Friday Farming Focus: a regular column about current issues in our Agriculture Industry
I am writing this article in my kitchen in Lochans, Wigtownshire, four hundred miles from Kirkwall. So maybe I should explain.
SOMETIMES THE MOUNTAIN COMES TO MOHAMMED
The story of how I came to spend a significant portion of my life in Orkney begins, bizarrely enough, in Morayshire.
By 2010, and approaching forty, I’d been self-employed for twelve years and had acted as an agent for a Worcestershire based agricultural feed and additives firm for seven of them. Essentially, the brief was this – grow the business in Scotland.
By 2010, we were doing some good work as far as Aberdeen and Inverness, which encouraged us to take a stand at that year’s specialist beef event in Fochabers. Early that morning, a man approached me and asked if I had anything that would help him manage his slurry operation. As it happens, we’d just launched a microbial slurry inoculant for precisely that situation. Crucially, the man farmed in Sanday.
Later that day, I sold another box to a man from Sandwick. The next day, a farmer from Stronsay called me. Something very encouraging was happening, and the message was clear – I needed to head north. From there, things happened quickly. I spoke at the local farming discussion group and met with the local farmers’ co-operative. Within a week we had a business in Orkney. A fateful conversation with a Sanday man in a windswept Moray farm steading had led to a series of events that have made Orkney central to my business and bring me up here for nearly a month every year.
As I wrote in a previous, unrelated article, everything is connected. My admiration for farmers knows no bounds. The capricious nature of their existence means that they’re constantly at the whim of the weather, societal changes, market pressures, tightening margins, bureaucrats and the whims of politicians. And farms are a lot quieter places than they used to be, so it can be a lonely existence. Yet they adapt and survive.
I’m 46, so I’ve lived through Chernobyl and Foot and Mouth. But in terms of mayhem potential, Brexit is off the scale. We find ourselves at the very epicentre of the biggest challenge ever to face us, something that poses an existential threat to our industry. It could go very badly, perhaps worse than we realise. And not because it has to, but because too many people are allowing it to happen.
I worry that we may be too late in grasping this. We are all subject to events outwith our control. All we can do is control what’s controllable. Much of what I do in Orkney is about that, from treating grass to ensure best quality silage, to thinking about improving the productivity of our soils, to increasing the liveweight gain and profitability of the cattle we sell. But even this is closely related to the current storm.
Brexit is not some intellectually stimulating exercise. It is real time, real life politics that affects millions, Orkney included. For example, between 1999 and 2001, we put one of our key products – our live yeast feed for cattle and sheep – through a series of robust, expensive and independently verified EU trials. Whatever the real and imagined faults of the EU, by going through this process we ensured that every ounce of yeast fed in Orkney is produced to the highest imaginable quality, welfare and traceability standards. It’s one of many examples of the real life benefits that accrue from agreeing common purpose with our neighbours. In the intellectual and cultural wasteland of a Leave campaign that told us they’d had enough of experts, this was dismissed as red tape.
Sometimes you despair. But there’s hope. As an industry, we need to take a deep breath and recognise the next two years as an opportunity to completely re-imagine our industry from top to bottom, and involve everyone in Scotland in the discussion. Our primary duty as an industry is to ensure that there is an industry.
I’m involved in a group that promotes young people in farming. We need to speak to them now. They must have a future. That future is too important to be left to the whims of politicians and the hubris of governments. However, the exit lanes are fast shutting off and we are approaching a fork in the road, and we must decide who we trust to take our vision forward.
There’s much uncertainty, but this I do know. A hard Brexit means a repatriation of powers to Westminster and the devolution settlement being ripped up. So what path we choose will be based on something much more important than politics. How we choose is about self-preservation and the continuation of the industry itself.
I went to hear the wonderful Orcadian folk singer Kris Drever in my home county of Wigtownshire recently, and the closing lyrics to his song “Human Nature” are today playing in my head. “If the lifeboats are rotten and so is the ship / you’d better slip your wings on, you’d better learn how to swim”.
There is a lifeboat and it’s good to go. I’ll see you onboard.