Scotland's first generation of 'starter' farmers are nearing the end of their tenure on Forestry Commission land – and are asking the question 'what next?'

Writing in a blog for NFU Scotland, Next Generation group vice chairman Zander Hughes has warned that with no continuation steps available, the entire starter farm process may just have been a waste of time, best not repeated.

Along with his wife, Laura, Zander is seven years into a 10-year Limited Duration Tenancy on South Dundonald, one of the first starter farming units created by Forestry and Land Scotland (formerly Forestry Commission and Forestry Enterprise Scotland) in 2012.

A considerable amount of work has gone in to improving and upgrading the farm to make it a viable farming unit and, at the same time, use it as a base for a growing farm contracting business. However, with the lease due to expire in a few short years, and a chronic shortage in farm tenancies, Zander and his family face an uncertain future.

“If either Forestry and Land Scotland or the Scottish Government has a plan for the way forward, then I believe this needs to be aired to starter farm tenants now to allow time for business planning and restructuring to occur," he said. "I along with others now have young families, and we are anxious to plan ahead for their sakes.

“Finding another opportunity beyond 2022 remains my first priority, and in order to progress this I have applied to NFU Scotland’s Joint Venture Hub which acts as a matchmaker for those looking for and those offering opportunities. It is my hope that the Joint Venture Hub is supported by all as a means of creating opportunities both for people like myself, as well as for others who are considering retirement or scaling back.”

Looking back on the experience, Zander recalled being 'extremely enthused' to make the most of the starter farm opportunity, although the property was too small to offer full-time employment: "In the seven years since we took up the tenancy, we have implemented a realistic crop rotation, imported a significant amount of organic matter, and have carried out lots of work on the steading to enable grain to be dried and stored.

"Due to more than half of the farm being re-instated from opencast coalmining, it has not been without its problems. Half of the farm has now been turned to temporary grass as growing arable crops on it has been unpredictable at best, and an outright failure at worst.

"Despite these challenges, and the relatively short tenancy, it has been our mission to leave the farm in better shape than we found it," said Zander.

"In order to meet the financial demands of running the unit, we have significantly diversified our business into agricultural contracting and we now sow in excess of 1000 acres annually, as well as contract spraying around 10,000 acres. We also have a contract with Frontier Agriculture to carry out mobile seed potato treatment that so far this year has treated around 2700 tonnes for growers across Scotland.

"In terms of my family’s circumstances, contracting has given us a moveable business in case we have not found another opportunity by the time our LDT comes to an end in 2022."

It was made clear at the outset of the Starter Farm process that there would be no continuation of the lease after the initial 10-year period, and that by then a tenant should have sufficient capital to move on to a larger opportunity.

"In light of the continued chronic shortage of tenancy opportunities, we have asked Forestry and Land Scotland to confirm that 2022 remains the end date of our lease, or if opportunity exists for a renewal," he said. "We have been firmly assured that no extension will be given, and that Forestry and Land Scotland wishes to re-start the new entrant process.

"To us, this seems to go against the entire vision of the starter farm scheme. If there are no continuation steps available, then the entire starter farm process has been a waste and there seems little point in repeating the process?"