John Hutcheson, who farms at Leckerstone near Dunfermline, took over as Chairman of SAOS in 2021. Here he talks in more detail about the SAOS drive to help people to work together more effectively, particularly in relation to the fight against climate change post-COP26.

"COP 26 may be just a distant memory for some now, but the farming sector hasn’t forgotten its relevance and perhaps never will. The age old saying that, as farmers we should ‘live as though we’ll die tomorrow but farm as though we’ll live forever’ might be well used, but it is now even more pertinent for those who took an interest in what was happening at COP at the end of last year.

I was asked at the time whether the fact that the event was held in Glasgow should help accelerate Scottish farming’s transition to optimal climate-friendly practices. I believe so. In addition to the targets set, it has brought climate issues to the front of many more farmers’ minds and laid bare the urgent requirement for clear government policy as to how we get there. However, while production methods are often in the spotlight, co-operation within the sector is also crucial to helping us achieve what is required.

My family has been involved with farm co-operation in various ways since my great-grandfather’s day, but my own direct experience began about 20 years ago when I took over the tenancy of Leckerstone Farm, near Dunfermline, from my father. It’s an arable farm and I got involved with collaborative marketing of our crop together with a handful of other farmers. It was just a simple group, we didn’t even have a constitution, but it really showed the benefits of working together: we were able to guarantee supply to our customer, United Distillers, and secure a good price. Our small group evolved to become United Cereals of Scotland which then became part of GrainCo.

Since becoming SAOS Chairman, my top priority has been to work with the team to help get the organisation on a more sustainable financial footing, so we’re not as reliant on Scottish Government funding which is inevitably coming under increasing pressure. One of the greatest things about SAOS is the staff: they are so adaptable, and the team is constantly looking at the bigger picture for ways in which SAOS can make a difference, not just for our co-op members, but for the wider farming and food industry, and rural Scotland generally. SAOS is continually evolving, we are a membership organisation, but fees are a small part of our income. Our current strategy is to develop new workstreams and ancillary businesses to generate revenue for our core business - allowing us to identify opportunities and helping new co-ops start up and supporting existing ones in various ways. Wherever I turn I see scope for more co-operation, and it would be great to see the development of more marketing groups. The dairy industry, just as one example, is crying out for more collaborative marketing and I see many in the sector who have the will to make this happen.

One of the areas SAOS identified where a more collaborative approach could be helpful has led to the creation and development of our new Food Integrity Assurance business, which will focus on assuring quality Scottish produce, with key partners such as Quality Meat Scotland. I would also like to see a more co-operative approach for a generic carbon reduction assurance scheme. The calls for improved environmental practices in the industry are manifold, piecemeal, and coming from all directions. Retailers, policymakers, and customers all want to be able to tick the big carbon box, but we don’t want a multitude of small schemes with growers forced into multiple audits.

Co-ordination is also critical if we are to have carbon auditing fit for purpose, and which delivers what the industry and the market demand. There are currently around twenty carbon audit tools available, all of which yield different results. How can farmers, consumers, and policymakers compare any of them all these? We’re still learning how to measure everything that happens on farm and how to design standard points of reference but, as another demonstration of developing solutions, SAOS, through our FIA business, will be offering a programme using a single, trusted tool that can cover all agricultural sectors, offered through our widespread network of members and more widely. This will be flexible enough to be updated as new research comes to the fore, and activity dovetailed with the soon-to-be launched Carbon Positive platform that will host positive climate attributes about farming, including soil and forestry carbon, renewable energy metrics and water and biodiversity metrics. This will offer landholders their own individual profile to hold updated data, and this will all be rolled up to provide an aggregate view of ‘Scottish farming’

There is not always a need to reinvent the wheel though. SAOS recently worked with Quaker Oats UK, who wanted to find the best way of measuring and demonstrating their environmentally friendly farming methods to the public. It transpired that LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) already had in place the means to help Quaker implement and measure the changes they wanted to make, so their producers signed up en masse. Working together made for a straightforward solution.

Helpfully, commercial co-operation models translate very well to more efficient, climate-friendly ones, as we really need them to. Most farmers want to make the changes required, but many are understandably overwhelmed by the process, which can be bewildering. The next generation is demonstrating a keen awareness of climate change and the environment; my own son is studying for a PhD in sustainable farming systems and regenerative agriculture. It is ingrained in them, having grown up with it, but it’s tougher for some of the older generation to adapt, especially when they’ve only ever done what’s been asked of them.

Things have changed so much in just a couple of generations. In my grandfather’s day, farming was more sustainable and less reliant on external inputs such as fertiliser and fuel. When food policy changed, the increased emphasis on production and lower cost to the consumer, meant greater cost to the land. Since the end of WW2, we have pursued a cheap food policy and we need to work out how to move away from that. We now realise that sustainable food production is not compatible with low consumer cost and the squeeze must come somewhere. No government wants to see food getting more expensive, but the cost of production is increasing and the true cost of producing food is not accounted for properly. One easy win for carbon reduction would be to reduce the 30 per cent of food that we throw away, and another, to reduce the number of empty calories that many of us (over)eat, but trying to change human behaviours is never popular and always complicated. The government needs to be clear about what needs to be achieved and how it will help, not only the sector, but the country as a whole, to get there.

Of course, farmers need to have climate change and the environment high on their agenda, but farms also must be financially sustainable; you can adopt great environmental practices but if you can’t make a margin then you simply can’t stay in business. This is another area where more co-operation can assist, such as using machinery rings to leverage co-operative buying power and using resources more efficiently. Farm businesses also need to collaborate and co-operate in order to counter certain market forces; if we let the market run free then we would end up with large corporations farming huge areas; the family farm would disappear and, while we might have efficient and cheap industrialised farming, it would completely dismantle the fabric of rural society and our much-loved countryside.

I believe that we need to communicate to consumers, retailers and policymakers what can and cannot be changed; farming always has and always will create emissions, but it is also uniquely placed to mitigate them. Clearer ways of measuring, tackling, and reporting emissions on farms will help the sector honestly brand and market our good environmental credentials and should help the market pay, so that we can move away from buying (and wasting) too much cheap, low-quality food.

The government, market and consumers must accept that we cannot have regenerative farming systems that produce low-cost food. If we collaborate and co-operate, there is much that farming can achieve; but others must also play their part if our efforts are not to be in vain."