By Jim Walker

At last, after three years of disasters, some good news from ScotGov about a support scheme. 

It would seem that some changes to EU CAP regulations have allowed a stay of execution for our jealously guarded, much needed LFASS grants. Fergus Ewing seems to have secured another year of full funding (£65m) for LFASS payments for the 2018 scheme year to be paid in the spring of 2019. 

This specific funding commitment and the very public support of Fergus for continuation of the scheme post Brexit has to be good news for its long term future. A future that looked anything but certain a few months ago when someone came up with an arrangement of a so-called ‘parachute payment’ for 2018. 

Actually, this was just another flowery description of a 20% cut in LFASS funding for hill farmers and crofters and, obviously, very bad news. 

Looking forward beyond 2018/19, I have already asked Santa to deliver a big dose of sanity to policy makers in this regard. If the hills and uplands are so important to Scotland, its people, the food industry and ScotGov, then why not continue to back them with public funding? 

But I’ve asked Santa that when he delivers this message to please ensure that the payment of any future support to the ‘Engine Room’ (the hills and uplands) of the Scottish food and tourist industries is implemented and administered in a simple, effective, workable, user friendly way – all the things that most current support schemes in Scotland are not! Maybe we could call it the ‘Sanity Clause’?

The current daddy of them all is the much criticised Beef Efficiency Scheme, which is ending this year in the same chaotic, desperate state it started in – i.e Fergus Ewing begging participants in these pages recently to submit data for the 2016 scheme without delay or face penalties next year, underlines the total mess this wholly unworkable scheme is in. 

I only know two beef farmers who remain in the scheme, the rest I know of, like me, have abandoned what started as a great idea then turned into a total bureaucratic waste of time and effort. 

Actually, it will be really interesting to find out what percentage of Scotland’s suckler herd is covered in this scheme. If it is as low as I suspect will be the case and therefore can’t make any difference in terms of positive outcomes for the Scottish beef industry, what will the dreaded EU auditors make of it, never mind Scottish taxpayers?

Anyway, if Fergus and his officials have found a way to extend LFASS payments with changes to EU CAP regulations, maybe they could find a wee loophole in these same regulation changes to scrap the BES and start again with something useful. 

You never know, we may even get EID for cattle after 15 years of talking about it as part of a new initiative to improve the beef industry. I see we have yet another industry committee set up to try and implement cattle EID – now a quick application of that would really be a BES-driver. 

I seem to remember being all bright eyed and enthusiastic about something similar nearly 17 years ago, but government preferred cattle passports to EID. Mind you, with their fabulous record of successfully implementing IT systems over the last few years, it’s maybe just as well they didn’t!

However, as it’s Xmas, let’s hope Santa will bring ScotGov and its contractors the IT fixes we all need to see the balance of our BPS, LFASS and Calf Scheme payments long before June, 2018, which is all they have promised so far. 

I’m sure the banks and supply trade who support (or should I say fund) agriculture these days would welcome this wee early pressie from Santa, not to mention the benefit to the rural economy as a whole. 

And, finally for 2017, as we reflect on yet another tumultuous year for the country with the ongoing all the year round pantomime now called ‘Brexit’, what will the future hold?

Many people have campaigned for years to do away with public support for agriculture and by definition food production. I understand why and in a perfect world where Tesco’s customers, the catering trade and public bodies actually paid for food that reflected the cost of production, I would jump at the chance of subsidy free farming. 

Over many years I have heard and read thousands of words expressing support and admiration for New Zealand who scrapped farm subsidies in 1984 and how it was the making of NZ agriculture. Actually, this happened because the NZ Government was skint – not because they wanted to – but, of course, that never gets a mention. 

More recently, Michael Gove – the most naïve and dangerous Ag Minister since Margaret Beckett – has been singing the praises of NZ agriculture, although what he knows about it I’m not too sure. Not much I suspect. 

He seems to reckon that British farmers will find a way of boosting agricultural output post-Brexit, while enhancing the environment just like NZ did post-1984. Quite how this will happen he doesn’t make clear. 

What he does make clear is that even though everyone knows farms will need scale to compete in this brave new post-Brexit, free-trade world that he craves, he will penalise the biggest farms in any support regime that may remain. So, on the one hand the strong (big), are expected to survive, but with one hand tied behind their back with restrictive regulations governing the way they/we are allowed to farm and reduced public support. 

And on the other hand, he wants cheap food, stringent regulations and the highest standards of production and environmental protection in the world and all for nothing. Its fantasy, pure fantasy.

Meanwhile, back in New Zealand, it appears intensive dairying is doing serious damage to the reputation of an island once regarded as one of the greenest and most natural food producers on the planet. Waterways and lakes are having serious issues with water quality and anyone who has recently flown into Dunedin during a wet spell might get a shock looking down at the state of the grazing fields of some of the big dairies on the South Island. 

I’m not being critical of NZ farmers – hell they are amongst the best in the world – but like us they have to survive and politicians can’t have it both ways. Not in NZ and certainly not in the UK. 

Every good idea comes with consequences, some of them unintended. So get rid of subsidies by all means, but if Gove wants increased production, he may well be in for a shock – just like his NZ counterpart. 

Unlike politics, managing land is a long term business and if politicians can give us time, then the best will embrace change. But giving us time is the key. 

If we get that chance, then The SF’s readers will have many more prosperous New Years to look forward to.

Merry Xmas.