“It is time to turn challenges into opportunities and recognise the role sustainable Scottish agriculture has to play in building a brighter and greener future.”

This message came from the newly elected NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy who took over the reins from Andrew McCornick at the union’s AGM last Friday.

Overseeing the future implementation of Scotland’s new agricultural support system is top of his agenda – with food production at the core – but he will also be leading a new initiative to get farming and the environment embedded in the national curriculum.

Martin first came in to contact with NFUS through attending occasional meetings at his local Highland Perthshire branch on behalf of Young Farmers. From there, his interest piqued and when he started farming in his own right, he said it felt like the natural thing to do, to get more involved.

“It became very apparent for me that the union were there to fight for every corner of Scottish agriculture and that is always a challenge,” he said. “There are a lot of organisations that do a fantastic job for their own sector, but the union has a much bigger job to do finding that balance. There is a fantastic team of staff working behind the scenes who ensure all sectors are represented.”

He went on to become Highland Perthshire branch chairman for two years before moving on to national committees, where he completed a stint as chair of the Less Favoured Areas committee. It was during this role that he said he had his arm twisted to stand for vice-president.

During his four years as vice-president, he learnt the importance of being ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, as he has spent time covering a wide range of committees and getting to understand the issues facing many different sectors.

“You can never be an expert in any subject I don’t believe,” Martin continued. “But if you can get a good grounding in most of them and covering a whole raft of committees sets you in good stead for standing for president.”

Looking ahead to his presidency he said his top priority will be to oversee the implementation of an agricultural policy which is fit for Scotland.

“We have a great opportunity that we have not had before to design a bespoke system to fit Scotland and it has to focus on food production. If we don’t get it right, then we will offshore emissions to other parts of the world who don’t have the same care or attention to the environment or climate change.

“I’m keen to make sure any future agricultural policy has some form of activity link going forward. At the moment, policy favours occupation of land. We need to maintain these support payments but they should be targeted to those who are active on food production and doing things for the environment and climate change.”

Addressing the procrastination by the Scottish government on delivering Scotland’s agricultural policy, he commented: “There is a lot of criticism because they are not coming out with any detailed plans, but it is very positive that Fergus Ewing has set up farmer led groups which will be key to developing how policy is going to work. We cannot look at things in silos, we can’t just look at food production, we can’t just look at the environment, but if we take a holistic approach, then everything can benefit. Future policy has to be built around this.”

He added that Fergus Ewing recognises the economic return of the agricultural sector.

“A tonne of malting barley will produce 1000 70cl bottles of sellable whisky and the average duty on a bottle of whisky is around £10.49.

“This means a three-tonne crop over 100acres will deliver almost £3.2 million direct to the UK treasury. In terms of delivering public goods and value, that is huge,” he continued. “The owner of those 100 acres will get around £8000 in subsidy support in return for £3.2 million in to the public purse.”

Although Scotland has devolved responsibility in the area of agricultural policy, Martin issued a warning that policy makers must not risk putting the sector at a disadvantage when it comes to ensuring a balanced playing field for trade within the UK.

“We need to be mindful that our biggest market is the UK. When you look at things like the animal transport consultation, future decisions on this need to be consistent both sides of the border.

“Some of the crazy proposals in the Defra consultation could completely pull the rug from under Scottish agriculture’s feet. This also applies to topics like gene editing. If Defra is keen to explore this and the Scottish Government is not, then that puts us at a competitive disadvantage in the internal market. We have to ensure we design policy which is compatible with the rest of the UK.”

Turning to the impact Brexit has had on Scottish agriculture he addressed the mounting problems regarding exports: “We might have managed to get rid of tariffs but we certainly haven’t had friction free trade.

“Some lorries are looking at 60 or 70 stamps of approval before getting product across and if you do have groupage and one product has an issue, the whole load is delayed. This has been a disaster for perishable goods.

“We should be using far better technology in this. We are hopefully going to get EID in cattle up and running shortly but in the meantime, why are we not using things like Ultra High Frequency chips to smooth the process with one simple read to get lorries moved quickly.”

He added his concerns over the trading relationship with Northern Ireland.

“All we have done is move the Irish border to the Irish sea – it is needless,” he continued. “We should be able to trade with Northern Ireland as we have done for years and need to overcome this before irreparable damage is done to this important trading relationship.”

Zoning in on the challenges facing Scotland’s seed potato sector, he added: “Seed potatoes are of huge value to Scotland and if we lose the EU market then it could be difficult to get it back. We are really upping the pressure on this as there is no need for dynamic alignment, the trade and cooperation agreement should be able to allow that still to happen. We believe this is purely political and we need to get it over the line.”

Focusing on the positives of leaving the EU, he explained that LFASS payments will now return to 100% levels through to 2024.

“If we had still been in Europe then LFASS support would have been depleted. LFASS will need to evolve but the ethos behind it – keeping people in rural areas – is hugely valuable and is an important part of the budget.”

He added that increased market opportunities lie ahead which the industry has to grab on to and that the UK will be well placed to strike new deals without 27 other countries to seek agreement with first.

Looking back at the past year and the positives to have come from the pandemic, he noted that public demand for Scottish produce has boomed.

“The sheep trade is on fire and cattle trade is as good as it has been for a while. We are only exporting about 20-30% of the volume of lamb that we used to do due to a surge in home demand. We have seen a 15% increase in lamb during the pandemic which has been great. Sadly Covid has had a really negative impact on the pig sector with a two-week closure of Brechin abattoir and the knock on effect this has had on overweight pigs and losing the ability to export to china. More pressure must be put on some of the supermarkets who are not as good at sourcing Scottish and British pork to support this sector.”

Martin’s second priority in his new post will be getting food production and the natural environment on to the national school curriculum – and he hopes to utilise the rise in public interest in farming off the back of the pandemic as a driver in this.

“We need food every day, climate change is top of the agenda, as is the environment, so why are we not talking about that in our schools?

“It is a challenge, as a lot of decisions are made at a local authority level. Change needs to come from the top on this, so if we can get these topics on the national curriculum then it would have to be taught at local levels as well.

He acknowledged this would take time but said it is a ‘no brainer’ and that the disconnect between food production and consumers will only get wider if this isn’t addressed.

“What we do in terms of food production in Scotland is poles apart form what happens in other parts of the world and that must be explained truthfully.

“It is fantastic what organisations like RHET have done in the past to educate young people on food and farming but it is not part of a national agenda. I know this will take years, but if we can get cross-party support on this – which I have already started to try and achieve – this is something we can raise the bar on.”

Martin concluded by highlighting one of the biggest barriers and opportunities for the future of Scottish agriculture.

“Climate change is one of the main issues facing the sector as we don’t have all the science yet to back up our position. Methane has always been a big ‘no no’ but as more detailed science is coming out, there is more understanding that livestock production in Scotland is starting from a really good place.

“There is soil in many of our arable systems that haven’t lost carbon stocks in 30 years because of good soil management and that is a credit to the arable sector. We need to do more and will do more on this in the livestock sector. Climate change is a challenge to be addressed but this should be viewed as an opportunity. In all of this, the key thing we cannot forget is the fundamental role of food production. If we don’t produce food, then farming and crofting’s ability to be part of the solution to climate change will be limited. Simply offshoring our emissions to others will achieve the exact opposite of what is desired.”