THE THINK-TANK of the SAYFC has an important role to play in shaping future agricultural leaders, encouraging the next generation to enter farming and ensure a rewarding and viable future in the industry.

With the theme, ‘Sustainability: For future farming’, at the centre of last weekend’s agri-affairs conference – it became clear throughout the two days that people were the key to both the survival and vibrance of the industry, and that more needs to be done to create opportunities for people to enter the sector.

More than 60 delegates travelled to Dundee for an action-packed weekend of workshops, farm tours and a fantastic line-up of speakers and presentations – all of which encouraged them to take a step back and look at how they are currently running their businesses, and to identify positive changes that could take them to the next level.

The current challenges facing agriculture were never far from the minds of attendees, with frequent conversations around the increasingly negative publicity facing the sector, particularly in the light of climate change arguments.

The case was made that work needs to be done to raise the profile of the sector and in a more positive light to tackle misinformation. Many commented on how action is needed now to ensure farmers were rewarded for environmental contributions, instead of being constantly tarnished.

The weekend kicked off with an evening of inspiring speakers, delivering both a reality check and some invaluable advice to the delegates. Quality Meat Scotland’s CEO, Alan Clarke urged young farmers to take every opportunity to arm themselves with new knowledge.

“Learn when you can, not when you have to! I have seen too many people going out of business and suddenly are faced with upskilling but it’s too late,” he said.

“You learn more from mistakes than successes – embrace your mistakes as they will make you and your business more sustainable. Don’t be frightened of listening to yourself, if you have a vision, go for it.”

SRUC lecturer, Craig Davidson, highlighted some of the struggles he is seeing in encouraging young people to study agriculture: “There is still a public perception of agriculture as being low-skilled, under paid and dirty. You guys need to be the pillars holding agriculture up. We need to give people reasons to get excited about a career in our industry and if we aren’t doing it as leaders, who is going to do it?”

Managing director of Farmlay Eggs, Robert Chapman, was the final speaker of the evening and gave an insight in to the egg industry and the challenges he is facing in recruiting staff and managing retail pressures.

“I have never seen supermarkets as tough as they are just now, we’re really feeling the squeeze. For your businesses to be sustainable, profitability must be the most important thing and making sure any decisions you make are going to be financially viable,” he told delegates.

He suggested that the young farmers should be turning global warming to their advantage: “We have more opportunities now to grow our own food – let’s turn this on its head and start producing and selling locally.”

After an early start on Saturday for the group there were three farm tours to choose from – a dairy visit to Brian Weatherup’s operation at Cowdenbeath, an arable and beef visit to Balbirnie Home Farms, near Cupar, and, lastly, a visit to Downfield Farm, Cupar, to see a micro abattoir and butchery.

The latter visit was hosted by Bob and Jane Prentice, who in 2012 diversified their beef and sheep farm to include finishing deer. In 2015, they made a bold move to build their own micro abattoir to allow them to slaughter on-site.

A year later, they built a butchery on to the farm with extra space for chilling meat and an intake larder for game – allowing them to provide a full service with no meat in carcase form leaving the premises.

Bob led the group through the process and pointed to the measures he brought in to ensure the swift and comfortable slaughter of deer, sheep and goats. This ranged from deep-filled, high sided holding pens to an automatic light switch dimmer for when the animal is led to the stunning crate – everything is designed to ensure all livestock were relaxed before they are killed.

Building the abattoir did come with challenges: “Installing both the abattoir and butchery on-farm has allowed us to offer full traceability, which we feel is extremely important, but in the early stages there was a lot of red tape for us to get through, not to mention all the training which came with learning how to slaughter,” said Bob.

“Finding staff can be a real struggle but we have two new butcher apprentices joining us soon which will be a real bonus to the business.

“We have been inundated with interest from farmers and are now at full capacity, meaning we have to turn people away as we simply don’t have the chill space. We slaughter around 70 animals a week but most of our throughput is sheep [90%] as there is no market for farmed deer right now as supermarkets only want wild deer.”

The next move for Downfield is to move in to slaughtering cattle and pigs but that is still in the early stages of planning.

Next on the agenda was a whole group visit to the East of Scotland Growers, followed by a tour of machinery dealership, Reekie, part of the Hamilton Ross Group.

Chair of ESG, John Wilson, explained how being a part of a collective group had given its 16 growers greater strength: “We have good geographical spread between us which means if one of our growers is struggling to produce enough of something, another is likely to meet the demand, guaranteeing supply to the retailer. This takes a lot of pressures off growers and reduces risks.”

He explained that they are always looking at ways to diversify their businesses such as expanding in to snack production. The YFs had the opportunity to try their speciality broccoli crisps which are currently being sold to Scandinavia, Spain, the US and Canada, with 10 more countries expressing an interest.

Next, the group heard from general manager of Hamilton Ross Group, Sam Mercer, who delivered a pertinent message to the delegates: “The only constant thing about business is change, so be prepared for it. We need more young people to come into the sector, bringing with them fresh ideas.

“You are the future and sustainability is all about people – we have to spread the good work of our sector if we want to make it an attractive place for people to want to work in.”

The delegates headed back to base after a morning of tours and talks to move on to a busy afternoon of presentations and breakout sessions.

First up they heard from Professor Geoff Simm, director of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security at the University of Edinburgh. He spoke about a need to address feeding the world’s growing population and how they could play their part as food producers, whilst also mitigating their impact on climate change at the same time.

“Our world population is predicted to be sitting at 11bn by the end of this century and it’s going to be a massive challenge to feed them. As more people move out of poverty, there is a growing demand for meat consumption which will require more land, with heightened demand for poultry and pork.”

He suggested that genetics would potentially have a big role to play, prompting Andrew Mackenzie, of West Fife YFC, to ask how public perception around GM might hinder this approach? “It will take time,” Mr Simm responded, “but the cards will change in its favour when people begin to appreciate the benefits exploring genetic food production could bring to humans and the planet.”

Agri-affairs chair, Andrew McGregor, asked how YFs could play a more immediate role in reducing their impact on the environment, to which Mr Simm replied: “Planting hedgerows and trees is going to become important. We will also need to look at reducing methane production through thinking carefully about nutrition.”

He shared findings on chemical compound ‘3-Nitrooxypropanel’ (3NOP), which is a feed additive which researchers believe could lead to a 24.5% reduction in methane from cattle.

Delegates had the opportunity to attend two of four breakout sessions including a finance workshop by Stuart Hamilton, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who spoke to the YFs about the future of funding for the sector. A benchmarking workshop was led by Jim Baird, giving working examples and offering advice to those who would like to get involved.

Soil Association Scotland took the delegates through a hands-on demonstration on soil health with soil scientist, Paul Hargreaves, encouraging them to assess their soil. “Get yourself a spade and get to know your soil. Assess your texture, is it heavy or light?,” he pointed out.

“You need to get an understanding for compaction levels so get digging!” For those with poorer soil, he added: “Avoid livestock and tractor compaction where possible, especially when it is wet.

“Do some research in to what tyres you are using – super singles make more damage than flotations, we need to think about how and what we are driving. Check your drains regularly, how is the water draining away? Think about what you are planting, variety is important and look for crops with a better rooting system,” he urged.

The final breakout session on communication was led by QMS’ new head of education, Alex Ritchie. She spoke to the delegates about sharing the positives around meat and becoming a champion for the sector.

“Social media is all about noise and increasing visibility. Share your food and farming experiences online and tag as many farmers and industry organisations in the process. Use short videos and images to increase your impact – make your posts punchy and to the point – we need to make sure our messages are getting out there and shared to the masses!”

She explained what QMS was doing to educate school pupils about eating red meat: “We are hearing from home economics teachers that children are increasingly nervous about handling meat. We are now providing £100 red meat vouchers for schools to use to buy meat for their pupils to handle and cook.

“We also take the opportunity to deliver key messages around animal welfare, food provenance and the benefits of red meat as part of a balanced diet,” she concluded.

Delegates retired from an action-packed day of learning before gathering for dinner and the big reveal of where the next agri-affairs study tour will take place – Chile!

Following a successful trip to California in November, 2018, more delegates will be able to join the trip to Chile to take place in November, 2020, and will be encouraged to apply shortly. Interviews will be held during February competition weekend in the New Year.

The final day of the conference began with a presentation from SP Energy Networks senior project manager, Euan Norris, who encouraged delegates to think carefully about the power they are using and how this could impact future business decisions.

“It is important to look holistically at your business – how can you make more revenue from what you have already. If you are looking to diversify then we would encourage you to speak with us early on, as you will need to establish if you need to get a connection to the grid.”


Rounding off the weekend was a thought-provoking panel session featuring rural politicians and well-respected industry experts.

Chair, Andrew McGregor opened proceedings asking the panellists about their vision for Scottish agriculture and how we could ensure a sustainable future for farming?

Rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon, explained that her vision would see all farmers ‘paid a fair price for what they produce’. She focused on the need to boost local supply chains, slaughtering animals as close to home as possible and continuing to champion high animal welfare.

She went on to add that sustainability is about making sure there are more young people coming in to farming and that the right opportunities are available.

RSABI chair, Ewan Pate, stressed that the focus should be on improving resilience in the sector and urged the Scottish Government to think about the damage that could result from leaving the Common Agricultural Policy: “We are coming out of the EU and will be losing the shelter and support of the CAP, which is a catastrophic mistake. It is there to keep people on family farms and support food production.”

Recognising that many people see moving away from the CAP as a step forward, he added: “CAP is evolving while we have been arguing amongst ourselves, with direct subsidy reducing and environmental subsidies to increase. We have just been so introverted and busy looking after our own interests, that we haven’t taken notice.”

Former chair of the National Sheep Association, John Fyall, painted a rather grim picture of Scottish agriculture and urged delegates to embrace innovation if they want to see real change in their businesses.

“We have no agricultural policy to speak of and nothing which is designed to make us better farmers. Our whole policy just gives you money and hopes you do something with it, which has created a cartel and shut out 20 years of innovation and business.

“Buying a new tractor or investing in a shed is not adapting or changing, it’s just spending money. We have a huge amount of entitlement and legacy in this country, and the only way to be sustainable is to encourage innovation and enterprise,” he stressed.

Former agri-affairs chair, Iain Wilson, directed a question regarding seasonal worker shortages to Scottish Conservative MP, Luke Graham, on whether increasing the seasonal agricultural workers scheme to 10,000 is enough, when the industry has revealed it needs around 70,000 workers?

Mr Graham replied: “This is only a pilot and currently we still have freedom of movement from the EU, but I will continue to push for this number to be increased. In the meantime, this is something we need to look at closer to home. Why can’t we get people working locally and in areas where there is high unemployment, this has to be a consideration.”

Chair of the east region of agri-affairs, Ally Brunton, asked the panel about the threat of public perception to the industry and how education at a school level could improve this?

Miss Gougeon responded: “A big place to start would be through public procurement! What are we feeding people in our schools and hospitals? The best example I have seen is in East Ayrshire, where 75% of food given to school kids comes from local suppliers.

“Not only is this better for the health of pupils in schools but also boosts the local economy. This is something which other councils across Scotland could learn from.”

Luke Graham added: “There is discussion going on right now in the Scottish Parliament on how to get more agricultural education in to the curriculum. We spent a lot of time on old kings and queens and historical battles, more than we do on the practical side, which should be on agriculture and financial education.

“We should be helping young kids to understand how to budget, how to play a part in their community and agriculture should be a part of that education.”

Current vice-chair of agri-affairs, Catherine Sloan, reflected on the weekend: “The weekend was an excellent opportunity for members across the country to come together to visit some of Scotland’s foremost farming businesses and hear from industry leaders on how we ensure Scottish agriculture remains thriving and sustainable far into the future. The conference is a platform for members to foster networks with like-minded young farmers who are passionate about developing themselves, their business and the agricultural industry as a whole.

“Some key messages that delegates will have taken home include ‘younger people need to be encouraged into farming to revitalise the industry’, ‘if we don’t change, we can’t progress’ as well as ‘public perception is a key consideration in ensuring the sustainability of our industry’,” she concluded.