“OUR AGRICULTURAL INDUSTRY is so important to our country overall. It is vital that as a government we do everything we can to stand up for it, protect it, and we will always do that.”

Those were the words of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who has promised to defend the rural economy in what she described as the 'choppy waters' which lie ahead.

Although Ms Sturgeon expressed her concerns over the future of the agricultural workforce in a post-Brexit environment, she wasted no time in highlighting the value of the rural economy in wider society and welcomed the upcoming Royal Highland Show and the role it plays in connecting urban and rural communities.

With 10 months to go until judgement day, Ms Sturgeon assured me that she is making a strong case to the UK government that a new agricultural system must demonstrate fairness and equity to the people of Scotland. Although she admitted that any talk of independence is far into the future, the First Minister did make the case that the rural economy would be vibrant and strong under independence, with an agricultural system led by famers and tailored to the specific characteristics of a Scottish landscape.

The Scottish Farmer:

The Scottish Farmer met with Nicola Sturgeon at her official residence, Bute House, in Edinburgh

Sitting down with The Scottish Farmer in her official residence of Bute House in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon fondly recounted her first interactions with the rural sector as a young girl and went on to explain the important role the rural economy plays as a contributor to wider society.

“Growing up, my grandfather’s cousins in south Ayrshire ran a farm and I used to spend time there as a child making mischief around the place. As a child, it was a real adventure, I have memories of climbing on tractors and playing hide and seek in the barn. Looking back on it now, it was obvious it was a pretty tough existence.

“My grandfather was also a gardener and his job was head gardener for a big estate house in Dunure. During my childhood, the importance of the land and producing food was something I was taught to have a real appreciation towards,” Ms Sturgeon reflected.

“The role of the rural economy is hugely important to our economy and the prosperity of Scotland overall – it makes almost 30% of a contribution in financial terms, in the region of £30 billion.

“However, that is looking at it in terms of statistics. I think it is very hard to overestimate the importance of agriculture and horticulture in the rural economy to our very sense of who we are as a country. Scotland’s most successful sectors, food and drink and tourism, attribute their success hugely to the rural economy and it is very much embedded in our identity as a county,” she stressed.


There is no denying that the Scottish brand has been a success story on global markets in recent years, however, there could still be more done to share the story of Scottish produce on our own shores. I asked the First Minister if public procurement could better support Scottish producers, and if the public should be concerned with the recent trend of Saltires being replaced with Union Jacks on food packaging and supermarket displays.

“Unfortunately, the debate around the Scottish flag and Union Jack can become loaded with political debate in Scotland and that is to be regretted," she replied. "I think whatever your views on the constitutional future of Scotland, we should all agree on the importance of the Scottish brand and the Saltire in terms of properly promoting our produce overseas and at home.

“There is lots of evidence that says a significant proportion of people in Scotland would chose to buy Scottish if they had the correct information and the awareness of that. The food and drinks strategy 2030 is something the Scottish government is investing in and part of that is how we better promote our produce at home and internationally."

The First Minister continued: “Separately when I have been speaking to farmers, one of the issues we need to address is what often seems as a disconnect between the success of our food and drinks industry and the struggles of our primary producers. There are lots of issues, not least the role of supermarkets with talks of mergers, and that becomes more of a concern. We need to capitalise more on the fantastic food and drink we produce but make sure that the producers share in the rewards of its success."


in many areas of the rural economy such as the soft fruits sector and the red meat industry, Scotland relies hugely on the continued contribution made by migrant workers. Even with potential single market access and free movement of people, the falling value of the pound and improving conditions in eastern Europe have led to difficulty in attracting and retaining staff. Ms Sturgeon agreed that more needs to be done to tackle this problem.

“My biggest concern with Brexit is around labour and skills supply and we need to make sure that not just for our agriculture sector, but for other sectors, that we retain the ability to attract not just skilled labour but also those who will work in many aspects of agriculture,” she stressed.

“Firstly, before Brexit happens we are already seeing an impact with labour shortages and we need to continue to go out of our way to promote Scotland as a place that wants people to come and work and to show we are a welcoming and attractive place. The Scottish Government right now is putting a lot of effort into getting that message out there and promoting Scotland internationally.

“Secondly, we need to make sure as Brexit discussions develop and hopefully more clarity around the future starts to emerge that we do not see our ability to attract people constrained further. But, there is more to be done domestically as well, ranging from work we do as a government to support new entrants into farming, right through to promoting agriculture generally as a really positive area to work in; and not seeing it because it is often short term or seasonal or work students might do. We need to do more to encourage younger people to see a career in the industry as attractive,” stated Ms Sturgeon.

The Scottish Farmer:

First Minister for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, outlined her committment to the rural economy and promised to protect the sector in a post-Brexit environment


Scottish farmers have had to make important businesses decisions about this season’s young livestock and crops which will be sold in a post-Brexit environment, with little clarity over future support or trading partners. I asked the First Minister whether the rural industry must wait to hear from Michael Gove and Westminster on future plans or can ScotGov take pre-emptive action?

“We are restricted in how we plan for the further before we have the detail about the future UK / EU relationship," she confirmed. "We are determined, if we can avoid it, to not let that get in the way and with the recent announcement of the agricultural champions report we are looking at the future strategy for agriculture. We have work ongoing but there is no doubt there is a constraint on how much clarity we can give when there is so little clarity given from the UK government.

"Westminster are in the driving seat unfortunately in terms of discussions with the EU about issues such as what will replace CAP, but we will try to get ahead as soon as possible."

When the farm support budget that Westminster will send Scotland is finally announced, I asked whether the Scottish government would guarantee that those funds would remain ringfenced within agriculture as they are currently?

“We are absolutely determined to continue supporting farmers in the way farmers have a right to be supported and we will absolutely do our part around that, but we don’t yet have basic answers to questions about the UK approach to overall CAP funding," said Ms Sturgeon.

“Scotland currently gets a higher-than-population share of CAP funding for good reason, as we have lesser quality and more agricultural land. We will make sure that as we are thinking ourselves about what we want that post-Brexit environment to look like, that we are making a strong case to the UK government for fairness and equity for Scotland; but now, we still lack a lot of answers, which I think the public should rightly know, two years on,” she stated.

The Scottish Farmer:

The First Minister on a visit to Williams Bros. beer brewing company at their site in Alloa


The Scottish government recently announced their report setting out the renewed case for Scottish independence. I asked the First Minister what the future would be like for the rural economy under an independent Scotland?

“I believe it would be vibrant, strong and thriving," she declared. "I will acknowledge that within the devolution settlement currently, we have a lot of powers over the future of agriculture and we use those powers to good effect. I know in Scotland there are differences in opinion about independence within the agricultural industry but even more so than in 2014, we can flip that question on its head and look at what we are facing right now; we are not independent and because of this we are facing being pulled out of the EU against our will.”

Ms Sturgeon continued: “As a devolved parliament, we are facing limitations in our ability to make Scotland’s voice heard at the top tables in Europe. Regarding convergence funding, we were promised a review that has been delayed. Scottish farmers are still being denied money which rightfully belongs to them, as that gets decided at the UK level.

"I think that much more than was the case four years ago, the consequences for agriculture of not becoming independent are becoming pretty clear. With independence we can continue the policies we want to continue but we can much more effectively represent the interests of Scottish agriculture and have more ability to make sure we are designing, alongside the agricultural community, the right future for the sector.”

Mr Gove’s green Brexit ambition has had a mixed reception in Scotland, with some farmers feeling it undermines the role of livestock production. I asked Ms Sturgeon if an independent Scotland would take a different approach to livestock?

“Livestock producers should be prioritised, and we want to make sure to prioritise the best interests of Scotland, which is to look after those valuable food producers," she stated. "The characteristics, the makeup and the needs of the agricultural sector are not the same as elsewhere in the UK, which is why we cannot simply have solutions which are designed for other circumstances and then apply them to the Scottish situation. Independence does give you the ability to tailor those policies to the individual needs and circumstances,” she explained.


After months of campaigning by The Scottish Farmer on the issue of sheep worrying, the Scottish government through Emma Harper MSP have announced a member’s bill and an open consultation to look at reviewing the outdoor access code; with a remit to tackle sheep worrying and legislate more effectively around responsible dog ownership. I asked the First Minister if she would offer her support to the bill?

“We welcome the fact that Emma is raising awareness of an issue which is so important to farmers and we will keep a close eye on her consultation and the proposals for legislation as they develop. There is a process government goes through on any members bill in deciding our formal position, but we are very enthusiastic about anything which focuses attention on an issue which does need to be taken very seriously,” stressed Ms Sturgeon.

“However, while that consultation is happening, we can’t sit back and do nothing – there is legislation there already and we need to make sure it is properly implemented. As a government we need to continue to encourage enforcement whether it’s through local authorities or other agencies and make sure we are acting now to make sure this issue doesn’t get any worse. Thanks to Emma, this is an issue which will be further up the agenda.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Nicola Sturgeon enjoying some Scottish snacks at the Royal Highland Show


Rounding off the interview, we discussed the upcoming Royal Highland Show and the role it plays in connecting urban and rural communities.

“The RHS is hugely significant! It is a fantastic showcase of Scottish produce and Scottish agricultural innovation and of everything else the community has to offer," said the First Minister. "It is a great opportunity every year to introduce those who don’t work in or haven’t grown up in an agricultural environment and get them to understand the importance of the agricultural community and the relationship between the work done there and what we eat on our plates every day.

“I think that is very important for young people and school children especially. My first experience of the RHS was on a school trip when I was younger and that has stayed with me all these years.

"Most importantly, the Royal Highland Show is an opportunity to explain and develop an understanding of the importance of agriculture to Scotland's economy and communities – and of course, within its own right, the Show itself makes a tremendous contribution to the Scottish economy,” she concluded.