Youthful energy the key to Argyll’s farming future

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John steps down as Duncan takes the chair

Defying the dire weather predictions, more than 60 members from Argyll and Islands branch of NFU Scotland attended the annual general meeting held in Tarbert.

Delegates from across the region turned out on Friday January 10 to elect their new chair Duncan McAllister from Glenbarr on the retirement, after four years of service, by John Dickson from Scalpsie Farm on Bute.

John was warmly praised for his superb track record over the last five years, in particular his championing of women within the union as well his active engagement with local politicians in furthering agricultural issues and farmers’ needs.

His successor is looking forward to capitalising on his achievements, admitting: ‘John will be a hard act to follow’ but is determined to ensure that the voice of the rural and farming communities throughout Argyll and the islands will be heard in the corridors of power as well as to the general
public.

As a thank you, John was presented with a selection of local produce from the regional board which included Springbank whisky, Loch Fyne salmon, Mull of Kintyre cheddar and three Scots Pine trees for him to establish his own woodland.

In another landmark, well-known NFU Scotland secretary Euan Warnock, based in Oban, was presented with a 25 year long service certificate and bottle of whisky, by president Andrew McCornick on behalf of NFU Scotland.

Highlighting the positives versus national media ‘bias’

Diversity, regional payments, veganism and, inevitably, Brexit were top of the agenda for many of the farmers who attend the AGM.

Outgoing chair John Dickson urged colleagues to seek out and promote more women to take up positions within the union. ‘We all know there are many strong, well informed and well qualified women out there,’ he said, ‘but we must try harder to encourage them to come to our meetings and participate fully.’

There was much criticism of the current arrangements for the regional payment scheme, with some claiming it is ‘unjust’ and others lamenting its ‘unintended consequences’. The meeting resolved to ensure the dissatisfaction of many farmers is brought to the urgent attention of the
Scottish Government and that the union will work with officials to address its shortcomings.

The media also came in for strong criticism from members, with several expressing concern at what they said ‘appears to be a campaign against traditional farming methods’. Both the BBC and Channel 4 were singled out for claims that recent programming had been biased, focusing on negative aspects of livestock rearing and promoting veganism and plant-based food production. There was a call for the union to be more pro-active about highlighting the quality of Scottish agricultural produce as well as good, healthy practice.

While there was praise for an initiative by promotional body Quality Meat Scotland and an acknowledgement that they are doing ‘good work’, there was broad agreement that more has to be done, and more imaginatively.

‘What about venison,’ bemoaned Tuggy Delap, a deer and cattle farmer from Cairndow. ‘The scheme doesn’t even cover deer, despite everyone being told how good the Scottish product is.’

Giving youth a chance

The next generation was the switch in focus for the afternoon session.

The assembled members heard over and over again how the passion, enthusiasm and energy of the younger generation can help farming and rural life in Scotland to flourish, become more sustainable and endure into
the future.

Appropriately, the top panel gathered for this highlight of the day in Tarbert had a younger and more gender-balanced demograph, not least as it was chaired by Ian Dickson, son of outgoing regional NFU chair John.

He was joined by Jenny Baillie, a farmer’s daughter from Lanarkshire, who is currently full time manager of the Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs East Region.

Another Jenny – Brunton – is a policy manager with NFU Scotland with specific responsibility for CAP schemes, environmental regulations and next generation. They were joined by Colin Ferguson, another young dairy farmer from Galloway, who chairs the NFUS Next Generation group as well as the NFUS Dumfries and Galloway regional board, and John McCulloch, the chair of SAYFC West Region Agri and Rural Affairs Committee as well as Stewartry Young Farmers Club.

The panel was completed with the slightly more mature experiences of Ian Davidson, the current national advisor for the Scottish Land Matching Service, and former head of the agriculture policy division at the Scottish Government.

In a no-holds-barred approach, the audience heard from the panel how they were an ageing profession. ‘We need to fix that problem,’ said Colin Ferguson. ‘There is a huge requirement to upskill and to look elsewhere for ways to allow new entrants and greater diversity in our businesses.’

His words were echoed by Jenny Brunton who urged the union to embrace younger members, to encourage them top join and get involved, reminding everyone that there was now a family membership scheme whereby up to six family members can participate fully in union activities and meetings.
But it was Jenny Baillie who mentioned the ‘B’ word, claiming: ‘It (Brexit) can be seen as an opportunity’, before going on to urge the audience to rise to the challenges and to get better at influencing each other as well as the next generation. ‘We can all be influencers in our own way.’

This call for better and different communication was repeated by John McCulloch who said that the problems facing the industry can be addressed by ‘getting out and seeing what other people are doing. Ask more questions, open more doors and, please, listen to the answers.’

With Ian Davidson rounding off the panel’s thoughts by introducing the hot topic of land matching, the scene was set for a barrage of questions from the floor, many concerning how to make farming in Argyll and Islands region in particular more viable. Ian explained how land matching –
bringing together farmers, crofters and land owners who might be thinking about retiring or giving up with younger or folk relatively new to the industry. He cited examples of how, with the appropriate legal, contractual and personal agreements in place, this can work to mutual benefit, revitalising tired old practices and creating more vibrant, flourishing businesses.

But he pointed out that he receives many inquiries from people looking for opportunities to get into the business, but very few offering opportunities.

Mr Davidson urged the audience to think about succession planning, to discuss with the future with family and to start taking action to ensure a
productive future for farming in Scotland.

Homebred replacements?

A call to Argyll and Islands NFU members by chair John Dickson to ‘bring a young person with you – maybe a son, a daughter, nephew, niece who is involved in your family business,’ did not go unheard.

There were at least three examples to the fore at the meeting in Tarbert. John Earnshaw, who farms on Gigha as well as at West Darlochan near Campbeltown, brought his 20-year-old student daughter Rhona with him.

Catherine Ralston, who not only farms at the Rhoin near Campbeltown but also teaches farming and rural studies, was accompanied with her son David.

And John Dickson practiced what he preached, with his son Ian chairing the afternoon session as a leading light in the Next Generation initiative.

‘We want to ensure that young people have a bright future in the sector, and we want them to become involved in agri-affairs, policy lobbying and NFU Scotland,’ John told the audience. And that is exactly what they saw in action from the Next Generation.