Scottish farming's future cannot rely entirely on automation – people will remain vital to the rural economy and cannot be replaced by machines.

As the implications of Brexit on the migrant labour market have become apparent, Defra ministers have focussed more and more on the potential for the automation of fruit and vegetable harvesting, and hi-tech labour saving solutions on farms in general. Speaking at a fringe event at this week's SNP conference, National Farming Union Scotland president Andrew McCornick responded that Scotland’s farmers and crofters were taking the necessary steps to change and modernise their operations, but said that these advancements could only take the industry so far – highly trained and skilled staff would be an essential element of profitable and productive farming for the foreseeable future.

Mr McCornick commented: “There is a huge role for agri-tech supporting our farming sector as we strive to become more efficient and more competitive and Scotland has a good track record in adopting technology and innovation.

“While these tools can help make our rural economy more successful, keeping people in our industry is absolutely vital,” he stressed. “Agri-tech provides tools and techniques that can support farmers but, in many areas, robots or machinery can’t replace people on the ground, and for particular tasks like fruit picking, we will still need people to do these jobs.

“Innovation and technology can be the gateway to change, but that requires the buy in and the investment from farmers. They need to be reassured that cost and investment in technology will generate a return.”

The union used the SNP conference to hold meetings with MPs, MSPs and advisors on a range of issues including Brexit, the UK Government’s Agriculture Bill and the Scottish Government’s consultation on climate change. Other panel members at the fringe event were Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy Fergus Ewing and Craig Michie of the Institute of Engineering and Technology.