AS WE enter 2018 with fresh optimism and hope for more conclusive answers concerning the future of funding for farming, one man determined to be a champion for Scottish farming is the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing.

In an exclusive interview with The Scottish Farmer, Mr Ewing has spoken passionately about the future success of the agricultural sector and the support the Scottish Government will commit to ensure the rights of farmers are protected and their businesses developed in the years ahead.

Before he stepped down as the UK government’s First Secretary of State, Damian Green claimed that the Scottish Government wanted to ‘go to war’ over hill farming – and when I asked Mr Ewing if indeed he will do all it takes to ensure our hills remain populated by sheep, he agreed to do just that.

“I have sought to be a champion for sheep farmers. I have held two sheep farming summits, one in Lanark and one in Dingwall, allowing me to hear first-hand from the esteemed likes of Lorraine Luescher and Joyce Campbell, and hear more about the challenges they face, which has made a big impact on me.

“What have I done? I was very disappointed initially when the EU were suggesting that LFASS payments were to be reduced by 20% and even though we were at the end of the budget year, I found that money and I reinstated 100% LFASS payments. That wasn’t easy as it meant money had to come from other areas, but I was very determined, and I hope my actions prove the priority I am allocating to hill farming,” stressed Mr Ewing.

The Scottish Government draft budget for 2018/19 includes funding to maintain 100% LFASS payments.

The Cabinet Secretary went on to stress the important role farmers play, not only as food and drink producers driving the economy, but their positive social impact on rural communities, as well as their role as custodians of the countryside.

“Farmers and crofters are at the heart of rural communities in Scotland, they play a huge part in tourism which is not often realised or appreciated, and they are struggling with relatively modest margins, if there are profits at all. I learnt at both summits, especially at the south west Scotland summit, about the serious threats of predation and in many cases from species which are protected, such as foxes,” said Mr Ewing.

Not wishing to add to the current levels of predation in Scotland, Mr Ewing once again restated his commitment to preventing the reintroduction of Lynx in the country.

“I will not be supporting under any circumstances the reintroduction of the lynx. I hope that our colleagues down south can make a similar statement,” said Mr Ewing.

The Cabinet Secretary went on to express great pride in the high quality of Scotch lamb – and concern over its Protected Geographic Indication status, which is now under threat as the uncertainty of EU single market access continues.

In talks with DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, Mr Ewing said he has persisted in pushing an agenda which supports hill and upland farmers amid concerns that without key funding secured for the future, we could see more cases of land abandonment and a deterioration in the landscape.

“From the first time I had a private meeting with Mr Gove at the Highland Show last June, and when I have met with him subsequently at Brexit meetings, I have made it my priority during these occasions to champion the interests of Scottish hill farmers.

“I said to him, that unless we can continue support for hill and upland farming, it will be under serious threat and thousands of hill farmers and crofters will stop, there will be land abandonment and we have seen that already in some cases, the hillside we take for granted which is so beloved by our tourists changes into something which is not pleasant to look at and the environmental terms become degraded very quickly. Not to mention we will lose their rural contributions to the community of which they are the heart,” argued Mr Ewing.

I asked The Cabinet Secretary what stage we were at in talks with Westminster regarding future funding and if the Treasury looks to be prioritising agriculture amidst Brexit negotiations.

“Mr Gove wants to talk about future policies and is skirting around the issue of current funding being available longer term. He will not address LFASS and, given it was removed in England seven years ago, it would be foolhardy to assume it isn’t under threat in Scotland. The general feeling is that the Treasury of the UK government wants to stop payments to farmers and I will be fighting hard for a fair deal and funding for Scotland.

“During the Brexit campaign, Mr Gove and Mr Eustice were two of the most ardent anti-EU/ pro-Brexit campaigners there were, and each of them when they sought to get votes from the farming community said on many occasions EU funding would be at least matched.

“I have looked carefully at the January 4 speech Mr Gove delivered at the Oxford Farming Conference and he did not guarantee that funding will continue till 2024 – the only guarantee is Pillar 1 will continue till the end of the UK government which we assume is 2022. There is no guarantee for Pillar 2 payments other than those contracts we entered in to prior to April 2019, that means that no guarantee for LFASS, but there is no guarantee of any funding beyond 2022, there is only a guarantee of a consultation document,” said Mr Ewing.

Following on from Mr Gove’s announcement during the OFC, where he caused quite the stir amongst the farming and crofting community over his commitment to re-wild the countryside, turning cultivated land back into meadows and prioritising agri-environmental schemes over food production, Mr Ewing responded in defence of the important environmental role already played by farmers which has been overlooked.

“Farmers are environmentalists, they in practice are sculpting, shaping, seeding, ploughing, harvesting – all the activities that farmers do are what makes the land look like it is.

“The conventional idea of an environmentalist is an NGO who will sit in an office and issue press releases. This is not the case – farmers get a rough deal, as they are day-in and day-out working on their farms making it look as attractive as it does. The beauty of the landscape you see in the summer with fields with different crops with mountains in the background; it’s an achingly beautiful country but it wasn’t done by accident, it happens because of the farmers.

“I have always felt from day one that farmers produce food which is key, but they are also the custodians of the countryside and if we don’t support what they do then we must be prepared to accept that the countryside will not look as it does and that tourism would be hugely damaged as a consequence,” stressed Mr Ewing.

A phrase which has been echoed by the Scottish Government’s appointed agriculture champions and again by the rural council of advisors, is the importance of “public value for public goods”. Unfortunately, it has been well recognised that many farmers do not feel part of the success story of our booming food and drinks industry and the connection of “farm to fork” is not complete. I asked Mr Ewing what the Scottish Government can do to strengthen this lost relationship between consumers and producers and return value to farmers.

“The link needs to be strengthened in relation to the good work that Scotland’s food and drink does, and farmers need to be more a visible part of that work. There could be a lot more avenues explored in using farmers in promotional material which would strike a more personal chord with the public,” he replied.

“When people in society think about farmers they think of their role in food production and looking after animals, but they don’t have an understanding of the points I mentioned before about their role in conserving the countryside. That missing link needs to be addressed.

“I am afraid I have heard little from Westminster about food production and I feel strongly that the public must be supportive of farming and realise why funding is so important to continue producing our high standard of produce. More needs to be done to support and recognise our high-quality lamb, beef, potatoes, soft fruit and all sorts of arable produce. We will succeed on the basis of quality, not quantity by and large, and this quality will only improve but public acknowledgement of this provenance and quality is so important,” he said.

As a nation we have become ever expectant, if sometimes indulgent in our assumptions to have unfettered access to all varieties of produce on a year-round basis. In many circumstances this has given way to high demand which can only be met by increasing our imports from abroad, allowing our local farmers to sometimes get lost in the process. I challenged Mr Ewing as to whether we could ever return to being a nation of seasonality?

“All of these things do need to be considered and plainly berries and some other agri-sectors are very much seasonal. Technology is enabling innovative practices such as the likes of vertical farming and we are looking at extending the harvest season. While we can do what we can to influence mother nature and public demand, there are limits and we will always be constrained by our growing culture and climate.”

Expanding on his reference to new technology and embracing a future of change, Mr Ewing highlighted the importance of a new generation of farmers willing to move with the times and develop their businesses accordingly.

“The next cohort of farmers coming forward are keen to explore new opportunities and are proactively looking at ways to make the most of the land under their care and to think imaginatively about whether or not they should do things slightly differently.

“There is a younger generation of farmers wanting to embrace change, to succeed as business people and farmers, producing a wider range of food products,” said Mr Ewing.

One change which I highlighted to the Cabinet Secretary is the introduction of smart tagging in cattle, a system which has proven its success in the sheep sector. I asked what support the government would give to such a scheme in helping with its rollout.

“On all of these things we work closely with stakeholders and with bodies such as the NFU, SAOS and the beef and sheep associations to seek their advice on how to best proceed. My role is to keep an overview of all these good ideas coming from the industry and give appropriate support, sometimes financial, to help develop them.

“The experts will, as with any industry, know far better than any politician how to move forward with any technical advances such as smart tagging. I believe industry-led solutions are always likely to be the better ones, and we will endeavour to support in any way we can,” said Mr Ewing.

He went on to express his concern over the red meat industry here in Scotland and how opening our doors to countries who may not impose the same high trading and welfare standards that consumers insist on in the UK could leave our producers facing a very uneven playing field.

“Our meat is exceptional, and we match it with very high standards of animal welfare and rules regarding transportation and slaughter, and that is all correct, but I am fearful that the UK’s obsession with Brexit may open the doors to other countries who might not necessarily commit to similar levels of practice. My understanding from working with bodies such as SAMW is that they are operating as a whole sector, as farmers, hauliers, feed suppliers, fertiliser suppliers; there are also abattoirs, food processors and lots of packaging business. There is a whole business sector which is reliant upon maintaining production at a certain level and if that production were to substantially reduce that would be a worry about the viability of the sector as a whole,” noted Mr Ewing.

The Cabinet Secretary has already voiced his concern over the meat industry’s labour demands. Attracting, developing and maintaining a future workforce will be imperative for the continued viability of the industry and I asked Mr Ewing if more could be done at the schooling level, and then later on in the professional industry, to ensure more people explored agriculture as a valuable and lucrative career.

“Particularly in rural parts of Scotland there is good work being done to help children understand what farming is all about,” he said. “I think we can always do more. These efforts are best organised at a local level and bodies such has SRUC, amongst others, play an important role in prioritising and improving knowledge of the sector.

“The monitor farm initiative, which is now quite mature, plays a good role in providing a lot of education at a local level about what farmers do and how to best manage their practice. At a meeting I attended, I was struck by how technical it was and how attentively the farmers were listening and deciding how they could change their practices slightly to improve efficiency and productivity. We must remember farmers are running businesses, and need to make money, and they need to be supported.

“A great many of the younger up and coming farmers are going to be the next Grahams, Walkers, Mackies of the future. I have no shadow of a doubt we will see a new wave of entrepreneurs bringing forward food and drink-based businesses that will do well if they can get a wee bit of support from government,” he said.

The Scottish Government demonstrated their commitment to developing the future of the next farming generation, announcing a payment of £39,000 towards the continuation and expansion of the Ringlink Employability Programme, which offers a route into the land-based sector.

“Last year’s course was almost four times over-subscribed – so there is clearly huge demand. That is why we are working with Ringlink to develop a plan for opportunities to further expand the programme beyond 2018, enabling the course to have a wider geographical reach – something that the Agricultural Champions have highlighted and support,” stated Mr Ewing.

Rounding up the interview I asked the Cabinet Secretary if he would continue to pursue access to glyphosate after the current five-year EU licensing compromise.

“I’m not a scientist but the information I have had is that glyphosate is necessary for farming practice to allow proper farming practices. There is no evidence it has deleterious impact and therefore I am a strong advocate of the continuance of glyphosate,” he responded. “Of course, it is correct that scientists should always pursue other methods but currently glyphosate is tried and tested and is required and necessary and I support its continued use.”

Finally, I asked him to leave us with his thoughts on the growing popularity of vegan diets, particularly among young people?

“My daughter of nine is a committed carnivore showing no signs of veganism. I respect it is people’s right to make their own choices, but there is a pretty strong support in my household for meat,” he concluded.