LEADER OF THE Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, has made it clear that in order for the rural economy to flourish in the long term, the UK Government must alter its immigration policy to welcome both seasonal and full-time workers.

The North-east Fife MSP represents one of Scotland’s major fruit and vegetable farming regions and is determined to put the case to the Home Office that policy needs to change – and fast.

Sitting down with The Scottish Farmer in his previous constituency of Dunfermline, he explained his connection to agriculture and the important role the rural economy plays as a contributor to wider society.

“I grew up in a rural community in a little village called Strathmiglo, near Auchtermuchty, Fife, where my dad was the local grocer. It was a tight knit community and we knew all the local farmers who came in to the shop. I knew from a young thing that they played an important role in our area,” said Mr Rennie.

“It is not just the economic value that the rural sector delivers, but over the years its economy has transformed with a drive towards quality food, which has made a transformational difference to rural communities; the added value we now get from a farm is quite phenomenal.

“In my part of the world in North-east Fife, you’ve got little food producers which have been set up under the food initiative that Toby Anstruther established at Balcaskie, as well as farmers’ markets and small food units which are flourishing. The fruit and veg sector has thousands of workers, probably competing with shipyards in Glasgow in terms of numbers of employees and the quality of produce supplying supermarkets all year round has tremendous economic value,” he continued.

“The rural community is tremendously important and I think there is a revitalisation of interest in food, and farming and the environment as well. “I’m a great hill runner, I love to get up in to the Ochils and witness first-hand the value of people who are maintaining the wild land in this country – it doesn’t happen by itself. Farmers are out there maintaining our land, whether it’s via their livestock, trees or crops, it is so important for people like me who can enjoy the land in the way that we do.

“Our farmers not only protect and cultivate our land, adding to our booming tourism industry, but are an important cultural connection between the public and the countryside. I think farmers markets are so important, not only are they good for the soul but they help educate the public about where their food comes from, as consumers are able to meet the producers face to face.

“The list keeps growing as I think about it, the cultural, educational, leisure, environmental and economic benefits go on and on, so to answer your question, the rural economy is very important to wider society,” added Mr Rennie.

How do we maintain a rural workforce?

Maintaining a future workforce is a huge concern facing the rural economy, so we asked Mr Rennie why it is becoming more and more difficult to find seasonal workers and full-time workers from the EU, or whether it is time to widen our talent pool and attract a non-EU labour force.

“Barnsmuir, Allanhill and Pittenweem Farms, together, employ more than 1000 workers during peak summer season, and that’s only three farms in my constituency amongst many others. What they are telling me is that so far, they are getting workers signed up but are concerned whether they will turn up and how long they will stay.

“With the changing value of sterling, workers don’t earn as much as they used to, so being far away from home and working in bad weather doesn’t seem as attractive.

Mr Rennie continues: “A lot of farms in North-east Fife are having to look at ways to attract staff through incentives like cheaper accommodation and so on – it’s getting tough for farmers.

“We need to recognise the evolution of full-time agricultural workers and not just seasonal producers – as there are the likes of Kettle Produce who require workers all year round. I think it is so important that we have not only a seasonal workers scheme but an all year-round workers scheme.

“However, there is also a need to recognise the complexity of the workers who are coming to Scotland. It used to be Polish university students then it moved to rural Polish, then it moved to Bulgarian and Romanian uni students, they got better opportunities, just like those other workers. So now its moved to rural Bulgarian and Romanian workers.

“They will eventually get better opportunities too, so if trends continue, it is clear we will need to look outside the EU for workers,” he said.

“One example is Portugal, which is looking at Indonesia for seasonal demand. Europe itself is looking to other parts of the world because of greater competition and demand.

“Unfortunately, the message our country has sent out is ‘Britain isn’t open to foreign workers’ and we need to change that dramatically or the damage to our economy will be significant. There is huge investment in the rural economy but for it to continue we need to guarantee a workforce.

“The Home Office needs to start paying attention and sort out the immigration policy or they are going to damage our economy.”

The potential merger between Asda and Sainsburys could tie up around 30% of the retail market, leading to a loss of competition for suppliers’ produce, so does he think this merger should go ahead and what would it do to an already un-even balance between supermarkets and their suppliers.

Supermarket dominance 

“I do have bit of anxiety about this potential merger. I understand the supermarket sector doesn’t stand still and that there has been a lot of new vibrant entrants in to the market. With competition from the growing online sector, whether it is Amazon delivering groceries or traditional supermarkets doing home deliveries, the climate is changing, and they need to adapt,” he said.

“I can see why Sainsburys and Asda may want to consolidate in order to maintain market share. Supermarkets need to improve their margins, but they must not undermine the agricultural sector in Scotland in the process.

“What we need to be absolutely sure about is the pressure producers already feel is not compounded by a narrowing of competition. There needs to be an investigation into the potential impact this would have on producers.

“Anxiety already exists in the already difficult situation with power imbalance between producers and supermarkets, which might be further weighted towards supermarkets if the merger goes ahead.

“This reinforces the need for an ombudsman to monitor the balance and their current power needs to be strengthened to have any real sway over the supermarkets. While the spotlight is on them, supermarkets will be on their best behaviour as politicians are watching. We need to make sure this continues over the long term,” he stated.

Also on the retail trade, there have been an increase in the number of Saltires flying off the shelves on food products in supermarkets and being replaced by British flags. I asked Mr Rennie how Scotland can protect its brand moving forward.

Flying the flag

“The Scottish flag is my flag as much as it is anybody else’s. We need to make sure that the argument is dismissed and supermarkets understand that the Saltire is an attractive label which will appeal to people across Scotland, whether they believe in independence or not,” he stressed.

“We must make sure the significant extra value which you get with Scottish produce is returned to the producer and you can only do that if it is identified as Scottish and distinct from the rest of the UK. We need to work hard to educate the supermarkets to make sure they fully understand that extra quality we get from Scottish produce.

“So, it’s a bit of reclaiming the Saltire but more significantly making sure consumers and supermarkets understand the extra value they get from Scottish produce.”

Rounding off, I asked Mr Rennie whether the Lib Dems can be a voice for Scottish farmers. “We represent rural communities – I do in North-east Fife, Mike Rumbles in the North-east, Tavish and Liam up in the Northern Isles, but also in the Highlands. Right across the country the Lib Dems are standing up for farmers every single day of the week, whether it’s on issues such as securing agricultural workers or on maintaining our quality Scottish produce or the battle with supermarkets.

“Those are the practical things we make a real difference to in farmers lives, and that’s what we will continue to do.”