“‘Upbeat’ might describe, perhaps surprisingly, the general views on the future of farming and the countryside from the Royal Highland Show this year”, says Francis Ogilvy, owner of Ogilvy Chalmers, land agents in East Lothian.
One year on to the day since the Brexit vote and the world-renowned Oxford Farming Conference held a debate asking respected panellists if UK agriculture would ‘thrive outwith the European Union’.
George Lyon, the former MEP and president of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland (NFUS) and former ‘remainer’ believed Scottish agriculture post Brexit would thrive as farmers tend to adapt, restructure and innovate though others would leave the industry altogether. He asked who was preparing for this, noting that support is likely to drop by 30% and even then, it would be in competition with health and education.
Change was the theme from the current President of the NFUS, Andrew McCornick. The discussion document he was launching was entitled ‘Change – A New Agricultural Policy For Scotland Post-Brexit’ and his pitch was focussed around the need to ‘make that future what we want it to be’ which involves change of mindset – treating farming as a business.
Next year’s Oxford Farming Conference has ‘Embracing Change’ as its theme -suggesting that ‘To grow and prosper, UK agriculture needs to question its approach and its thinking’. The best question of the debate asked ‘what does the public want from farmers’, believing the answers to be good safe food, produced in an environmentally sustainable way.
The following day – the anniversary of the memorably muted day of awakening and the First Minister was on her feet to talk up Scottish Agriculture and intimate a push for more women in the industry, new entrants and younger farmers. She had a three-pronged focus on farming’s social, economic and environmental benefits. We have heard all this before which is perhaps why at the OFC Debate, it was stated that ‘the answers lie in the farming industry and not with the politicians’.
Context for change
Some readers may have heard the excellent 10-part radio series entitled ‘Against the Grain’ in the spring. This was an investigation into British agriculture against the backdrop of uncertainty and speculation; the presenter from the Farming Today programme, Charlotte Smith, dew out views from a wide variety of learned and wise men and women.
The 6% drop in farm numbers in the ten years from 2000 and an increase in farm size came as no surprise – expansion has even been a recent theme on the Archers. Charles Matheson, a Northamptonshire farmer had teamed up with his neighbours to pool resources. He said it enabled a seat at the negotiating table, inspires greater professionalism and business acumen, reduces machinery requirements and employment. I’m Ok with all this until the last of these.
Support payments of course featured in the radio series. From this and the views at the shows suggests there is recognition now that public money should be for public goods. This is against the oft’ referred to need for a level playing field – especially in light of Brexit and trade negotiations since agriculture is supported in one form or another in most countries.
What then does the public want from the countryside? Politicians see it as their job to interpret this but that does not necessarily accord with the views of the Highland Show that we must paddle our own canoe. Mutual distrust between Westminster and farmers, according to Peter Kendall, former president of the NFU to the point that Westminster has regarded farmers as a ‘pain in the backside’.
The last minister for rural affairs (note no mention of farming) viewed support payments as being ‘for what the public want and which the market does not pay for’ – ie clean water, a bio-diverse countryside teaming with wildlife and adequate flood protection. Professor Tim Lang submitted that the ‘CAP had been terrible for the environment and that the language now was to pay to do nice things whilst still bring brutal; Brexit is therefore an opportunity for constructive change’.
Emeritus Professor Allan Buckwell suggested that whilst the CAP has moderated the rate of people going out of agriculture and therefore protected some rural communities, economic development has been defined by people moving out of agriculture. He commented on the romantic view of farming today which objects to intensifying and increasing output and therefore imposes limits on living standards. This, he said was not forward thinking if we are to compete in the world as a commodity producer.
East Lothian Response
The national town / country divide seems evident at county level which does not bode well for the brave new world heralding the importance of change. This in a rural county. Change therefore needs to be at all levels and not down to one community alone. It will require understanding and an integrated land use policy. It may also welcome closer integration between farming, food and tourism.
An East Lothian Food and Drink Producers Group of over 40 members have come together for strength in numbers and to apply for marketing support as a Business Improvement District. I shall not steel their well-deserved thunder here, but it is indicative of this new mood for collective working.
Aberdeenshire this year held the Presidency of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society. The use of the Presidential funds this year was creation of a very successful Aberdeenshire Village at the Highland Show. It is the turn of Lothians next year. ‘Follow that!’ – the Dons may say as an example of collaboration that yielded unexpected benefits.