The grass is always greener ...

This thought was certainly in evidence at NFU Scotland’s on-line agm a couple of weeks ago.

For while we, in Scotland, continue to bemoan the lack of any detail emerging on future farm policy, English NFU president, Minette Batters, highlighted the fact that she was highly envious of her counterparts over the fence in Scotland, stating that she’d much rather be negotiating the way forward with our own rural cab-sec, Fergus Ewing, than she would with Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice.

Joining the presidents of the other four main farming unions for a panel discussion at the event, she said government in England was intent on making an extremely radical change across an extremely tight timescale away from the Common Agricultural Policy-approach, with its focus on food towards a support system closely focused on environmental delivery and achieving green ambitions.

In stark contrast to the slow and cautious approach of Mr Ewing – with his five farmer groups set up to act as mid-wives to the new policy – the much publicised side-lining of food production for environmental goals, first set out by Michael Gove when in the Defra post, would be a total game changer for support measures in England.

The proposed fast-pace of change in direction, said Ms Batters, could mean a 60-80% drop in average farm incomes south of the Border over a period of just a handful of years.

But, while she agreed that different routes were likely to be chosen to reach a specific destination, there is likely to be a fair degree of convergence as policy develops over the years. Indeed, without such a coming together, the operation of a UK internal market is bound to be dogged by problems and issues.

Taking up this point, Ms Batters advised Scotland’s farmers to watch very closely what happened in England, because, while the transition might be more gradual, the eventual landing space was likely to be if not the same, then at least very similar.

That's a sort of modern day equivalent of the ‘as you are now, so once were we, as we are now, so you will be’ epitaph which is a common sight adorning headstones in graveyards around the country.

Despite bagging guest appearances by both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson at her own agm this week, Ms Batters claimed that Scotland deserved the prize for the most constructive approach to developing farm policy.

That being the case, then, was anything new unveiled in the cabinet secretary’s traditional annual address to the Scottish union? The swift answer would have to be, not a lot – but there were some hints to the way ahead.

He declared that the focus would remain on food production and promised that some form of income support would continue beyond 2024 – but, the policy (if not the grass itself) would have ‘green strings’ attached.

An indication was given that some of the route map could be clearer within the next month. The blueprint (greenprint?) for the suckler beef pilot scheme likely to be revealed before the introduction of purdah for the Scottish elections at the end of March.

Also, it now looks likely that the arable sector plan probably won’t be far behind either, with a full set of proposals for the cropping and horticultural sectors likely to be released soon. This will, I have no doubt, impress the key role that the sector can play in helping achieve not only a continued thriving agricultural output, but delivering on green house gas emission reductions as well.

For without the millstone of methane emissions round our necks, the cropping sector has a heck of a lot to offer in producing climate positive food – and is intent on presenting a go-getting attitude to the challenges which will lie ahead.

As has often been said, though, one of the main challenges is getting an equitable means of actually auditing these emissions and sequestrations, for without a solid, fair and acceptable metric for rewarding good work – including for those who have already adopted such practices – we’re on a fast train to nowhere.

One of the big troubles here is the fact that we’re probably pretty close to the cutting edge of science in understanding the complex and interconnected role played by different greenhouse gases.

So, while it might be relatively easy to calculate the emissions when all you’re looking at is the use of fossil fuel-derived energy (as tends to be the case in transport and much of manufacturing), it’s a far more complicated story in the farming sector, where the most important emissions are manifold, though with a focus on nitrous oxide.

This is probably the biggest challenge to arable farmers. Current thinking puts this gas at close to 300 times more potent in the global warming stakes than CO2. That challenge is made all the greater by the fact that emissions are highly influenced not only by the levels of inorganic fertiliser applied to crops and grass, but also by soil conditions and crop growth rates.

And there's the rub. Both of which are very much in the hands of the weather, with soil temperatures and rainfall levels having a marked affect on the emissions of this gas. Again, a bit like the different ways in which methane can be viewed, there are still varied opinions on the role played by this gas.

This is all especially important as Mr Ewing also highlighted in his address to the NFUS agm that a nationwide effort to gather information on carbon audits, soil quality and nutrient plans was also broadly indicated as an early step towards drawing up a baseline that would assess progress as the range of pilots and schemes developed.

While the current support system would continue pretty much as it is until 2024, Mr Ewing said that although major changes in the delivery mechanisms would begin to be transitioned in by that point, in his view an element of income support was likely to continue beyond that date:

He said: “With approximately two-thirds of farm businesses making a loss without access to support payments to precipitously withdraw that element as is being done elsewhere could risk obliterating farming, especially in our hills and islands.”

But, importantly for the arable sector, he didn’t exactly quell fears voiced earlier in the conference by the union’s outgoing president, Andrew McCornick, that there was a worrying trend that those on high input, low margin enterprises on the better Region One land might get a less sympathetic hearing than those in the hills and uplands. Mr Ewing later stated: “All farmers deserve financial support – but some are in more need than others.”

More financially successful businesses, he said, could benefit through capital grants designed to enhance and encourage productivity: “But plainly those who farm in our most challenging lands have a greater justification for access to such support.”

I guess you’d have to be pretty green behind the ears not to take that as a hint …