PEOPLE end up in Scotland from all over the world, and from all different backgrounds. For Debs Roberts, she was brought up around agriculture in Australia but has has now made it her life in Scotland too.

She combines working at home on the farm alongside working for the Scottish Organic Producers Association and, although she is a big advocate of organic farming, she is also aware of its place in the bigger picture.

She took time out of her busy schedule to tell us a wee bit about her life and how her work plays a part in her home life.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I grew up in Australia and came to Scotland 25 years ago. I grew up on a farm and I was always out helping my dad, there wasn’t a lot of option!

Dad was always innovative and there was never a sniff of any gender bias, so I went out and did exactly the same as my brothers, no questions asked.

Where we were was really remote, so I went away to school when I was 12. When I went home in the holidays though, it was back to fulltime farming.

Working hard for not a lot of ‘pocket money’ really does show you the value of it.

How did you end up here in Scotland?

Our school was a Scottish school in Western Australia, so I played drums in the pipe band. I first came to Scotland on a tour with them.

I eventually crossed paths with my husband – who’s Scottish – and ended up here fulltime. My brothers and sister are still in Oz and I do miss it, but you really do learn great things from travelling a bit.

What is your family life like?

I have a son and a daughter. Liam has recently graduated and is currently travelling in Australia. Our daughter Jess is at home and works for United Auctions as well as doing lambings.

Do you farm now?

We started farming part of my husband’s family farm in 1993. It’s a mixed farm near Auchterarder, and we went organic in 1998.

We have store cattle and heifers for breeding and grow oats and cereals. We used to grow tatties, but we don’t do that anymore. We wanted to focus more on growing our soil structure than growing the more heavy-duty crops in it.

The farm works great alongside my ‘day job’ because I understand the theory behind things, but I can also put them into practice. I’ve had good and bad experiences on both sides, and it all helps to make my opinion more well-rounded and it gives me a better grounding.

We don’t deal with a specific breed of cattle, we just go on how they perform. We want them to be meaty and fertile. We have 80 sucklers, and we calve in the spring and in the Autumn and out females are all home-bred, we’re a closed herd.

We find that calving twice a year helps with cashflow throughout the year and it generally just suits our set up. We have three or four regular buyers and we often deal with Farm Stock as well. We buy pedigree bulls at Stirling.

What do you see as the benefits of being an organic farm?

Being organic does help promote the product you have to sell. You know you’re always going to have a market for it.

With our store cattle, for instance, if we can’t sell them as organic, they can go down the non-organic route, so you have two outlets – you don’t have that if you’re not organic.

What is your ‘day job’?

I’m a policy manager for the Scottish Organic Producers Association (SOPA). We’re a small cooperative within SAOS. There are two fulltime staff. I’m part-time but I’m also on the board.

It’ll be 11 years this year since I started, and I love being part of it.

The job itself has changed a huge amount in that time, but that’s great, it keeps me on my toes.

We advise our members and liaise with the Scottish Government on policy matters. I also deal with a lot of the communications side of things, especially when it comes to the website. I also do the newsletter for SOPA, which is interesting. Farmers appreciate something visual that they can refer to.

No two days are ever the same, which is great.

What do you enjoy about your role at SOPA?

A lot of the farmers I deal with have become friends over the years. It’s interesting to see different people’s different approaches to things.

I sometimes feel like I’m getting too old and things need to be kept fresh, but at the same time, things go in cycles, so experience does count for a lot too.

How do you see organic farming working alongside non-organic farming?

Organic farming standards are the only food production standards that are actually written law, so from a consumer point of view, that’s great. People do feel like they can trust it.

Agricultural is multi-faceted though, everything as to work together – organic and non-organics – we can’t just fully rely on one thing, they need to work together.

Consumer perception is a funny thing. Many consumers buy organic because they perceive it to be healthy, or have better animal welfare, or be more natural. These elements mean a lot to people.

Is it difficult to get some people to look at organic farming?

It can be difficult to change people’s perceptions of things.

I looked at a recent Swedish study on organics and climate change and it was really interesting because the study only really looked at one aspect of the situation – it didn’t look at cycle analysis or anything like that.

I agree that it can’t change the world, but I just felt like they missed the point a bit.

Vegans for instance, can sometimes contradict themselves. When it comes to carbon emissions etc, they need to look at the carbon emissions from the carbon footprint of their vegan food sources. It’s not all down to cattle.

People sometimes look at evidence with one eye shut, and that’s a shame.

Do you face any issues trying to promote the organic sector?

Some organisations preach one way or another, but I understand that there are good and bad farmers on both sides.

SOPA membership is growing at the same time as the market is, which is ideal because it makes it sustainable.

Young people getting a start is great because they’re keen and dynamic.

You must be tough to be an organic farmer and you often have to prove yourself to your peers, and you have to make the most of the natural tools that you’ve got.

Just because you’re organic doesn’t automatically mean you’re a good farmer or that you’re doing the right thing. You can’t afford to take your eye off the ball.

Organic farmers sometimes take efficiency for granted, but you must work at it and you must be realistic.

You can have your year planned properly, but you also have to be ready to deal with any issues that pop up, so I do try and get that across to people.

Many older organic farmers don’t like taking risks because they feel like they know what works, but young guys will jump in with two feet.

Organics won’t feed the world, and neither will Scotland but as I look at it, if we feed our target consumers that want to buy our produce, then we’re doing our bit.

What do you see as challenges for women in agriculture?

Traditionally, the farmer was always the man, so it was them going out and doing the tractor work, and the milkings etc.

This often meant that farmers wives and daughters have had to find their own role in things. They didn’t have the stereotype to follow so they’ve often had to be more diverse and think outside of the box a bit more.

In a lot of cases of females in the world of farming, it hasn’t happened unless they’ve made it happen.

Have you learned anything from your daughter starting out in the industry?

Jess is 22, and one thing I’ve come to realise is that young girls involved in the sector often find themselves going away from home.

This often leaves them isolated and working hard, but what if something goes wrong?

Jess and I have actually started a closed group on Facebook for young women that are out and about working in agriculture, so they can share advice and their different experiences.

Within three days it had 500 members, so that just goes to show the number of women out there doing it.

We see it as a support network, somewhere where you can ask questions and not be judged, but also somewhere you can build up contacts. I’d like to think of it being a safe place that they can ask for advice and help.

It’s great to see young girls out and about and really pushing themselves.

Networking is a great thing, but it needs to be safe. You must take a look at the wider picture and see the dangers that could be out there.

Was Jess always interested in farming?

She’s always helped out at home. After school the education system was trying to push Jess towards university, but she was always far more of a practical person, and my husband and I could see that.

She’s done a lot of different things, but she’s really enjoying her agricultural stuff and she’s really making a go of it. She wanted a Landrover for her 21st, so we paid the down payment as her birthday present, but it’s Jess that is paying it up, and that’s so important as well. Young people need to realise what things are worth and what it takes to make your own living.

She’s really blazed her own trail and is finding her place. She would like to get sheep, but we’ve told her that we need to see a clear business plan of how it’s meant to work out – we’re not just taking on sheep for them to be pets, they need to earn their keep like everything else.

Have you ever felt any discrimination as a woman in agriculture?

I’ve never felt any discrimination as a woman, but I definitely have as an organic farmer.

That’s often been down to people’s perceptions, but everyone has their own reasons for doing things and going down certain roads.

What is your role at home on the farm?

As well as working outside, I do the farm books at home, which I’m sure is the case for many places.

I think working on a farm, everyone must play to their strengths. We have one fulltime employee on the farm, so along with him, my husband and I all play to our own strengths and match our own skills.

Have you ever gone down the diversification route?

I’ve always had a bit of a diverse life. I did a degree in medieval English literature and I did a distance learning course in organic farming.

To be honest, I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. I’m always on the lookout for new things and new challenges.

We also diversified with some of our farm buildings, first having self-catering holiday accommodation but now they’re rented out homes.

Things like that are great because they’re steady, reliable cash flow. We’re also in a woodland management scheme, so that’s been another way of utilising some of our land. I’m really interested in species management.

What do you do in your spare time?

In my spare time I love spending time with my two working cocker spaniels. We breed with them occasionally and sell the pups, but generally I find dogs as a great way of relaxing. They’re great company.

I did the rural leadership course six years ago and it was great. Very challenging but well worth it.

It gives you a great network of people and contacts and it makes you look out with your own wee bubble.

What are you thinking about the future?

As far as the future is concerned, Brexit is overshadowing everything just now.

What can often happen in times of turmoil is that farms start to look in on themselves and shut the doors a bit.

People stop taking risks.

The next few months could be a more stabilising time, but we can’t stop challenging ourselves. Day to day we need to do the right things and look at costs and efficiency.

Overall though, the industry is a fantastic one, and it’s one that I relish working in every day!