LOOKING AFTER our soils, plus embracing technology and innovation will be key to the future success of Scottish agriculture.

Those are some of the main aims of the Scottish Conservatives' newly-appointed shadow cabinet secretary for rural economy and tourism, Rachael Hamilton MSP.

Living and working in the Scottish Borders, she has a wealth of experience representing a rural constituency and is acutely aware of the challenges facing agriculture in the years ahead.

Attracting new entrants into the industry is a 'necessity' she told The SF and the need to co-operate more between sectors to tackle climate change, highlighting that improving and managing soil health will determine the future productivity of the industry.

Mrs Hamilton explained how previous experience had equipped her with the right tools to guide the Scottish Conservatives within her new remit. “I grew up on a mixed arable and livestock farm in the Welsh Borders and it was all hands-on deck from a very young age. Farming has been in my blood for generations, on both sides of my family.

“From the age of 14, I wanted to be an agronomist and after school I spent three years at Harper Adams studying agriculture before moving to Newcastle to take part in a special year-long training programme to become an agronomist, working between Tees-side and Aberdeen.

“I learnt everything from potato farming in Aberdeenshire to pea farming in Tees-side and the differences in soil types and farming practices. I was offered a full-time agronomy post, and shortly after I moved to Kelso and there began my love affair with Scotland and I have now been here for 28 years.”

She explained that working as a woman in agronomy was 'challenging' as there wasn’t the flexibility to allow herself to balance full-time work with bringing up a young family. She made the decision to leave her job to join Scotbeef, where she worked for six years within its quality assurance department, widening her knowledge of the livestock sector.

From there, she moved back home to work alongside her husband with their family business, running a small hotel in the Scottish Borders.

“I have been able to keep up my connection with agriculture working with the hotel as we run a big food operation and it is all about provenance, negotiating with local suppliers, working with farmers and going to food shows. Our customer base is mostly rural, with a big interest in country sports, which has helped me to forge amazing links with the farming community.”

In 2015, she decided that there weren’t enough women in politics and stood for election in East Lothian and got elected on the regional list, polling the highest regional vote in the whole of Scotland. In 2017, she resigned to fight and win the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire seat, after the then incumbent, John Lamont, decided to go to Westminster.

After a stint looking after the tourism and culture remit for the Scottish Conservatives, she is now ready and eager to sit in the hot seat for agriculture and tourism. “I feel honoured, privileged and delighted to find myself in charge of rural affairs and tourism and secretly have always wanted the job. I feel very at home in this line of work and have a fantastic team around me, with most of them hailing from farming backgrounds."

She outlined some the main challenges ahead for agriculture and what she believes should be the priority for future policy decisions.

“Scottish agriculture is still in the stage of preparing for post-Brexit changes and ensuring businesses are resilient in the months and years ahead. On a wider note, the average age of farmers is a growing concern and it is crucial that we bring new entrants into the sector and tackle the current issues around succession which are holding back younger farmers from steering the direction of travel in Scottish agriculture.”

She has first-hand experience in understanding succession, with her own family going through the procedure. She pointed out that the process is too bureaucratic, which she said makes it extremely hard for those at the top to let go of the reins.

“The paperwork involved with agriculture is too complicated and for those who may be looking to diversify, there is so much red tape holding them back. We need to ensure moving forward that we have a replacement for EU Leader funding which has been very successful for a few people who have been able to get through the paperwork.

"More farmers would look at alternative sources of income if they had an opportunity to apply, in a more simplistic way, for diversification projects for instance.”

She welcomed the £40m agricultural transformation programme to help tackle climate change, recently announced by the Scottish Government, but stressed there needs to be clusters of farms working together to create a significant carbon calculator.

“There needs to be more integration across the industry if we are to effectively tackle climate change. Different types of farms need to start working out how they can work co-operatively to offset each other’s carbon footprint.

“Under the CAP, farmers had been paid on the basis of land ownership, rather than public goods delivery. Productivity will be key for the future and this will take improvement in technology and innovation. I would like to see some sort of capital funding scheme to allow farmers to invest in the machinery they need to meet growing public demands.

“Soil testing is going to become huge! I would go as far as to say I would like to see mandatory soil testing, as change is needed now and according to stats, we only have about 30 or 40 years left in the productivity of our soil.”

She stressed annoyance at the unfair attention livestock has received in recent climate change debates. “The current land use strategy recommendation is to give up 20% of red meat and dairy, and reduce food waste by 20%," she said.

"I think we need to be looking at this differently, with the focus on provenance and buying Scottish or British. No one has done any figures on what it costs to import the likes of avocados, for instance. If we are to put a British product up against an imported product, then the public need to see easily understood stats.

“Consumers have no idea about the carbon output or production of imported produce and we absolutely need to get behind promoting Scottish and British food. Only 16% of public sector contracts source from Scottish producers.

“Ultimately, it comes down to cost, but my point is that we should be paying people a fair price for what they produce. We need to understand that to have food produced by those tasked with increasing biodiversity and looking after the environment, it comes at a cost.”

Recently, there have been huge concerns directed at the UK Government's immigration proposals, which would see the rural economy struggling to meet labour demands in key sectors. There has also been backlash following suggestions that future trade negotiations could see food imports of a lower standard entering our supermarket shelves.

She said she couldn’t answer for the UK Government but stressed that conversations are at an early stage, suggesting that there is time for a change in direction. “We want to see a free trade agreement and I have always said that I want to see equivalence on standards and regulations in future imports.

"I can’t speak for what will happen in the negotiations, but my intuition would say that we are at a starting point and we need to build up the argument to protect our high-quality agricultural produce. I am willing to stand up for the industry on this, but also willing to see how it pans out.

“In regard to immigration, Jackson Carlaw is in talks with Boris Johnson and Alister Jack right now, and important points have been raised about the shortage occupation list and salary thresholds. We don’t want Scotland to have a separate immigration system, but widening the shortage occupation to include sector-specific roles is going to be key.”

Looking at the pressures facing the industry to increase productivity whilst managing climate change ambitions, she pointed out that embracing new technologies, such as gene editing, could play a part in this.

“With climate change, the temperature is rising and this is an issue in regard to pests and disease control. We need to be looking at solutions to how crops can be more resilient.

"The industry has to look at gene editing and how we can best look after our soils. The Scottish Government will not support GM food, but these are awkward conversations which are going to have to be had,” Ms Hamilton concluded.