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Farming Matters: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get”(Gary Player)

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”. (Muhammad Ali)


If you’ve been reading this column regularly you’ll be getting a picture of me by now. Farming, politics, sport and books are the things that interest me, the prisms through which I see the world. For sports fans like me, last weekend was a treat.

Sunday night’s epic Masters golf from Augusta had it all. Two great players at the very peak of their powers trading blows at one of the great citadels of sport, Augusta National. A titanic struggle that epitomised all that was good about the game ebbed and flowed in the most dramatic way imaginable, and ended with Sergio Garcia, eighteen years a professional golfer and seeming destined to end his career without a major title to his name, finally winning a green jacket; and on the day that would have seen his great friend and idol Severiano Ballesteros turn sixty. Even through his disappointment, his vanquished opponent Justin Rose saw the bigger picture. Some things are just meant to be.

I have the greatest admiration for any sportsman who puts himself through years of torture, even in the knowledge that their dreams may remain unfulfilled. We see their talent but perhaps forget what it took to put them there. Successful sportsmen, like all successful people, are defined by hard work, sacrifice, humility and a willingness – a hunger, even – to learn. Of all the traits that define successful people, talent is perhaps the least of them.

One thing that connects them all is a desire to learn from the best people in their chosen field. Tiger Woods provides a classic example. He prepared for his groundbreaking 1997 Masters win by seeking out Seve Ballesteros and Jose-Maria Olazabal , two proven winners at Augusta, for practice rounds, bombarding them with questions all the way round. He even flew to Texas for a putting seminar with that great wizard of the short stick, Ben Crenshaw.

The paradox is that the very best in any field are generally the most hungry to learn, even from unusual sources. Throughout his career, Alex Ferguson read books about great leaders like Napoleon, while Padraig Harrington credited his significant mid-career improvement to his hiring of a mind coach, Dr Bob Rotella, who didn’t even come from a golfing background.

People become successful through travelling around meeting people from whom they can learn. The better they get, the better they want to be. It explains why you never see bad swings on golf practice areas. The people who could really use the practice are out on the course trying to fathom out why their swings resemble helicopters in trouble, and why their shots have all the accuracy of a British nuclear submarine missile test.

It’s no different with successful farmers. Last week saw me at Drumdow Farm near Stranraer, home of my friend (and reigning QMS Scottish Beef Farmer of the Year) Robert Parker. I’ve done the farm tour with Robert round his 570 acre beef and sheep unit many times, but it’s always a pleasure and I always learn something.

He’d always been a pretty useful farmer, but in 2004 he embarked on a three year project as host for one of Scotland’s first monitor farms. Essentially, the idea is that farmers come to the host farmer and suggest ways to improve efficiencies, margins and performance. The successful outcomes can then be rolled out to other farms, both locally and nationally. For example, at the start of the project, only Robert was voluntarily testing for liver fluke. Within a year, everyone was. He even trialled a product I supply – a live yeast strain – on his growing cattle, and saw a significant increase in his daily liveweight gains, a key benchmark for any serious beef producer.

The point is that it wasn’t just Robert who gained. Economically and practically, it was the ultimate win-win. Not incidentally, there was a similar project held at Millburn Farm in Harray a few years ago. At its conclusion, the group was asked for its feedback. One of the most common responses was that the whole experience had given them a reason for a good day out and a blether with their pals. Farming can be lonely, so perhaps the monitor farm project was unconsciously providing a vital social function. Maybe that shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, there’s a reason why mental health charities often run awareness campaigns at auction marts.

And then, two thirds of the way through the project – and presumably because hosting a monitor farm and running a beef and sheep farm left him at a loose end – Robert applied for, and successfully won, a scholarship from the Nuffield Farming Trust.

I thought it might be useful to explain what that means. On its webpage, it says:

“Nuffield awards around 20 individuals each year with the opportunity to research topics of interest in farming, food, horticulture or rural sectors. Scholars are able to travel anywhere in the world, visiting one or more countries in order to further knowledge and understanding, with a view to advancing their respective industries”.

And that, more or less, describes what happened with Robert. The scholarship allowed him to travel the world, from Uruguay to Australia to Argentina, studying beef breeding policies and systems.

It significantly changed Robert’s outlook. He moved away from, as he now saw it, high-maintenance, high input, continental breeds to native cross-bred cattle – the “Black Baldie” comprises the Hereford and Angus breeds – who are easy to calf, relative inexpensive to keep and who produce higher margin breeding heifers to sell across the UK, whilst producing steers that provide the kind of higher end cuts of beef that butchers and consumers love (eating quality – and ways of measuring it – is one of Robert’s passions).

Again, it’s the way the knowledge is shared that’s important. In the ten years since he published his paper and delivered it at the annual Nuffield conference, Robert has travelled the UK and beyond on at least fifty occasions to talk at meetings, discussion groups and seminars. He’s hosted at least as many farm visits, and admits it may be more. And that’s before we count the many people who have read his thesis online without having to pay a penny. And, remember, Robert is one scholar amongst many. The depth of knowledge and information out there is truly staggering, and yet these people wear their genius lightly and who share their findings gladly.

Joining me on this farming masterclass was Emma Harper, MSP for South Scotland. Coming from a farming background – her father was a Stranraer dairyman – she couldn’t have been more at home. Like many of the new faces in the Scottish political scene, she came late to the political party, only joining the SNP in 2010 before coming within a whisker of unseating David Mundell in Dumfries in 2015. A year later she arrived in Holyrood and is now a key member of Fergus Ewing’s farming team.

Like Robert, she instinctively understands the importance of getting out and speaking to people and trying to find solutions to the current challenges. Speaking to her in the car on the way back to her Friday surgery in Stranraer, she told me this was exactly her approach in her medical career.  She’s worked for the NHS in both Scotland and England, and even worked in California. She always signed up for conferences and ended up specialising in transplant and trauma surgery, leading surgical groups and providing clinical education.

Two things occurred to me while taking part in this fascinating discussion. Firstly, it’s remarkable how quickly the conversation moves beyond politics. The two key questions raised were “what do we want our farming industry to look like?” and “how do we go about achieving this?”. For such a diverse industry, Friday’s meeting demonstrates that there’s a great deal of consensus, if only we get round the table.

Secondly, it occurred to me that I’d just had the privilege of spending the day with two individuals who owed much of their professional advancement to a willingness to travel, the courage to challenge received wisdom, the desire to learn and the generosity of nature to share their knowledge for the betterment of their peers and the wider community.

So, wherever you are, here’s a question for you to consider this Friday.

When Robert was travelling the world learning about breeding systems and beef production, do you think, even for one second, that anyone – anyone – suggested he’d taken his eye off the ball? And do you think anyone asked Emma, when she was learning new surgical techniques, why she wasn’t getting on with the day job?

Of course not. The suggestion would be absurd – insulting, even, if posed to any serious professional in any field.

And yet some of us ask it of the elected First Minister of Scotland. Some MSPs, it seems, do little else.

As the UK moves beyond denial and recognises the probability that it is leaving the European Single Market, the skilled migrants that a knowledge based economy like Scotland needs to run essential services like health are staying away in their droves. Students from Europe and beyond no longer want to come to our universities. A hard Brexit would, demonstrably, mean a loss of 80,000 jobs and wages dropping by an average of £2000. I believe this is called Better Together.

Nicola Sturgeon failed to join me in Stranraer last week, citing a diary clash. I’m not too pit oot though. After all, she spoke to the UN on gender equality and human rights. She addressed Stanford University and signed a climate change agreement with the governor of California, netting a deal for Scotland worth £6.3m. I’d love a day’s business like that.

The response in Scotland, from some of the people and most of the media, was as tediously predictable as it was totally depressing. Conservative MSP Annie Wells, despite being elected on precisely 8.6% of the  constituency vote, and having only two weeks previously failed to recognise the sovereignty of the Scottish people, nonetheless felt emboldened enough to say this:

“Rather than going abroad to try to sell her plans for separation, she should accept that Scots don’t want a second independence referendum and get back to the day job of improving our health service and schools”.

Where to start?

Firstly, it’s only the Annie Wells of this world who are talking about a second referendum. If the political movement of which she’s a member had delivered the “vow” of home rule or near federalism then I wouldn’t be writing this column. Ok, actually I might have been. But nobody would have been reading it, or listening to me, because something close to the settled will of the Scottish people would have been achieved. Some people blame the downturn in the economy on the possibility of a second independence referendum. That’s like, suggests Iain MacWhirter, blaming the ambulance for causing alarm by turning up at car crash.

Secondly, every single poll suggests that Scotland – at some point – wants a second vote, and certainly when the outcome of the Brexit negotiations becomes clearer by Autumn 2018. Furthermore, a majority of Scots believe that their country’s place in the Single Market is a matter for Holyrood, not London, to decide.

Thirdly, health and education are doing ok. Not brilliant, but decently. Health approval ratings are high and Scotland’s junior doctors aren’t marching in the streets. But we’ll struggle without the movement of labour that EU membership allows and that Scotland needs.

The first – maybe only – priority of a country’s leader is the continuation of that country’s prosperity and wellbeing. I’d offer that travelling abroad and securing jobs and investment at a time when Scotland’s place in the single market is, at best, unclear, is probably a good idea. Indeed, given that a hard Brexit is demonstrably catastrophic for a knowledge based economy, anything less from the First Minister would be a gross dereliction of duty. There’s plenty of folk to look after health and education, and it’s already pretty obvious that Scotland must plan for its place in the world as an independent country. The First Minister’s visit to America reflects that reality.

I’m all for holding governments to account. But what I cannot abide is fellow Scots of whatever political hue showering contempt on a democratically elected Scottish leader who goes abroad to boost the Scottish image and economy. It is particularly galling when such vitriol happens in the same week as a woman unelected by even her own party received a media free pass whilst going to Saudi Arabia to sell arms to allow that beheading regime to bomb Yemen into the dark ages. This is ok. This is Theresa at her day job. This is Better Together.

What really seems to annoy Scottish Unionists isn’t so much that Nicola Sturgeon is acting like a world leader, but that she is universally – apart from in her own country, perhaps – seen as one.

Fake news. Alt-right. £350m for the NHS. Build a wall. We’ve had enough of experts. Brexit means Brexit.

I’m done. I’m utterly sick of it all.  “Get on with the day job” encapsulates the intellectual pessimism of modern political discourse. It isn’t nearly good enough. We deserve better.

But there’s hope.

The First Minister’s visit to America reminds us that Scotland has always been internationalist in outlook. Thirty million Americans claim Scots or Scots Irish heritage. Our relationship with Europe predates the Act of Union by many centuries, which is why a narrow, inward looking, xenophobic UK is anathema to Scots, and explains why we will soon no longer wish to be any part of it.

Let’s instead try to embrace the freedom of being an equal partner of nations in Europe and across the world. Of being open, outward looking, inclusive.

The responsibility and privilege of building a better Scotland falls on us all.

This is our day job. Let’s get it done.


Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and every Friday writes a Farming Matters column 

9 replies »

  1. To learn, and adapt, is to evolve. It’s how a species survives.
    Expanding outwards and mixing with others can help too.
    You lost me on the sport stuff, and the niceties of livestock care – each to their own!

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  2. A short rant……….
    I notice you mention that your friend Robert moved from continental breeds to native cattle.
    I’m usually the one who putters and rants about things, but mike has a rant about native British apples. Or, should I say, about how difficult it is to obtain them, even at apple-time.
    Someone, somewhere, some time ago decided that it would be better to have access to apples all year round, which meant importing them. Then – many of the British apple orchards were grubbed up. Now, it’s hard for someone such as Mike, who prefers British apples, to get them.
    I’m not against importing apples from elsewhere – variety is the spice of life – but there could be a balance between native apples being available at apple-time, and imports being available the rest of the year. Except that a lot of the British apple orchards have disappeared under housing developments. Mutter, mutter, mutter.
    Native apples would have to come up from the South of England to be available in Orkney, but that’s still a lot nearer than Chile or South Africa!

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    • Apparently the consumer wants to have certain apples all year round so the ‘British’ ones which are only avaiable for a short period are pushed out of the market. And this means that taste is lost for appearance and long shelf life. It has happened not just with apples but with varieties of fruits and vegetables. Basically if you want something trully fresh and tasty you have to grow it yourself and in Orkney that limits you but it is still worthwhile for those who can.

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      • As P.S. to that – Mike also putters about the fact that they have ‘best before’ dates – on APPLES! On APPLES for goodness sake! And, what’s more – best before dates which precede ripeness by a few weeks. He used to think he didn’t like Braeburn apples – found them to be hard and tasteless. He chanced to leave one way past it’s best before date – and……it was ripe, and nice, and he liked it!
        Madness.

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    • Jings, Bernie. The food supply chain – how long have you got? We produce some of the best food in the world, export it and then import frozen lasagne. I feel an article coming on…

      I love Robert’s logic for his shift to AA / Hereford. Good maternal traits, easier calving, better temperament. Although he’s selling slightly smaller cattle they actually make more money as they produce the higher end cuts that butchers can sell at a premium. As Robert is always at pains to point out, though, he’s only creating a system to suit his farm. See if you can find his paper online – you’d find it a stimulating read.

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  3. Er…….this is where I mention that I don’t eat meat.
    The fact is…..when we came to live in Orkney I was vegetarian – had been for a long time. I think I may have previously told the tale of how Orkney fish ‘turned’ a vegetarian. I still don’t eat meat though.
    If an animal has a good life, and a clean death, and other folk want to ea them, I have no quarrel with that. My response to an animal, isn’t to eat it. That’s just my way of being. I don’t need to eat meat – if I needed to, I probably would, but I don’t need to, I don’t want to, so I don’t.
    So, I’m afraid that reading Robert’s paper, doesn’t appeal to me, at all!
    I can see the sense of it, as you describe what he did. Going away, learning, bringing back that knowledge and applying it to his farming practices. I’m all in favour of more enlightened methods of animal husbandry. I just don’t eat meat, and rather than stimulating, I think I’d find it all a bit ruffling.
    This is a big subject, which can open out into all sorts.
    I have had discussions with folk about whether, in an extreme situation, I would eat people. My answer is that, if in that situation, I might be prepared to eat good people, but wouldn’t eat horrid people, as I would be ingesting them. That would stay with me – yuk.
    And, I don’t fear death, so, in that situation, I think I’d walk into the snow, lie down and hope to go to sleep.
    That could be a party game – who would you be prepared to eat, and who would you not be prepared to eat? A variation on who you would or wouldn’t like to be stuck in a lift with.
    I was tempted to give few examples – but think I’ve said enough on this particular subject!
    A tale…………
    Some years ago, I applied for a job with the Welsh Agricultural Organizations Society, in Aberystwyth. The job I applied for was general office duties. I had an interview, got the job, and turned up for my first day at work. I was then told that they thought I was too qualified for the general office job, and they had decided that I would be PA to the Director of Welsh Lamb Enterprise. Welsh Lamb Enterprise was/is an organization for the promotion of Welsh lamb. I said “But I’m vegetarian” – they thought this was a great joke, but I said, “No, seriously, I am vegetarian”.
    I’d given up my old job, so, was kind-of stuck with it.
    As it turned out….I learnt that Welsh Lamb Enterprise was a very good thing. The idea was that they monitored the lamb, from the field, to the butchers shop. For a farmer, abattoir or butcher to get Welsh Lamb Enterprise accreditation, they had to meet all the standards specified by WLE and be regularly inspected. That mean that anyone buying Welsh Lamb, with WLE accreditation, knew exactly what they were getting. So, even to me, a vegetarian, it was plain to see that it was a good thing for the welfare of the animals concerned.
    I had friends who specifically bought WLE lamb, because I told then this tale, and they told me it was particularly delicious.
    I must admit, I used to type up the abattoir reports, and I said that, if I hadn’t been vegetarian to start with, some of them would have made me so. They were the ones which DIDN’T pass the standards set by WLE.
    So, I did the job, for about a year, until I moved away from Wales.
    Goes to show – a vegetarian can end up working for animal welfare in a way she never expected to!
    And, to end with a poem, I don’t know who it’s by…………

    The Rhyme of the Sheep Rustlers

    “The mountain sheep were sweeter,
    But the valley sheep were fatter,
    We therefore deemed it meeter,
    To carry off the latter.”

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