'The Scottish government also has a big part to play in the future success of Scottish agriculture. It must be said that their annual report is something of a mixed bag.'

It has been a challenging harvest for many, and the Irish downpour on the Scottish rugby team in Paris coupled with the dreadful image of silage bales floating into Loch Fyne sums up the horrendous deluge across the whole of Scotland last weekend.

It has been tough for people trying to harvest potatoes, but my thoughts are particularly with livestock farmers at times like this. The stress and worry of looking after cattle and sheep in these conditions and yet being able to do very little for them is very tough. For many, this has been a disaster, with winter forage and potato and other veg crops destroyed, and I hope the Scottish and UK governments will seriously consider some kind of emergency relief for those who have suffered most. It might be time to revive Forage Aid.

One positive aspect of 2023 has been the acceptance by retailers that prices for the food we produce were too low and needed to rise. The flooding of last weekend highlights the fact that farmers shoulder all the risk, yet retailers now seem to think that as inflation starts to fall, so food prices should fall too. This would be to completely ignore the lack of increase in food prices over the past third of a century which ultimately has curtailed farmers’ ability to reinvest for the future.

Any attempt by retailers, processors, and packers to chop retail prices back down again at the expense of farmers would be deeply unjust and would meet with much more resistance than might have been expected in the past.

Mark White, the Grocery Code Adjudicator, recently published a ‘deep dive’ report warning that retailers are becoming increasingly aggressive in trying to batter down the cost price increases that have been achieved in food in the past year. The retailers argue that prices should return to where they were as inflation starts to fall, forgetting or ignoring the fact that farmers have had no inflationary increase in their returns in the previous 33 years.

Farmers have reached the end of the line in terms of taking less income for their produce and paying more for inputs, and Scotland’s agricultural co-operatives must play a vital part in the future of farming in Scotland. Farmers are renowned for being independently minded, but the financial and market forces ranged against us as individuals now are irresistible without cooperation. Farmers on the continent and in Ireland learned this long ago, it’s time to take a leaf out of their book.

The Scottish government also has a big part to play in the future success of Scottish agriculture. It must be said that their annual report is something of a mixed bag.

On the one hand, they have been very supportive of agricultural cooperation, funding SAOS and continuing to support Scotland’s three Producer Organisations, one of which I am a member of.

They have also offered very welcome and valuable support to Ringlink’s ground-breaking pre-apprenticeship scheme, with a record 39 trainees this year. There is only funding for one more year as it stands, but the Scottish Government has indicated a strong desire to support and expand it in the future so I am very hopeful that this vital and unique programme will continue.

On the other hand, many of the Scottish government’s policies are not supporting rural businesses as they should be, and it is important to speak truth to power. If I had the ear of the First Minister, I would implore him to re-examine his government’s policies in the following areas.

Forcing farmers to pay the real living wage next year will bump the minimum wage up from 10.42 to 11.50. After the employer’s NI and Holiday pay are added on that will mean a cost to the employer of £14.72 next year, on the back of similar increases in the past three years.

For many businesses, it is not sustainable, but for labour intensive horticulture, it is a stone-cold killer, particularly as our English, Northern Irish, and Welsh competitors will be sticking with the National living wage. Scottish Government is contributing to the downfall of some of the biggest rural employers, and as a direct result, much more rural unemployment will follow.

Perhaps the most fundamental influence the Scottish (and UK government on reserved matters such as energy) can have on rural businesses and communities is the provision of energy and transport infrastructure – yet broadband, grid capacity, electric charging, road links, and public transport, all vital to rural communities and businesses, as well as achieving Scotland’s net zero commitments, are substandard and clearly near the bottom of the list of priorities. As an example, I have been informed by SSE that they couldn’t offer a grid connection in my area until 2032. Planning laws are too restrictive for new solar and wind schemes.

Short-term lets are a valuable alternative source of income for many of Ringlink’s members, and the laws brought in by the Scottish government to license them are far too onerous. Most remain unlicensed although the deadline for registration has now passed, meaning many will be either breaking the law or have given up altogether. A law brought in to try and solve a problem in Edinburgh is causing unnecessary stress and damage to small rural businesses.

The Food Marketing, Processing, and Co-operation grants have been quietly dropped from the Bill, a reduction of £10.6 million from agricultural development and infrastructure when much more investment is needed in this area, not less. Or as in this case, none.

£32 million that was meant to be ringfenced for Agriculture is still missing in action, and there seems to be an omerta on talking about it. Agriculture needs to know when it will come back.

There are still many positive signs for agriculture. Inflation seems to have peaked, and there is a real prospect of achieving sustainable prices for our crops, livestock and produce in the marketplace.

There is a newfound desire amongst farmers to work together to resist being squeezed between high input costs and low output prices, and in truth, the only way we can avoid being picked off as individuals is by increasing cooperation.