The qualifying rounds of the 'Young Farmer of the Year' competition are fast approaching and we caught up with the final two of the six finalists from last year's competition.

The Scottish Farmer:

David Mitchell

David Mitchell was a finalist in Young farmer of the Year in 2018 and runs a 1000-acre grass land farm in Wiston, just outside Biggar.

It’s very much a family operation for the Mitchells, with three generations all involved in the daily running of the farm. Together they look after 200 native bred suckler cows and around 800 ewes, which they retain for breeding or finish on the farm – with prime cattle being sold deadweight and lambs being marketed through the local auction market.

David spent two years studying at college, graduating with an HND in Agriculture at the age of 20, from SRUC’s campus in Ayr. Full time college work didn’t allow David to invest enough time on his own farm, so he decided not to go on and finish his honours degree and has been much happier committing his full energy and attention to the family business in Biggar.

An active member of Biggar YFC, David is currently their vice-chair and looks to take over the reins of chairman this March. He has always been involved with all aspects of young farmers but found the ‘Young Farmer of the Year’ competition to be a whole new experience, one which really took him out of his comfort zone:

“I loved the qualifying round of the competition as it allowed you to work with your hands and get involved with lots of technical challenges,” David enthused. “We were tested on four different areas of agriculture and they took the total of our top three scores to decide who went through to the final. I knew I would be fine with the dairy, beef and sheep and machinery sections but I ended up surprising myself in the arable challenge, as I remembered quite a lot of what we had been taught at college,” he reflected.

“The qualifiers are a great opportunity to broaden your skills and knowledge in a range of areas of agriculture and it encourages you to do your research,” he continued. “I can recall looking up my plant protection text book from my first year of college which I might never have looked at again, if not for the competition.

“Last year the qualifiers took place in the central belt and we had a lot of stock minded people taking part, but this year with a second qualifying round in Dingwall, there will be a lot more crop expertise on offer from the young farmers in Aberdeenshire,”

“In the final we had to prepare a business plan which did me a world of good, as it wasn’t something I had done a lot of work on before. It was very helpful having a mentor from the Royal Bank of Scotland who encouraged me to look at things differently and to pay more attention to diversification which I hadn’t really given much thought to before,” he explained.

“I decided to decrease my labour requirements on the farm to save costs and turned an unused shed in to a storage unit for anything and everything from storing cars to a work space for self-employed plumbers,” he continued. “I had looked at the idea of installing a farm shop, but with all the labour needed it seemed too expensive and I felt like it is very much a craze and that was too risky for me to take a chance on.

“I would strongly recommend people to take part in the competition as there are less events these days in young farmers which are tied to practical farming and it is really beneficial to keep skills alive and to throw some healthy competition in to the mix,” David encouraged.

Looking to the future, David stressed that there is too much negativity right now from industry leaders about Brexit and other challenges facing the sector and explained that the tone of messages being delivered could discourage young people from entering agriculture.

“I’m probably controversial on this topic but I don’t see what all the fuss with Brexit is about. If you know your business and you’re hardworking, then you will get by,” David insisted. “I watched the NFU Scotland video with Andrew McCornick released last week, where he projected doom and gloom for the sector – messages like these are shocking. Using scaremongering messages won’t encourage people to seek a future in farming,” he warned. “Instead of saying we are 60% self-sufficient in food and seeing this as a negative, we should be seeing this as an opportunity to produce more food, drive production and send an upbeat message out to the sector.

“There are far bigger problems threatening our industry just now, such as; misinformation on social media, militant veganism, environmental attacks and livestock worrying cases,” he continued. “In the event of a no-deal, farmers would have to change our practices and survive as we always do. Issues might arise regarding food security, but this might result in farmers having a bigger voice in politics and the government rightly giving food production its true worth,” he concluded.

The Scottish Farmer:

David Comrie

David Comrie from Crieff is the seventh generation of farming stock on his family farm, where he works full time alongside his father and a full-time long-standing member of staff. The 25-year-old looks after 650 acres, where he farms 500 acres of arable and tends to 300 ewes and finishes 90 store cattle every year.

He joined Bankfoot JAC at the age of 23, where he is currently the vice-chair and is now trying to make the most of the time he has left at the club – throwing himself in to club events such as speech making, where Bankfoot has been very successful, with two teams making the national finals last year.

David graduated from SRUC in Edinburgh in 2014 where he studied agriculture and spent his student summers working on arable farms in England. Since graduating he spent time in New Zealand working for large silage contractors north of Wellington and since he returned to Scotland to join the farm has been keen to implement new ideas on the farm but explained that he is holding back until the waters clear after Brexit. He shared with the Scottish Farmer what he valued most about entering Young Farmer of the Year and how it encouraged him to take on a new challenge towards the latter part of 2018.

“I’m very grateful to the secretary at my club Romy Jackson for encouraging me to enter the competition and was over the moon to get as far as the final six, culminating at last year’s Royal Highland Show.

“The qualifying round was broken down in to four sections and dairy is one area that is pretty foreign to me, challenging me to step out of my comfort zone,” he commented. “I spent quite a lot of time researching before the qualifiers and can remember watching YouTube tutorials on foot trimming dairy cattle. It is definitely worth putting in some research time – I flicked through crop books on diseases and various pamphlets I had collected as a student,” he encouraged. “It is so important to look at other areas of farming which aren’t necessarily what you are doing day in and day out – there should be more onus on farmers looking at the bigger picture.

“My favourite part of the whole competition was the surprise pole climb that was thrown at us during the Highland show,” David recalled. “Andrew Neilson who won the overall competition was amazing at it – he could have given the professionals a run for their money.

“Since finishing the competition I have been much more motivated to take on new challenges and have just completed the Cultivating Leaders course run by Heather Wildman, on leadership and succession. It has been a fantastic course to take part in and they organised three workshops with accountants, bankers, lawyers and land agents to talk us through our farming operation which has been extremely helpful,” he explained. “I took part in the course sooner than planned because I realised I was lacking in business skills that showed up during the competition – motivating me to sign up for the course sooner rather than later.

The future of Scottish farming isn’t as bleak as some of the forecasters predict, according to David. Farming has been around for thousands of years and he believes that the industry will continue to stand the test of time. However, he explained that it is now time for politicians to stop playing politics with farmers lives and to get on with making key decisions.

“There is room for more positivity in farming, as there is no point of a 25-year-old going in to a sector where people are preaching doom and gloom, when really there is much to be said for the food that is being produced and the whisky that is being distilled,” David explained. “People will always need fed and people will always want a dram, so there will always be a market out there, it’s just about filtering out some of the negativity and not getting swamped by the negative headlines.

“Brexit is as much an opportunity as it is a threat, we just need time to adjust, the most frustrating thing I’m finding is that we are all just fed up now and want politicians to make their deadlines and crack on with a decision,” he stressed.

“We are constantly being warned that a no-deal could be a catastrophe for farming, but I know that my family have been farming here for many years and I’m sure we will continue to be involved in farming for many years to come.

“I would like to end by saying that everyone should enter Young Farmer of the Year at least once in their time as a young farmers member. It is a great competition and it is clear by the amount of work being put in by everyone behind the scenes that it is only going to grow in strength. I’ll be throwing my hat in to the ring again in a couple of years,” David concluded.