Well, while naming the big step forward to the industry’s more sustainable future the ‘National Test Programme’ might have shown a slight lack of imagination, let’s just hope that the rest of the £51m package announced last week by the Scottish Government to bump start the new green policy strategy might be a little bit more creative.

Details, so far, are a bit thin on the ground on the new policy, but what we have been told is that it’s going to be a twin-track approach made up of two components – and the official line is that:

Track 1 is to encourage farmers to improve their knowledge of current environmental performance and efficiency, and will allow all those in receipt of a basic Agricultural Support payment to make a start in addressing GHG emissions reduction for their businesses.

This will include the following: substantial public support for carbon audits and nutrient management plans, plus the establishment of a Livestock Data Performance Feedback Scheme.

Track 2 is to design and test the tools and process necessary to reward land managers for the climate and biodiversity outcomes they deliver.

It will create a robust understanding of how new conditions or activities could be applied to future support, and to ensure delivery of environmental outcomes in a way that supports sustainable businesses. This will be a more detailed design and test how measuring environmental performance of farms will be managed in future and include: the creation of a Conditionality Test Programme and the instigation of an Active Livestock Management initiative for suckler beef farms.

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So, if my interpretation is right, the first track will be about drawing up a national database of individual farm carbon footprints by encouraging more farmers to do this – and I’m guessing this is going to go hand-in-hand with some incentives to carry out soil sampling and testing.

While fertiliser prices might mean that there’s already plenty incentive to carry out the latter, some financial help to carry this out would certainly be welcome.

But while the diversion of two year’s-worth of Bew money into the programme, which will, itself, last three years, might have provided a substantial boost to the pot, even with that on board some have questioned just how far the support will actually go.

For, while I believe the scheme is likely to be voluntary at first, to get any meaningful result the vast majority of the industry will have to sign up – and I can only guess that while there might be a carrot dangled in the early stages, some sort of conditionality ‘stick’ might well be introduced sometime down the line.

A lot of effort and a fair amount of cash has already been pumped into encouraging farmers to carry out a carbon audit programme – and widening the net will probably broaden the range of the baseline. But it’s going to be pretty important to get a recognised standard to be used across the board as different methodologies adopted by the current plethora of schemes can give fairly widely varying results.

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I guess while the irony will be missed by few, variations in climate conditions from year to year have a huge effect on the carbon footprint of individual units – and while the notion of continual and improving progress is likely to play a key part in these monitoring schemes, it’ll have to be accepted that there’ll be the odd stutter in the graph from year to year.

Now, while we’ve still no real idea of how the nutrient management part of programme will work on the ground, you would imagine that, in order to actually deliver improvements and savings on the environmental side some form of precision sampling will be required – along with incentives to use variable rate spreading, be it of lime, nitrogen or compound fertilisers.

A fairly considerable layout is required for the sampling in the first place – and while it’s already been indicated that it would make sense to do something like 20% of the farm in any one year, thereby completing the cycle over a five-year period, on a national scale that’s still going to require a lot of those wee 4 x 4 buggies out in fields driving around taking numerous samples in a large proportion of the fields around the country.

So, together with the plans for better feedback on livestock information which shouldn’t be too difficult to do by using figures from abattoirs and the new ScotEID database, alongside, perhaps, more on-farm weighing that would seem to cover most of the Track 1 proposals.

At the moment, it looks like the Track 2 proposals will be focused on actual pilot projects to evaluate not only some of the different approaches and management techniques which have been put forward to improve sustainability, but also to judge just how effective, attractive and deliverable they are likely to be in the real world.

For, while we all bemoaned the complexities involved with the BPS area-based scheme, it might be hard to believe but an areas-based concept was probably amongst one of the simplest to set up and run – and unless they’re very clever, there’s likely to be a step change in the degree of complexity in any new scheme – especially when it comes to monitoring the benefits actually delivered.

It was interesting to note that it was proposed that those taking part in the pilots would not simply be drawn from the ‘keen beans’ and early adopters of new approaches but would cover all ends of the spectrum – which, to be fair, is likely to be a more realistic way to assess just how effective they are likely to be across the industry.

The announcement said that Track 2 would also include a conditionality test programme which I assume will gauge just how 'compulsory' some of these elements will have to be to actually get growers and other producers to take them up. While it might be unfair to say that this will be judging the size of the 'stick' needed, it might focus on which doors taking part will open – and which doors might be closed without engagement.

So that, with the addition of the active livestock initiative for suckler beef farms – which I would assume is at least partly based on Jim Walker’s proposed plan which was ready for launch last year – looks to be the focus of the second track.

But before we get stuck in the tracks, I was interested to read a bit about the KPMG report which looked at the likely costs and effects of meeting climate targets would have on farmers in Ireland.

While I would hope that, a) the value was a bit of an over estimate; and b) that the financial repercussions will be of a somewhat smaller scale in Scotland, the findings were that to meet the 30% reduction target set for 2030, on the way to a 50% by 2040, would see the Irish farming sector take a €4bn hit. This draws the £51m of proposed for this Scottish scheme – and even Scotland’s total £0.5bn total rural budget – into pretty sharp perspective.