THERE are many aspects of agriculture in Scotland – physical farming, the business side of things and even the political aspect of the industry.

One person who can honestly admit she’s been involved in all three, is Alison Milne.

Alison now lives on her husband Danny’s family farm in Fife, they have three boys Finlay (10), Max (9) and Cameron (3).

They run the business, which is mainly arable, across two units – Demperston and Dura Mains along with her father-in-law Norman and employee Graeme Finlay. 750 acres in total, 500 arable acres which they work alongside their 75 suckler cows.

However, as well as this, Alison is a self-employed consultant and for eight years she worked with the National Farmers Union of Scotland in various roles.

Recently, she also took on the role of co-chair of National Council of Rural Advisers and is currently in the process of setting up a new on-farm family business.

She told The Scottish Farmer about her career in the industry and where she sees things going in the future.

How did you get involved in the farming industry?

I grew up on my dad’s arable and sheep farm, just outside Stirling, before heading to Glasgow for uni.

Having stayed in the city for five years I then went travelling. I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted to do, but when I saw a job advertised for a communications assistant at NFUS in 2004, I just knew that was the job for me!

I didn’t actually get that job, but instead was offered a role as a regional manager for Highland, Orkney and Shetland and I jumped at the chance.

I loved it. I had never been to the islands before, but it’s a great area, the people are fantastic and they taught me so much.

What did that role involve?

I was still based in Edinburgh, but spent much of my time travelling to some fantastic parts of Scotland. I was very passionate about the role the Union plays in representing Scottish agriculture and I was keen to explore how that network across the country could be put to best use.

I absolutely believe that the Union can be a vehicle for sharing ideas, best practice and promoting our industry and from this came the idea for the Farming for the Future project. I worked with the then Orkney chairman, Stewart Wood and George Baikie of SRUC, and we ran around a dozen events over two or three years and around 40% of Orkney farmers took part in some way.

I feel like this changed the role of the Union in these areas and people started to look at it differently – it made things more practical. The idea was eventually rolled out to the Highland area and the Northeast.

How did your career progress?

I moved into business development with NFUS, before becoming membership director, then commercial and operations director. As a staff director I sat on the board – the sole female in 2008!

In 2013 I moved on, mostly so I could spend more time with my growing family. My husband and I started taking on a more active management role on his family farm, so I wanted to be able to commit to that.

I set up my own consultancy business, and did a lot of CAP related work, as well as working with the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, working with Angus McCall, which I really enjoy. I still do that now.

Have you taken part in any on-farm schemes?

Danny and I took part in the Monitor Farm process – we were the first farm in Fife to take part and it was a great experience.

We wanted to look at our asset base, including our own skills, and make sure we were making best use of them and adding value where we could.

We concluded that improvements could be made to the arable and cattle sides of the business, and if we were looking to diversify it should be something closely linked to the core business. It also allowed us to look at issues such as succession and ensure we were tackling them in the best way possible.

How does the livestock side of things work on the farm?

Historically, the farms livestock was treated as a bit of a side line, but Danny and I were keen to improve things. So we looked at the enterprise from a more in-depth perspective – breeding, fertility, testing, those kinds of things.

We used to simply produce store cattle, but now we have invested in quality hi-health breeding stock to give us different selling options. We sold three breeding heifers through United Auctions this year and we want to grow that.

Like a lot of things, it’s a long game, but I do really enjoy the stock side of things. It can be a challenge to be practically involved when I’m also looking after the kids, but I do my best.

Our youngest son is already very keen on the farm and his big brother is showing more interest as well.

Have you ever had an adverse experience of being a woman in farming?

I wouldn’t say I’ve ever faced discrimination from the point of view of being female. If anything, I feel like people in agriculture have a great respect for women. The role and profile of women in agriculture is changing but if you look at most successful farm businesses, they are based on great teams, irrespective of gender.

I would say women tend to have a different approach to things – especially management and communication. I don’t feel we make best use of this in some of the organisations that represent our industry. There are so many women out there with fantastic leadership skills and in todays challenging environment it may just be time to try something new!

Do you and Danny work well together?

In our business, you could look at it and say we carry out ‘traditional’ roles, but we are 100% a team and without one, the other wouldn’t work so well.

We’re very good at communicating. We’re maybe not great at taking time to sit down and plan things, but that’s what happens in a busy environment.

We’re also not afraid to use outside services to help. Being blinkered at taking help can mean you can lose some potential. Being too proud can be counterproductive.

The monitor farm process can make you more open to critical analysis of your business. It can show you how to prioritise and be much more open minded.

How was it being involved in the National Council of Rural Advisers?

Being so involved with the NCRA was great. It was my opportunity to take everything I had learnt from people across the industry over the years and put it to good use! I went into it with my ears and mind open and I threw myself into listening and learning from people.

I came into the process from a background in agriculture and I learnt that as an industry we have a real tendency to be defensive. I left the process realising its high time the whole rural economy started working together to promote the amazing potential we have and the value we deliver to Scotland.

As an industry we are proud and passionate and we need to translate that into positively promoting our industry rather than defending. The value of the rural economy can’t always be measured in pounds and pence, it’s the heritage, generations of expertise and the management of our incredible natural assets that we need to communicate .

What problems do you consider the industry to be facing?

I think one main problem in the agricultural industry is society’s view of what we provide and the value that society places on agriculture.

Undoubtedly the way we are supported in the future will change, but we must be clear that the CAP has left us with a legacy of cheap food, often well below the cost of production. It is a legacy not of our own making, so the solutions for the future must be based on society, government and industry deciding how the demands of food production, environmental management and diversification can be managed to deliver benefit for everyone.

As an industry we must also accept we have a responsibility to communicate our value and to realise that we are not alone in facing challenges.

How do you see the role of politics in agriculture?

It’s not a criticism, but over the last 30 or 40 years we’ve become a bit segregated in a political sense. The silo mentality that exists does not serve anyone well and the future needs to be about unpicking this and looking at how agriculture, environment, tourism, food and drink etc all work together to deliver on Scotland’s ambitions.

The potential of rural businesses is huge – we have so much to be proud of – including a global reputation.

My biggest frustration is how politicised agriculture has become.

We get used as a political football and that does the industry a disservice. We are commercial businesses and if people don’t want to lose the value and vibrancy of family farming then we must start looking at the future in a different way.

Party politics has no place in shaping the future of our industry.

What does the future hold for you?

The future for us is hopefully going to be very exciting. We’re starting to get going with a new business that’s been three or four years in the making.

We’re about to launch a craft malting business, Crafty Maltsters Ltd.

Going back to our monitor farm experience, we knew adding value meant looking at something closely linked to our core business. In the arable sector there is very little opportunity to add value and you find yourself a hostage to world commodity markets, we wanted to change that.

The craft brewing and distilling sector is booming and we have something of real value to add to their products and the customer experience.

It’s exciting times for us and exactly the kind of road we wanted to go down. We’re very much investing for our children’s future and the fact we are working across the generations on something new makes it a very special project. The new face of family farming for us is about celebrating the legacy of expertise that went before us and embracing new opportunities for the future.

Like the other roles I’ve had, I’m passionate about it and we are really excited to get started, so look out for us in the future and please get in touch if you want to know more.