GROWING SAYFC’s political voice will be at the heart of Agri Affairs chair Catherine Sloan’s vision, as she leads the organisation forward.

Taking over the role from outgoing chair Andrew McGregor in March this year, Catherine has outlined three key plans to drive the political arm of SAYFC forward: revamping its annual conference, ensuring quarterly regional meetings and building upon the organisations’ influence at a policy level.

The SF caught up with Catherine to hear more about her own journey in SAYFC, her mission for the year ahead and what legacy she hopes to leave behind.

Leaving home for University to study law at the age of 18, Catherine would return home at weekends and during summer holidays to her family’s arable farm in Perthshire to help with harvest and to take part in social activities with her local Young Farmers Club, Bankfoot JAC.

She is now a full-time Agricultural and Rural Property Solicitor, combining both her love and knowledge for agriculture and drawing from the skills she has developed through her time with SAYFC.

Catherine, together with some fellow members of Bankfoot JAC won the prestigious national speechmaking competition in 2018 which she said was the proudest moment of her SAYFC career to date.

“People outside SAYFC are always fascinated by the opportunities that are on offer to its members, be that travel, competitions or developing important life skills,” said Catherine. “Speechmaking is a fantastic experience as it helps develop general life skills, which will come in handy in the future if giving a vote of thanks at a YF event or delivering a speech at a wedding.”

It was in 2016 where her real passion for Agri Affairs began, taking part in a YF trip to New Zealand where she met like-minded people who were engaged in agriculture and hungry to learn more about how other countries were investing in their future.

“As soon as I returned from New Zealand, I threw myself in to Agri Affairs, becoming the Perthshire district representative and from there started to climb the ranks to where I am today.”

“This is the first big leadership role I’ve had in SAYFC as I didn’t go along the club chair route. I feel very lucky to have a great team behind me this year and have felt proud watching them bring events together during a difficult time and seeing such high engagement from our members across the regions.”

Conference Weekend

One of the biggest draws in the calendar is the annual Agri Affairs conference which has been held every November since its launch in 2014.

Catherine commented: “Conference has always been our biggest offering and has grown arms and legs throughout the years. Its biggest selling point is providing a networking weekend where members like to meet with others from clubs across the country to discuss different issues. We also offer some fantastic farm visits to explore different businesses which gives members lots to discuss and we offer workshops to develop attendees skills across a multitude of disciplines.”

Revamping the annual conference is one of Catherine’s three major aims for the year ahead and she hopes to make the first evening a more casual affair to allow members to settle in and feel more comfortable meeting other attendees. This, she hopes, will mean everyone is even more engaged with the farm tours and workshops on the Saturday.

The conference is still planning to go ahead this year on the weekend of November 20 - 22, but this is dependent on the coronavirus situation and will be confirmed closer to the date. Due to the cancellation of the RHS and the loss of many of YF’s annual awards, this year’s Agri Affairs conference is set to amalgamate with the YF of the Year finals, with a special evening on the Saturday of the event.

Another casualty to the current pandemic was the Agri Affairs study tour to Chile, which was destined to take place this November, shortly after conference.

“Chile has now been postponed until next year, with the same theme of ‘Adding value to agriculture’,” Catherine continued. “We wanted to look at agriculture in another country in the context of a post-Brexit landscape, where we will have to market ourselves more on our own. We will be looking at what happens in Chile on different farms, from manufacturing to packing plants and how they market themselves on a global stage. The purpose of the study tour is for members to go out and bring back ideas for their own businesses or careers and to share their newfound knowledge through the delivery of presentations to the industry as well as to their YF clubs.”

Regional and National Events

Covid may have halted physical events in the Agri Affairs calendar for now, but Catherine explained that her ambition to hold quarterly regional meetings has proven to be a virtual success so far, thanks to the support of her committee.

“East chair Daniel Fleming was the first to host a virtual information evening on ‘Where SAYFC can lead you’, with inspiring guests Neil McGowan, Sally Williams and Pete Moss. It was extremely well attended by members and gave everyone lots of food for thought.”

“In the north, our chair Amy Jo Reid organised a virtual farm tour of Glenkirlie run by Andrew and Lauren Houstoun, who pre-recorded a video for us to watch and then did a Q&A on zoom.

“In the west, chair John McCulloch is hoping to run accounts training later this year in conjunction with Johnson Carmichael - which we expect to attract good numbers. The idea follows on from a successful training event last year in the east region, organised by my vice-chair Alistair Brunton.”

There are also plans to host two virtual succession workshops to all members before the end of September, following the success of a pilot event in Shetland, run by Heather Wildman. Another key event which Catherine was keen to point out is the annual Cultivating Leaders course which Ms Wildman is also heavily involved in.

“We had more applications than places available for this winter intake, which takes place on two weekends over December and January. It is a leadership course aimed to provide young people with practical advice and business skills, also touching on topics such as succession. The main aim is to give members an opportunity to come together and learn new skills to help them develop into leaders in their fields.”

She hopes that this year they have busted the myth that you need a farming business to apply and stressed that the course can be perfect for someone who isn’t sure where they are going, making it a great stepping stone.

SAYFC’s Political Voice

Catherine has next May’s Scottish elections firmly in her sights and has plans afoot to make sure the organisation has a stronger political voice and SAYFC has more of a say in the future development of agricultural policy.

“I’m planning on putting together a survey for members, addressing issues such as Covid and Brexit at what is a turbulent time for agriculture, but also exploring the opportunities which lie ahead. My intention is to present these findings later in the year and then put together a manifesto document to present to politicians ahead of the election. Although this is being spearheaded by Agri Affairs this manifesto will be on behalf of SAYFC and will ensure our members views are made known to policy makers.”

Catherine feels it is important that SAYFC members involved with Agri Affairs become integrated in policy discussions with the wider industry.

She is currently on the NFUS next gen group where she represents the views of SAYFC and is on the committee for WIA Scotland which holds events bi-annually and is looking to grow the influence and recognise the role of women and the valuable contribution they make to the sector.

Vice-chair Alistair Brunton is on the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Rural Economy and Communities Stakeholders committee and west chair John McCulloch sits on their Covid-19 Agriculture Communication Group.

“I would like SAYFC to be recognised more for its views on political matters within agriculture,” Catherine continued. “It is something we have been good at in the past and I would like to continue to develop this work. Past Agri Affairs chair Sarah Allison (Millar) is a great example of a member who was a champion for agriculture and was invited on to many panels and past national chair David Lawrie is another example of a member who has always been a great advocate for Agri Affairs.”

Sharing some concluding remarks on the future of Agri Affairs and the current political climate, Catherine said: “With Brexit and coronavirus dominating the agenda, a lot of things are up in the air and whilst some people view that as unsettling, there is also much potential for opportunity.

“We have seen that with Covid - that some local businesses have done quite well as people chose to shop more locally and many farmers have grabbed those opportunities and have run with them.

“During a period of uncertainty, there comes opportunity and Agri Affairs is here to help members reach their full potential by providing a platform for members to further their personal and professional growth and to reach out to the wider agricultural industry through policy engagement.”