There are some items which come around regularly on my MFR and Radio Borders farming programmes … some of which are fairly easy to present and others which give me a cause for concern about the future of farming, not only in Scotland, but right across the UK. Items such as the agricultural show season fit into the first category with chats to show secretaries, stand holders and the general public all making for great radio.
On the other hand, while items such as rural crime and dog attacks on livestock make for strong news items, they reflect an ever changing scene in the countryside which only add to the everyday problems faced by farmers.
Of course the busy spring workload such as lambing, calving and sowing crops brings with it long hours and tiredness which sometimes lead to other “nasty” news items including accidents, injuries and sadly sometimes deaths.
However, an item which now occurs weekly (or sometimes even daily) on the farming programme is Brexit which of course is now happening in less than 12 months and causes more controversy than anything else I’ve reported on over the past 12 years. Aside from all of the political point scoring which happens every day, there are some really difficult issues which come up such as future financial support for farmers and the future for our vital migrant labour force.
NFU Scotland recently launched their latest document “Steps to Change” which sets out a forward looking and innovative blueprint for farming in a world after Brexit. Speaking at the launch of the document, Union President Andrew McCornick said “Brexit has been a trigger – the wake-up call we needed. Instead of focusing support on acres-owned, as in the past … the future for agriculture lies in financial stability, productivity and the environment.”
NFU Scotland is boldly leading the way forward with “Steps to Change” and would appear to be actually relishing the prospect of being free from the constraints that being in the EU has placed on Scottish farming, while recognising that some of our traditional markets in Europe may be under threat after next year. However, the Union’s policy director Johnnie Hall doesn’t underestimate the job that is facing the whole agricultural industry as he likened leaving the EU to “turning around a supertanker – you don’t simply pull on the handbrake and do a donut.” Whichever way you look at it, leaving the EU is going to be a huge challenge and no sector will be more directly affected by Brexit than agriculture.
With less than a year to go to Brexit or “B-day” we are surrounded by uncertainty and let’s be clear on this … That uncertainty is caused mainly by the fact that nobody has done Brexit before. To use the supertanker analogy, we are in uncharted waters and still not sure which direction any of us are headed after March 2019.
NFU Scotland are doing the right thing by setting out their bold vision for farming in the future, but that blueprint will rely heavily on both governments in Westminster and Holyrood taking up the ideas and then being able to convince the EU that we can all work together in the future.
A further problem which is now coming to the fore is the difference in vision between Holyrood and Westminster post-Brexit. From the sidelines it would appear that Michael Gove in Westminster has put care of the environment as his top priority, followed by food production in second place … while Fergus Ewing in Holyrood talks about things the other way round.
As I have mentioned before in this column, surely it is a farmer’s main job to feed the nation and do so in a responsible way which looks after the environment. Most farmers that I speak to are in agreement with that position and say that trying to do things the other way round is simply putting the cart before the horse. So, confusion reigns supreme with differences either side of the border and then an agreement needed with the EU.
It is no wonder that my inbox contains the dreaded word Brexit more than anything else at the moment and that it takes up more air-time than most other subjects put together. I would love to be able to talk more about a bright future for agriculture and solid plans for feeding the nation … but for the time-being it’s all about arguments, confusion and clocks ticking as we approach what appears to be a very uncertain time after March 28th or as it appears in my diary … “B-Day”. It is definitely time for politicians to put their differences to the side and get on with the business of mapping out a clear plan for farming and for some guidance notes they should take a look at NFU Scotland’s document “Steps to Change”.
As we stand, everything goes against my business instinct of having a plan for the future and saying “this is what we’re doing and this is how we’re going to do it!”
This column first appeared in Farming North in April 2018.