A man who needs no introduction, dedicating 46 years to The Scottish Farmer Ken Fletcher has reported on everything and anything affecting the Scottish farming community.

From his humble beginning at The Scottish Farmer, back in 1977 to his well-earned retirement last summer, his work has been honoured with the Lifetime Achievement award at October’s Agri Awards. 

The Scottish Farmer caught up with Ken to get his take on his life in agriculture and some highlights from almost half a century in the business.

The Scottish Farmer: Ken Fletcher taken at Kilmacolm show 1978Ken Fletcher taken at Kilmacolm show 1978

When did you first get involved with The Scottish Farmer?

That was back in February, 1977, after I had applied for a job as a trainee reporter at the beginning of the year. I was actually applying to be a replacement for my brother, Alasdair’s position when he left to work with the semen company run by Jonathon Ropner, of Dalesend Holsteins.

Fortunately for me, that immediately gave me an ‘in’ with the then The Scottish Farmer, editor, Angus MacDonald, who seemed impressed by the fact that I tied my own flies for fishing. I don’t even know if anyone else was in for the job, but I was able to commit to turning up on the third Monday in February for a start.

I had been doing a year’s practical experience with Alex and Maggie Scott, of North Mains Farm, Houston, with a view to doing an HND at Auchincruive when the chance of the job came up. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I opted for the ‘University of Life’ and immediate earnings at The SF instead of three or four years at college earning hee-haw.

I learnt a lot about practical farming there, especially from Alex’s father, the late AB Scott who was a very strict character, but he thawed a bit when he saw that I was keen to work hard at everything from milking coos, to tractor driving, to cutting a hedge with a hand-held heuk while standing in a burn up to the top of my wellies.

Before that, I had been ‘the boy’ for Jim McNeill, at Waterlea Farm, just outside Houston, which was within walking distance for me from home. There I milked coos in the byre and learnt to drive a venerable Massey Ferguson 35, before he moved on to an MF 135 with a cab and, joy of joys for the young Fletch, a foot throttle!

At North Mains, the prime movers were David Brown 995s but there was also a pretty ancient, even then, Nuffield 10/60, the unreliable steering on which made for an interesting job carting silage!

The Scottish Farmer: Ken Fletcher now retired but occasionally can be seen in The Scottish Farmer as Editorial Ambassador Ref:RH020223321 Rob Haining / The Scottish FarmerKen Fletcher now retired but occasionally can be seen in The Scottish Farmer as Editorial Ambassador Ref:RH020223321 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer

Any memorable moments?

Hunners. Some of which cannot be talked about!

One which struck with me was my first overseas trip at the tender age of 17 when I was whisked off to Monte Carlo for the launch of the David Brown 1390 series of tractors. The brand had not long been taken over by oil giant Tenneco and this was their first big launch so they threw a lot of money at it, including flying over a brass band from Lancashire for the big unveiling.

They even put me up in the famous Hotel de Paris in a suite with a sunken bath. Some of the dealers from Scotland were also on that trip and that’s where I first came across the legendary Hamilton brothers, Stewart and Douglas, from Hamilton of Larkhall. Both took me under my wing a bit which might not have been the best idea as they were famous rioteers!

The fact was, though, the 1390 series turned out to be a dud, so it was an expensive exercise for little gain!

Visits to the Valtra factory, in Finland, were also a bit of a gas during the 1980s and 1990s, and on my first visit we got to fire a Kalashnikov on the test range as at that time Valtra (or more correctly, Valmet) also made rifles and shotguns, plus armaments under licence to the Soviet government.

It was also a very sociable trip and I remember several Skidoo rides across frozen lakes, always ending up in a remote sauna somewhere in the woods.

Of course, attending some of the most famous livestock sales figures right up there in the memory bank. I remember seeing both the 56,000gns Charolais bulls that held the record; witnessed some Highland cattle record breakers when I had to break the news to a jubilant Ian Anderson that he had only held the Highland bull record for about 10 minutes with the 14,000gns Rushmore Bracken, before the MacGillivray team from Pennygown, on Mull, got 20,000gns for their bull.

As a cub reporter I also attended the dispersal of the late Bertie Drummond’s Bargower herd of Ayrshire cattle. That was the thing about being with The Scottish Farmer, you got to see a lot of things ... and somebody else was paying for it.

There are thoosands of memories ... maybe I should write a book!

The Scottish Farmer: Ken has a soft spot for the smaller shows, pictured here judging Yarrow show with Fiona Ref:RH100922190 Rob Haining / The Scottish FarmerKen has a soft spot for the smaller shows, pictured here judging Yarrow show with Fiona Ref:RH100922190 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer

How has farming and farming journalism changed over time?

Both farming and journalism have changed immeasurably over the 46 years at The Scottish Farmer, mostly for the better.

Taking the journalism first. When I started at our offices, then in York Street, in Glasgow, we still set the type in hot metal and it was then laid out in galleys and proofread by one of the printers, before another proof reading by the journalists. It was not an easy process if anything needed to be changed, so the pressure was on to get things right first time ... and not like today, when you can access and change stories at a moment’s notice. And we didnae have spellcheckers back then!

We’ve now progressed through to the digital age and this has brought many challenges to the publishing industry. There’s not been an easy way to make money from ‘the net’ that has been identified yet and for the farming audience, that is even more difficult because of their willingness to remain committed to the traditional printed word.

Though it is changing to selling The Scottish Farmer, as an online only paper, it is probably slower for us because our audience still likes to get the paper delivered either to their door via subscription or picked up at their local shop. In fact, many farmers and rural people remain loyal to their local businesses simply because they know that if they don’t use them, they will lose them.

For farming, the changes have been even greater. The use of AI in farming is no longer just deemed to be artificial insemination, but artificial intelligence and this has the potential to shape the industry beyond belief. We are looking at driverless tractors being more commonplace in the next five years and these will use AI to make the most efficient use of things like crop inputs etc. My mind boggles at the possibilities and it will bring new skills sets to the industry, possibly making farming more ‘sexy’ to a new potential workforce.

The Scottish Farmer: The Scottish Farmers famous Burns supper Ref:RH100223053 Rob Haining / The Scottish FarmerThe Scottish Farmers famous Burns supper Ref:RH100223053 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer

Proudest achievement?

Of course, that special Lifetime Achievement Award is right up there and I have been overwhelmed by comments from those in the industry. Like many who get such accolades, I was just doing my job to the best of my ability. And as a PS to George Purvis, of UA, the special bottle of whisky that they kindly gave me to mark my retirement remains intact!

I was also given the Netherthorpe Trophy for Communicator of the Year, in 2013, by my peers in the Guild of Agricultural Journalists. I was also quite proud of my role in being part of the team that organised the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ World Congress, in Scotland, in 2014. It was brilliant to be able to show off the best that Scottish farming can offer to overseas’ journalists, though I think the whisky helped!

Perhaps best of all, I have four great children, Gregor, Duncan and Fern, plus step-daughter Kirsty – though they are all pretty grown up now – and they have been a great support to me through thick and thin. I’m also looking forward to becoming a grand-parent later this year ... during the Highland Show (whose idea was that!).

The Scottish Farmer: Life time achievement award went to Ken Fletcher Ref:RH261023119 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...Life time achievement award went to Ken Fletcher Ref:RH261023119 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

Favourite show or event to cover?

At the risk of upsetting some, I actually prefer the wee shows to the great big ones.

There’s something fantastic about seeing a community come together to put on any kind of farming event and some of them put on superb hospitality – or ‘hostility’ as I like to call it, given the size of the drams.

Some of my favourites are the likes of Campbeltown, Neilston, Appin, and, of course, the whisky Olympics, otherwise known as Dalmally Show. Then there’s the one-day show that is a three-day event, Islay, which is on another level ... you have to be robust to make the most of that one.

Of the big events, the Highland is obviously the tops, though I attended the Great Yorkshire last year for the first time and thought it was great. I used to enjoy the Royal, too, but I stopped going about five years before its demise as I just couldn’t bear to watch what was at one time the greatest farming event in the world going downhill so fast. Some people should hold their head in shame for that.

I also used to love the long lamented Royal Smithfield which had a unique atmosphere, as does the Balmoral Show, in Ulster, which remains a great favourite. Fantastic friendships were made and added to over my time at all of these. It’s been a privilege.

What do you think the future of agri journalism will look like?

The future is bright! While newspapers, like The Scottish Farmer, have been having a tough time adapting to the digital age, what is crystal clear is that there is a need, indeed a necessity, for the industry to remain well-informed and journalists play a key role in what’s fashionably known as ‘knowledge transfer’.

That’s a posh way of saying we disseminate information from political to practical levels and it is something that we have done quite well for 131 years! Well-informed reporting will always have a place and a value

How did you find awards night?

It was a fantastic night band superbly organised by our events team. It’s been one of the things that had been top of my agenda since I had decided to retire and luckily the wider management team of The Scottish Farmer, also had it on their radar, especially our publisher, Darren Bruce, who was the real driving force behind it.

I had always thought that the industry in Scotland had been too shy about shouting about how good it was and so hopefully the stage has literally been set to make this a great annual event. We have a great industry to promote and I liked the fact that this was a coming together of great minds when RHASS and AgriScot got on board and that we all played a part in bringing a very necessary and worthwhile event to fruition. PS: I’m hoping to get an invite to next year’s!