By Claire Simonetta

If you had asked me 10 years ago whether I could ever see myself running across Scottish hillsides trying to gather sheep in, or desperately attempting to manoeuvre my way out of the shed corner after playing around too much with the crab-steer on the telehandler, I probably would have given you a rather strange look.

I had what one could refer to as quite a ‘comfortable’ life in Switzerland where I was born and raised, a nice home, well paid office job in Zurich, and plenty of free time to dedicate to hobbies, friends and family. Although not from a farming background, I was lucky enough to grow up in a small village surrounded by farming activities – dairy and arable mainly with some pig finishing.

At the time, the local dairy farmers were working predominantly with Holstein and Brown Swiss, but a more traditional kind compared to the UK and American types, and the average herd counted 20 cows. I even remember one local farmer using some beautiful traditional dual-purpose Simmental cows in his dairy herd.

At 1700ft above sea level, the valley where the village is situated is still classed as part of the ‘Swiss lowlands’ and in a good season, farmers could produce up to seven cuts of silage or hay, whilst maize was grown for fun.

But then I visited Scotland and I really liked it. So I visited Scotland again and I liked it even more, until 18 months later, I quit my job, packed my bags, and moved to Scotland, ready to start work experiences within the farming, conservation and veterinary industries. Almost seven years later and I can now call Scotland and its agricultural industry my home.

And what better place to settle than on the bonny Isle of Mull, where traffic jams are caused by cows, and triathlons consist of sheep herding across steep cliffs and the occasional swim in the sea to try and convince that one stubborn sheep that emigrating for America is not an option.

The more I have immersed myself in Scottish agriculture to learn about food production and land management systems, the more I have realised that in order to gain a more in-depth understanding of the highly complex interactions between our food production, environment and economy, one also needs to look beyond our horizons. It would be naïve to think that in this day and age of globalisation, such an incredibly important industry could simply be assessed and understood within the constraints of our own nation’s borders.

As a result, I applied to participate in a programme for capacity building and knowledge exchange between young farmers and agricultural professionals which was organised jointly between the people’s republic of China and the European Union, and I was lucky enough to be accepted as the UK representative, a true privilege.

Through this programme, two groups of young farmers from the EU went to China and two groups of Chinese participants visited the EU. I have just returned from my second China trip to attend the final conference where our findings from the programme were concluded and to discuss how we can possibly take the project forward.

I could probably write a book about the things I have learnt, both from the Chinese farmers as well as from my fellow European group members. China impressed by showing a high level of government engagement in supporting the farming industry, be it through state grants or by providing knowledge and expertise at local level, a high willingness amongst farmers to collaborate with each other, as well as an extended network of several million agricultural cooperatives.

We visited the Zhuhai Jinwan Taiwan Pioneer Park, in Guangdong Province, in the South of China, where we learnt that the land belongs to the people of China as a collective and is managed by the government, with typical farm tenancies lasting for 30 years. Farmers, or co-operative farming structures proposing the establishment or expansion of sustainable and efficient farming businesses have access to potentially quite substantial state grants.

Thanks to an extensive transportation network, e-commerce has become a major platform to trade agricultural produce which is helping smaller and more remote businesses access major markets. An increasing trend to diversify into agri-tourism is helping to stimulate economic return to the farming sector and bridge the gap between the food industry and the urban population.

Visitors to commercially run farms, such as the Xiaotangshan agri-demonstration park, near Beijing, can participate in farm tours to learn about sustainable food production, subscribe to regular mail deliveries of fruits, vegetables, fish and meat, or even ‘pick their own’ on the day.

The Longanlongping Agricultural Technology Development Co, in Guangxi Province, in South-West China, is a rice plantation and processing co-operative which was set up by the government in what used to be an impoverished area, and demonstrated the potential for strategic state intervention to boost prosperity.

The government invested in technology and machinery, including a rice drying facility and provided education on rice cultivation to allow local subsistence farms to become a major rice supplier in the region which has helped to fight poverty by creating employment and boosted the local economy.

We also visited the Jinzhong Young Farmers Federation, in Shanxi Province, in the north-west of China, the first ever Chinese young farmer’s federation, which was founded just a few months ago following the study trip by the Chinese farmers to the EU. It started off with 65 members and already counts several hundred members.

Within the next two years, they are hoping to set up localised branches at district level before moving onto provincial, national and hopefully international level to create closer cooperation between young farmers, provide assistance to start-up businesses, and create easier access to expertise via centralised discussion platforms.

The overall aim of the programme was to find ideas and solutions on how to encourage the next generation of young farmers and achieve a sustainable food production system that meets a growing demand whilst minimising its impact on the environment. No doubt that a lot of ideas have been collected and I hope that governments and policy makers will not only take those suggestions on board and support the networks that have been created, but also embrace the passion and energy of the younger generation to drive the agricultural industry forward.

Ultimately, the programme was also looking to develop long-lasting international collaboration and cooperation within our industries by sharing knowledge, increasing our understanding of other farming systems and, plain simple, creating new friendships – something incredibly important and yet too often undervalued in a system governed by capitalist goals, where countries are seen to be doing well if they meet their annual GDP targets rather than defining success by the health and wellbeing of their population and environment.

The main thing that I learnt from my travels to China is that no matter how different we are culturally, we all face the same major challenges and that the best way to overcome these challenges is by working together and nurturing our international network of friendships.

Considering the political turbulences we are currently finding ourselves in, surely this would be a good starting point?

* Claire lives and works with her partner, Iain MacKay, on a livestock hill farm on Mull, where Highland cattle and Cheviot sheep form the basis of their farming business. She is responsible for accountancy, the analytical performance of the business and gathering data recordings of livestock performance and has a first-class agriculture degree. In particular, she developed skills in business management and accountancy, and won the AgriScot Business Skills Award in 2015.