With an agricultural career spanning more than 30 years, Alison Johnston is safeguarding the next generation by ensuring that school children across the North-east of Scotland are receiving a fundamental education about agriculture.

Here she spoke with The SF about her established career and fondest memories. And just how important it is to teach a new generation about the facts of where their food comes from.

What is your background?

I was born and raised on a livestock farm in Rogart, Sutherland, and when I left school, studied agricultural secretarial at SRUC's Elmwood campus.

I then worked for our local vets for a few years, before heading to the bright lights of Edinburgh. I ended up working for Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), followed by a year backpacking and working on agricultural properties in Australia. On my return to Scotland I went back to study for an HND in agriculture at SRUC, in Edinburgh.

Then I had a variety of great jobs after finishing my studies, which include working as a technician with Edinburgh Genetics (AI and ET in the pedigree sheep world), agricultural officer with SEERAD in Caithness and procurement agent with Mey Selections.

I then took a break to have my two children, Kirsty and Iona, before returning to work for Aberdeen and Northern Marts, at Thainstone. I then went back to work under the SAC consulting farm accounts team as a farm business analyst.

However, in 2019, an opportunity arose to take on my current role as project manager with the Royal Northern Countryside Initiative (RNCI) and I eagerly took it!

Can you tell us a bit about your job and what it entails?

I was a committee member of the RNCI when the position of Project Manager came up and I decided to apply. I feel so incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity to take on this amazing role.

No two days are the same; from admin to being out arranging farm visits for school children, to turning up in a playground with our Countryside Classroom on Wheels (CCOW).

The RNCI was formed in 1997 by members of the Royal Northern Agricultural Society (RNAS) as it was felt that there was a need to increase children’s knowledge and understanding of food, farming and the countryside, as well as getting children out onto farms to experience first-hand the role of a working farm.

We still work very closely with RNAS, as well as the Royal Highland Education Trust (RHET) and various other organisations to deliver the charities aims. For example, at the RNAS Spring Show, we bring together 350 primary school children from across the North East to learn all about agriculture and food at a variety of workshops and stands.

We, (myself and our educational assistant, Claire Green) talk to the children about farming, how food is produced, how much of their food is produced locally in the North East and the importance of supporting local food production where possible.

Covid has had a huge impact on our delivery as we cannot take children out onto farms or go into schools at the moment, but we are making use of technology by filming short videos of farming activities in the North East for teachers to access and share with their pupils.

We are sharing various photos, videos and resources on our social media platforms and have encouraged teachers to get in touch should they require any support with their food and farming topics. We also have several nursery boxes that include machinery, animals, farm games, farm books, farm dressing up and toy food which can be dropped off at schools to be used in class.

We cover a huge area including Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and Moray, which includes 242 primary schools and 36 secondary schools. As a charity, our work would not be possible without our volunteers and the financial help we receive from our generous benefactors.

We also work closely with Moray Council and RAF Lossiemouth to help facilitate a huge STEM in the workplace event, involving every primary six class in Moray. Last year, nearly 1200 children attended this event.

Working in partnership with other industry bodies helps us reach a larger number of children. As a small charity we are proud to say we worked with over 12,000 children in the last full academic year.

Favourite agricultural show?

I love the Royal Highland Show – who doesn’t! It is the one show where you can go and meet folk from the length and breadth of the country and there is a great show of stock on offer too.

However, I do love the local shows like Turriff and, of course, the north shows of Sutherland, Caithness and the Black Isle. I really cannot pick just one!

What has been the best and worst advice you have received?

Best advice was definitely being advised to go back and study my HND in agriculture after Australia. I met some great folk and made some brilliant lifelong friends, as well as studying something I loved and still am passionate about.

Worst advice is that a stable would be suitable accommodation at the Highland Show back in the day! It was far from it and a horrible wet year!

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

Seeing the children’s faces when we set up our CCOW in a school playground. ‘Best day ever’ is the usual chat among the children. Also receiving letters of thanks from children who have either been on our CCOW or been on a farm visit.

We cannot underestimate the lasting positive experience this is for children. Very few children now have any connection with agriculture and food production and that is why our work is so important.

Biggest disappointment in your career?

To be honest, I have never really been disappointed. I always think things happen for a reason and it usually works out in the end. I think the hardest thing I had to do was sell the sheep when my dad was ill. It was really tough watching years of breeding and improvement being dispersed.

Most influential person in your career?

My Dad, Alex Murray – he could always see the bigger picture. Not only did he farm our own family farm, Davoch, but he managed Kintradwell Estate for 28 years. He farmed the estate like it was his own with 1000 North Country Cheviots and 50 suckler cows.

What's been your biggest achievement to date?

Keeping our stock NCC ewe hoggs after Dad died and then selling them as gimmers in Dingwall, where they topped the sale that day and all went to one buyer.

What’s been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome in your career?

The only hurdles are the ones we put in front of ourselves, but as a busy working mum it is a real juggle. I really couldn’t do without the love and support of my husband, Stewart.

What’s your favourite breed of cattle or sheep and why?

In the sheep it would have to be the North Country Cheviot Lairg Type as it is what we had at home and what I grew up with. You have to like what you look at every day and I love the versatility of the breed – they are real characters.

In terms of cattle, we used to have traditional Irish Blue Grey cows crossed with a Limousin bull. They were great calves for the sale ring and we frequently topped the backend sales in Dingwall.

In your opinion, what are the main problems in the agricultural industry?

Where do I start....lack of returns for producing top quality produce, isolation, red tape, Brexit, the uncertainty of markets going into 2021, climate change, dog worrying and vegan activists.

However, as in industry, we have a lot to be positive about! We are getting a lot better at shouting from the roof tops about the brilliant products we produce to the highest of environmental and welfare standards. Social media now makes it a lot easier to connect with our consumers.

Out with farming, are you involved in any other organisations?

Outwith agriculture?? I don’t understand!! I manage to squeeze in the local Brownies, Fintray Gardening club, Fintray WI and my daughters’ activities and swimming club.

What piece of advice would you give to any female wanting to make a career within the agricultural industry?

As an industry we are crying out for passionate people to enter at all levels so please don’t let anyone tell you cannot be successful in this industry. There are so many brilliant careers in agriculture and food production. I have never been unemployed in a career that spans over 30 years.

Favourite alcoholic beverage?

It would have to be Rock Rose Gin from Dunnet Bay Distillery, in Caithness, or I am partial to a wee cocktail now and again.