The Scottish Farmer:

JOHN SCOTT MSP for Ayr and farming spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives, has committed his life to serving the agricultural community both in the field and in Parliament – here he tells us where his drive comes from

MICHAEL GOVE might have outlined the UK Government’s vision of a ‘green’ Brexit for the agricultural industry, with a strong emphasis on satisfying southern voters’ environmental demands – but Scottish Conservatives are determined to make sure Scotland’s voice is heard in the negotiations. 

John Scott, the farming spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives, is committed to ensuring the best possible outcome for Scotland and has declared himself willing to work with anyone who champions the best interests of the rural community. 

A born and bred farmer from Ballantrae, Mr Scott brings both passion and a wealth of experience to his role in parliament and a lifetime committed to agriculture has given him the foresight to draw on memories of the sector and to identify best practice moving forward.

Sitting down with The Scottish Farmer at his Balkissock Farm, in Ballantrae, I asked Mr Scott – as a hill farmer well versed in the current struggles facing the industry – how will the Scottish Conservatives press Westminster to value the sector and commit to future LFASS funding?

“There is an absolute need for a continuing commitment to hill farming in Scotland and a continuing commitment to LFASS, and certainly the Scottish Conservatives are committed to that as well,” he replied.

“Michael Gove set the tone at the Oxford Farming Conference and there needs to be a delivery of public goods, but first we need to ensure the security of food supply, hill farming and farming across the whole of Scotland, always remembering that 85% of Scotland is LFA,” said Mr Scott.

Following on from Mr Gove’s address at the OFC, agri-environment schemes are very much the flavour of the month, but it has been suggested to the detriment of Scottish livestock production. Will too much prominence on rewilding our landscape have a detrimental impact on the future of the agricultural sector? 

Mr Scott was keen to explain the importance of balance in ensuring future working landscapes. “There have been agri-environment schemes for a long time now under Pillar 2 payments and these must continue, but a balance has to be struck. I want to see working landscapes across Scotland; there has to be food production, land available for forestry but also land available for environmental enhancement and we are determined all of these things are not mutually exclusive but can be delivered in a working landscape,” said Mr Scott.

“The Conservatives in Scotland are in favour of managed landscapes because these require people in those landscapes to manage them, whether that’s in a hill farming sense regarding beef and sheep production or in a hill farming sense in terms of environmental enhancement and delivery of public goods which is also vitally important.

All of these things have to be balanced and managed together,” stressed Mr Scott.

The important link between consumers and producers is becoming lost along the supply chain, and there is a clear need to rebuild the public’s faith and value in Scotland’s food and drink production and place more prominence on provenance. 

Mr Scott was part of the movement to strengthen the relationship between farmers and the public thorough the establishment of farmers markets and stressed the importance of acknowledging where your food comes from.

“Scotland is a relatively small place but that is one of its enormous strengths; the fact you can pick up the phone to speak to almost anyone directly in the supply chain, certainly helps the delivery of food production. Scotland Food and Drink has an amazing record, and we are now producing around £14bn of food and drink, and one of the ways to continue to grow this sector will be through collaborative working.

The Scottish Farmer:

A BORN and bred farmer from Ballantrae, John Scott has been farming at Balkissock Farm for over 46 years and was a founder of the Scottish Association of farmers markets

“I was a founder of the Scottish Association of farmers markets a long time ago and stood behind a stall one Saturday a month for 13 years selling lamb and was very proud to do so. However, nowadays provenance is vitally important, and it is one of the remarkable things that has happened since farmer’s markets were established in 1999 against the backdrop of BSE, when consumers had lost confidence in beef production and they threatened to lose confidence in sheep production as well. 

“Now, what has grown from farmer’s markets is that they have re-sparked an interest in local food and consumers felt safe then and now with knowing they were buying food from farmers they knew and trusted. I think we need to make Scottish people more aware of the provenance of local food, when we have fantastic healthy produce here in Scotland,” said Mr Scott.

We pride ourselves as a nation which produces high quality products and maintains strict high standards in the process. If we lose access to the single market in Brexit negotiations, could we open the door to trade from countries who don’t aspire to such strict standards creating an uneven playing field? 

I challenged Mr Scott as to whether Westminster will allow imports from countries like Argentina and Brazil which could damage our meat industry?

“As of yet, trade deals with those countries have not been established or defined. I think we should continue to produce to the highest standard as there will always be a market for quality. Peter Chapman and I will continue to make Michael Gove aware of the importance to Scotland’s future of our ability to produce and sell high quality produce whilst making a profit from it,” stressed Mr Scott.

I asked Mr Scott about the relationship between the UK Government and the Scottish Conservatives and whether he would be prepared to take farmers concerns to Westminster and ensure they were heard. 

“David Mundell, our Secretary of State, meets regularly with Michael Gove and, as a representative of a farming constituency, he is very aware of their farming needs. I have been a farmer since 1972 and I’m still farming here at Balkissock, 46 years committed to farming, man and boy. 

"The UK Government is already facing extreme pressure to deal with the NHS crisis, with A and E services at breaking point. I asked whether the Treasury will ever seek favour with farming when public stresses are placed in other sectors?That is the difficult decision of balancing priorities that governments must make, but it is easy to say food production is not important on the basis of having a full belly, but there are times in our history where we have not – 100 years ago, at the end of the First World War there was not enough beef to feed the people of Britain. This was the same after the Second World War and that is why historically there was determination across all UK governments that food security was of absolute paramount importance. After we joined Europe, food production went rather too well and suddenly we had butter mountains, milk lakes and wine lakes. Britain has depended on Europe for much of its food imports and access to food imports since, and it may become more expensive, or not, as we move towards Brexit. But we should not lose sight of our ultimate requirement of farmers that they produce food for our nation." - John Scott

“I have been a politician for almost 18 years and it is a privilege to be firstly a farmer and then to represent farmers as I have done since the mid-1980s through the NFU. I was the NFU hill farming convener in the 1990s and led protests and demonstrations to Westminster. The Conservative government at Westminster was prepared to listen back then and support Scottish agriculture and I believe the current Conservative government still is,” confirmed Mr Scott.

As consumers, we take for granted year-round access to food produce which can be linked to driving demand for imports from abroad. In order to promote and support local farmers I challenged Mr Scott whether we could we ever go back to being a nation of seasonality?

“I don’t think it is somewhere our valued consumers want to go, as they like to be able to buy strawberries and blueberries all year round and I don’t think we will get to a position where that is a reality which will be forced upon us by imports becoming too expensive. 

“Seasonality would only be a position of last resort and consumers rightly expect and have become used to a wide range of food from all over the world, whether that is grapes from Israel or South Africa or blueberries from Spain or Argentina, and again I want to see that choice continuing to be available to Scottish and British consumers,” said Mr Scott.

One of the biggest challenges facing the future of our sector is the maintenance of a workforce, the industry is facing a substantial labour crisis with less people coming into the sector to work and more reliance being placed on immigrant workers to fill gaps in the labour market. 

Dependence on EU workers, particularly in processing factories and abattoirs, is a grave concern, with the likes of 96% of vets working in abattoirs coming from the EU, mainly Spain. If we no longer have free movement of people post Brexit, I asked Mr Scott how roles will be filled locally here?

The Scottish Farmer:

MR SCOTT reminds us that it wasn’t too long ago, after the Second World War, where we struggled to meet food production demands as a nation and that the Government must always value food security moving forward

“I’m a co-convener of the Cross Party Group on Food in parliament and we have a member of that group saying he had 50 acres of broccoli left in the field last year as he had no workers to harvest it. We must try and establish a seasonal workers scheme like we had in the past. 

“I asked a question about that recently to encourage the government to speak to Westminster to put every pressure they could on them, and that this is part of the thinking in the Brexit negotiations, not just in Scotland but across the whole of the UK. 

“I am optimistic that the UK Government will reinstate a seasonal workers scheme or similar, and it is important we now get clarity over what plans they have. It is vital that particular sectors such as agriculture, have an arrangement that is best suited to its needs,” said Mr Scott. 

“Failing that, I’m not sure how we encourage our own young people into seasonal work, as we have such low levels of unemployment that young people are not available to go into that type of job. We need to make sure we do what we can to encourage young people, but if we are unable to then one of the answers will be mechanisation and developing new technologies. 

“Having spent time discussing this with researchers who are looking to build sophisticated machinery, we are still some time away from creating machines which can identify and pick fruit, for example. 

“We are dependent on Spanish vets in abattoirs and it is also the case we are having enormous difficulty getting people to work in the abattoir sector as a whole. We are also having difficulty finding people to work on our fish processing lines for fish farming units, and filling roles in these two areas is proving difficult,” stressed Mr Scott.

Although there are some great organisations working to bring more young people into the agriculture sector there is room for improvement in the schooling structure, where more prominence needed to be placed on valuing agricultural roles. I challenged Mr Scott as to how we can get young people into the industry who aren’t born to farming families and what schools can do to educate their pupils about the industry.

“I feel there is room for improvement in Scottish education in this regard. We need to develop a lifelong interest in agriculture with children. I noticed that my colleague Kirstene Hair, the MP for Angus, highlighted her view that there should be a National 5 qualification in agriculture. I am completely behind that, as it is a positive way forward in attracting new entrants. 

“When I was young, domestic science was taught in schools and it was seen as important to know how to grow your own food as you might have needed to one day but also how to cook it. We need to teach people how to again have an interest in food, how to grow it, and cook it for themselves in a healthy way, as we are becoming a nation which is too overweight,” said Mr Scott.

He went on to expand further on the government’s target to promote healthier food choices moving forward but questioned whether they were perhaps unachievable.

“The Scottish Government has set ambitious targets to increase fruit and veg intake to deal with the growing obesity problem, but the issue isn’t a lack of available healthy options, but more that people choose to follow an unhealthy lifestyle. For years we have seen the five-a-day concept presented to us, and it is not a new concept but not everyone adheres to it,” stated Mr Scott.

As the interview draws to a close and I spy a Scotch lamb apron hanging proudly over Mr Scott’s Aga, I ask him his thoughts on the rise of veganism and whether he could ever be tempted.

“It is part of a growing dietary choice that people make, and it is important to have a balanced diet but most of the research I am aware of suggests it is important to have red meat as part of a balanced diet. 

“If all the nutrients people need for healthy living can be derived from veganism then that’s a lifestyle choice, but I am firmly of the view that a balanced diet includes meat, fish, cheese, milk and eggs and all of these things produce healthy bodies, which has to be everyone’s aim and objective. 

“I can assure you I won’t be turning vegan anytime soon, I love steak too much... served rare of course,” Mr Scott laughs.