‘Unprecedented’ is perhaps an overused word in today’s Covid-19 era for events, but here goes on a few more!

1 - The 15 consecutive nights of heavy frosts in April have wrought havoc in fruit farms here and, indeed, vineyards in France – the latter sacrilegiously burning bales of straw to fend off Jack Frost! Arable crops are not immune as severe tipping and indeed some oilseed rape succumbing to the -10°C wind chill.

2 - Prices of beef lamb and cereals hitting what I would call sufficiently necessary for (here’s another overused word) ‘sustainable’ farming. Pig producers are going through a difficult spell at the moment but they have just come off a halcyon spell these past few years.

3 - ‘An outbreak of agreement’ between the FLG (Farmer-Led Groups) chairs on a strategy for the whole industry – something I never thought I’d witness, having spent most of my working life trying to cajole and persuade for more co-operative working practices. More later.

4 - Every political colour openly backing the FLG groups' work with promises of bringing their recommendations forward within 100 days of gaining office.

So, what’s not to like? Well we do have the small matter of a climate crisis to address and prices will fall. You can join me in the queue to beat over the head (regarding the FLG reports) whoever stands in the way of making this happen, be they politicians, or officials in the corridors of power.

Suckler cows are often referred to as the engine room of Scottish agriculture and I won’t disagree with that sentiment. What is often forgotten is the arable and horticultural sector, if we continue the analogy, could also be referred to as the fuel that feeds it and very ‘green’ fuel at that!

I have to start off giving you an insight into my role on the ACCG (Arable Climate Change Group) I can only imagine that Gregor Townsend and Steve Clarke must have gone through similar emotions to me when tasked with picking the best that Scotland can offer in a particular discipline.

In November, 2020, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing, invited me to form the farmer-led Arable Climate Change Group (ACCG), with the purpose of recommending practical but importantly, evidence-based measures that the arable and horticulture sector can implement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and demonstrate how this sector can help achieve the Scottish Government’s statutory climate change targets.

This is a fabulous opportunity for Scottish agriculture to show real leadership and ambition in what are unprecedented (there’s that word again) times of change, forming ideas and solutions compatible with nature but still being production-oriented to match Scotland Food and Drink ambitions.

Early in the process, the ‘team’ – made up of trusted and experienced practitioners with a smattering of academia to give balance to a practical farmer base – realised that measures implemented in isolation would not take us forward. This led to recognition that a whole farm holistic approach is required.

I am determined that this concise, readable report can and will be used by government and the wider industry as a template, not only to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, but to allow Scottish farmers to be both sustainable, profitable and, working with scientifically proven methods, be good common sense. There is no silver bullet, but many approaches and methodologies in it are for all farmers and growers to draw down on to suit their own unique circumstances to reach individual and national outcomes.

In this context, the aim is to firmly position Scotland’s arable sector’s role in contributing to long-term climate change mitigation, biodiversity enhancement, thriving rural communities and an ambitious food and drink industry.

There is also recognition of the deeply inter-connected relationships that exist between all sectors of Scottish agriculture, reflected in the holistic nature of our recommendations. The arable sector includes cereals, other crops, horticulture and vegetables (including for human consumption, stock feed, energy, industrial use and seeds).

In 2019, the combined output of arable produce in Scotland accounted for a third of agricultural output with a value of £1.1bn; around 580,000 ha were used to grow cereals, crops, fruit and vegetables, accounting for around 10% of Scotland’s total agricultural area. This is equivalent to 12% of the total arable land in the UK.

Barley and wheat are the main cereal crops grown in Scotland, accounting for around 85% of the area of crop-land and much of it goes into whisky production. Indeed, 87% of barley and 50% of wheat requirements of Scotland’s whisky production are sourced in Scotland, with around 20-30% used in ruminant, pig and poultry diets.

Emissions from the arable sector account for around 1.6 m/t CO2e, or 21% of total agricultural emissions. Around 60% of emissions relate to N2O derived from fertiliser and soil management, with the remainder being CO2 largely from farm vehicles.

I believe this farmer-led process represents a significant opportunity. Scotland’s arable sector is progressive and capable, with widespread membership of quality assurance schemes and an abundance of skilled people, contributing to many world-renowned food and drink products.

The sector is not just crucial to Scotland’s national brand – it is crucial to our national prosperity and presents a significant economic and environmental opportunity. To achieve this vision will require radical change and a co-ordinated approach to policy-making and action, supported by the work of each of the farmer-led groups, incentivising together economic and environmental sustainability.

The close and enduring relationship between Scottish Government policy and agriculture is fundamental to success, and it is clear that future policy must act as an enabler, empowering industry to identify and act upon their own priorities, in relation to both climate resilience and sustainable food production.

To achieve all of the above, a team approach was fundamental to answering the remit but doing it on time did prove to be extra hard given the Covid-19 restrictions, but peculiarly this worked in my favour to a certain extent as the time constraint certainly tones minds and accelerates thinking.

If you could take a half-an-hour to read the report (ably written up by Alison Milne) you will find not only practical measures but also a blueprint which the whole industry can embrace not just arable and horticulture. The LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) concept is well recognised the length and breadth of the UK, not just Scotland and is being used in Jersey (with 100% uptake) to support producers be they dairy, arable or fruit and veg, to have sustainable and science-led, but production-oriented produce, with strong biodiversity intertwined.

So, the template is there and I am urging government and the NFUS 'crack team' –as Gordon Davidson described them last week – to look at that with a view to replicating here in Scotland. Clearly it won’t be perfect, but it is a plan that has shown to be successful, is farmer-led, and just works.

As alluded to earlier, in the middle of pulling the report together I had a chairs of the FLG groups meetings, ostensibly to chat through where we were in the process and led by a government official.

Having spent my career struggling with bringing sectors together to have a cohesive and joined up approach, I was very concerned as to how this meeting of minds could actually be productive. Imagine my surprise and glee that within five minutes it was clear that, to a man and woman, we were on the same page and that an 'outbreak of agreement' on future strategy of a single scheme for the whole of agriculture was within our grasp.

But – there has to be a 'but' and this is where I have great sympathy for Jim Walker's role in all this – our government official poured significant cold water on how we move forward. And I’m not proud of this: I lost my temper, which is not very clever but it did let the official realise that we are very serious about making this happen.

Perhaps – as you will be reading this post voting we can expect (continuing my rugby and football theme) the new team manager might need to look at the backroom staff and decide who wants to play the team game, or the single issue populist game.