s history initially being baffled by the complexity of it and then outraged by its inequality, leaving as it did Scottish farmers at a 30 to 40 per cent financial disadvantage.

This provoked further examples of unfairness inflicted upon Scottish farming and it was inevitable that the ban on lamb imports by the French and the battles that followed came up.

It may not have been the one hundred years war, but it lasted more than two decades.

There was a similarly lengthy battle on cheap imports of raspberry pulp from Eastern Europe. Another that saw a long union campaign occurred when the Dutch subsidised fuel for heating their tomato greenhouses and effectively scuppered the Scottish industry.

It was obvious from the contributions that in the early years of the union food production was paramount, while in the last 30 years the focus has widened to take in the environment and the provenance of food.

Inevitably, whenever farmers meet the discussion moves to the weather, or more accurately bad weather. A forest of hands went up, with each former president wanting to outdo colleagues on his weather experience.

One told a wonderful story based on a visit to Auchnagatt in 1986, when he and the union chief executive thought they might be lynched by farmers angry at being unable to gather in the harvest.

Time was moving on and still the discussion roved over union successes and failures. Even the quiet men who had in their own way steered the union spoke but the night was late.

The former presidents and the ghosts of the rest resolved to meet again
tonight at this year’s annual meeting of the union.