I was asked to speak – only briefly, thankfully, for everyone’s sake – to an NFUS-organised 'Next Generation' roadshow this week about resilience.

The venue was Strathmore Rugby Club and it gives me joy to be able to inform you that this is also the venue for a weekly gathering of farmers of a certain age to come and practice yoga, which is excellent for resilience. I don’t want to denigrate their worthy efforts to hold back the march of time, but an added draw is, perhaps, the undoubted beauty of the class teacher.

As my own half century is fast approaching, I am seriously considering joining them as rugby and various other self-inflicted accidents take their toll, and things don’t always work as well as they used to.

It’s not just our physical bodies that are on a downward trajectory. If the current political situation was a satellite, one could be forgiven for thinking that burn-up on re-entry is imminent. Apologies for the mixed metaphors, but Alex Massie put it better than I could in an article the other week: “Brexit is a salvage operation – even if it is done well, the boat is not in the condition it was before it sank.” We all feel a bit like that now and then.

So, December is perhaps a good time to do an annual health check, and there is also value in looking back as well as forward, the better to measure progress (or otherwise) in agriculture and elsewhere.

One hundred years ago last week, the first women were admitted to Parliament. Progress has been somewhat haphazard since then, with only 500 women versus 4500 men in that period sitting as MPs, though there has been a general move in the right direction this century.

The current split is the highest it has ever been, though still only at 32%, with the Scottish Parliament marginally better at 35%. The way things have been going lately, one might argue that is a sign of higher female intelligence.

At NFUS and most other farming bodies, female representation remains limited, though there are many influential women working at NFUS and elsewhere, and their voice is usually the one worth listening to in a room. They have had to work harder and go against the grain to get where they are.

Appearances matter, however, especially for a lobbying group such as NFUS and significant female representation is now a matter of urgency. NFUS membership is barely more than half what it could be and by making ourselves more attractive to female membership that situation might also be improved.

I know the leadership is working to improve this situation, with family membership being just one of several initiatives to try and encourage more women to become involved. I am willing to be corrected, but I don’t believe, however, that most women are in favour of positive discrimination to rectify the imbalance. That seems almost insulting to me and if that is the case, it will take some time for representation to improve as the various committees are not overloaded with women at the moment.

Putting that issue to one side for a moment, progress in agriculture generally has been mixed over the past 20 years. There have been gains in yields and efficiency, but margins have not improved, and nor are they likely to.

Speaking at Angus Soft Fruits' conference recently, John Pelham, of Anderson’s Consulting, compared some key performance indicators between 1998 and 2017. In 1998, the minimum wage was £3.60 with no holiday pay or employer’s NI. Next year, it will be £8.21. Labour cost as a percentage of turnover in the same period has gone from 22% to 48%, because the sale price has remained static in that period – as has the sale price for all agricultural produce, without exception.

UK production of strawberries in 1998 was 35,000 tonnes. In 2017, it was 127,000 tonnes. Yield per ha has increased from 10t/ha to 22t/ha, though most of that increase was in the early years of this century and growth has slowed.

The same applied to agriculture generally. Big gains in yields are unlikely in the future and this year’s potato prices notwithstanding, the same applies for adding value at the point of sale. Our strawberry breeding guru, David Griffiths, introduced me to the 80/20 principle, where the first 80% of improvement is the easiest to achieve and that is the area to focus on.

So, where are the easy gains for agriculture going forward? I’m not sure there are any left.

In horticulture, the obvious area to work on is labour efficiency, but it’s certainly not going to be easy. In agriculture, more generally, we can improve incrementally and the sum of human knowledge might push us inexorably towards marginal gains in efficient and sustainable production. That's provided, of course, that we keep our faith in experts and scientists, rather than populism and mumbo jumbo. Big leaps forward in yields, reduced costs, increased prices, or new crops are unlikely.

So, profits might well be hard to hunt down in 2019, but hardship breeds resilience and we are a part of the most resilient industry on the planet. Part of that resilience should include looking to encourage more women to get involved in agriculture at all levels, from office to field – we need more than half the potential available brain power to work on the farms and in the board rooms of the future.

We are not utilising nearly enough of that drive and ability at the moment. It’s also the right thing to do.

Perhaps if my three teenage daughters had seen more female role models working in agriculture, they would have seen it as a possible career path. Hopefully, some day they will have children of their own and if any of them are girls, I hope we will have progressed to the point where they see agriculture or horticulture as an exciting and fulfilling career option. Our industry will be all the better for it.