IT HAS been a fairytale year for the members of Mearns JAC, who in the space of 12 months have managed to turn their club around from near closure, to winning one of the highest accolades in the SAYFC calendar – ‘Club of the Year’!

The competition sees Young Farmers’ clubs from all over the country compete at regional rounds and national eliminations, before six finalists are selected, and the overall winner is announced in a hotly anticipated awards ceremony at the Royal Highland Show.

They are judged on the activities and running of their club for the duration of the club year and are marked in areas such as recruitment and retention of members, community involvement and participation in district and national events.

This year’s winners, Mearns JAC, are proof that size isn’t a hurdle to success and that a strengthened collaborative vision carried the club to reach new heights for the first time in its 12-year history.

Club chair during the 2018-2019 year, Iain Wilson, an arable farm manager originally from Fife, explained to The Scottish Farmer how a complete turnaround in attitude played a major factor in transforming the club to where it is today.

“We have had one of those fairytale years, where in the space of 12 months, we have gone from a club near crisis point, potentially looking at closure, to completely turning ourselves around and reaching new levels in terms of attendance and successfully competing at a district and national level,” he said.

“One of the biggest struggles with the club was that most of our members were much younger and only a small handful of us could drive – which became a deep concern to parents who were anxious about their children getting to and from meetings, particularly causing stress regarding socials,” he explained.

“We also felt that at times, parents weren’t on our side and soon became aware that we were relying on the youngsters to get key messages back home and it wasn’t happening, which then reflected poorly on the club.

“It became abundantly clear that in order to get back on track, we needed to bring everyone together to work out a plan to help make the club function to its full potential and inviting the parents to be part of the whole process, meant that we soon had fantastic support across all aspects of the club.”

Iain explained that they created a group WhatsApp for the members of the club, including the parents, which meant that they became much more in tune to what was happening and grew in confidence in the way the club was being handled.

“Very quickly we saw a reduction in the number of members dropping out of meetings and events due to a lack of drivers, as parents would pitch in and help,” he continued. “We also had a really strong committee with a team totally committed to turning the club around and with the parents now on board, we had a new lease of life for taking the club forward.

“One major change we introduced was bringing in a social membership which targeted particularly older members, some of whom had retired from club activities but still wanted to come along to some of the meetings and keep up the social side.

“They pay a reduced fee of £15 for the year which goes straight into the club and is money we would otherwise never have had – so it’s a win-win,” he enthused.

“We found that a lot of our members over 25 weren’t interested in competing anymore and were leaving the club, so this way we could retain numbers and attract other members into the fold.

“We have around 20 full-time members who actively compete and with the new membership we have a further 12 – which means more drivers and an overall boost to membership and attendance,” he said.

With a renewed focus and a strong team at the helm, Mearns JAC has gone on to have a fantastic year scooping up prizes in a range of SAYFC competitions such as district sports and the district ploughing match. A highlight for the club was winning the North Spotlight on their first time entering, which involved over a third of all their members:

“It was an amazing experience for Mearns JAC entering North Spotlight, as it definitely bridged the gap between our older and younger members, as everyone is thrown into the performance and you spend a huge amount of time together. Some of the parents couldn’t believe that their son or daughter was on stage, when at home they couldn’t get a word out of them and here they were performing in front of a huge crowd, caught up in the buzz and excitement,” he recalled.

“Another highlight for me was how much we have increased our engagement with the local community, which has been hugely important in spreading the good work of our club, when there can sometimes be a lot of resistance and poor preconceptions about young farmers. This past year, we held three main charity events; a community board dance; car treasure hunt and stock judging.

“We chose to raise funds for the ‘My Name’5 Doddie Foundation’ and at the Highland show presented a cheque for £2000 to Doddie. On the Saturday night at the show, we were all over the moon to be awarded the national title – it’s one of those moments none of us will ever forget,” he said.

One of the judges, Quality Meat Scotland’s head of industry development, Sarah Millar, commented: “Mearns JAC were worthy winners of the SAYFC Club of The Year competition this year, with the club demonstrating key values that make SAYFC such a success within the rural community.

“What made Mearns stand out was their commitment to tackling the long term sustainability of the club and ensuring that structures and processes were in place to not just recruit new members, but also retain the experience of older members by offering a varied syllabus that included multiple club exchanges and visits, as well with a high level of participation at both regional and national competitions.

“Additionally, the club leaders recognised the value in engaging with future consumers and other organisations, including hosting visits for local school children to help educate them in where their food comes from.”

Iain reflected on how far the club has come in the past year and on the changes he witnessed during his time in office: “There was a time that we couldn’t encourage anyone to compete outwith the district – competing in the North Rally and North Spotlight was always an aspiration that didn’t seem achievable. It has been a huge team effort getting to where we are now and our new chairman, Alex Stephens, is in a brilliant position to carry on our success and truly believes in the vision of the club.”

Iain not only held the position of club chair for the year 2018/2019 but also chaired the Agri Rural Affairs committee. He explained why it is so important to pass the mantle on when your time is up.

“It is very easy to get stale in the position you are in and new energy and ideas are always needed as it keeps up the enthusiasm of the club and helps with keeping up the momentum for competitions. There was a time where we didn’t rotate enough as a committee and it only goes against progress for the club and this is something you see in other clubs and committees across Scotland,” he continued.

Iain stressed that having older members is vital to the club, as often members can be forced to take office bearing positions too young, when they should still be growing as young farmers, enjoying the social side and then later on, choose to take an official role, if, or when they feel ready. He added that he is now looking forward to easing off from official duty and is keen to enjoy being a general member once again.

“I’ve had a fairly heavy year with SAYFC and I’m now off the national council and board, and I’m looking forward to really enjoying young farmers again. I loved my last year, but it is important to take a step back from being so involved in the operational side of different groups.

“I’m not about to hang up my SAYFC boots soon, but like so many others, my key role is to do my bit to improve the club and then pass it on to the next enthusiastic and fresh team. I never dreamed of seeing Mearns JAC through such an incredible year, so it’s really been the perfect send off,” he said.