Some things make you smile, and I think it’s important to start the year on a positive note.

At the end of last year, I attended an evening at Ringlink in Laurencekirk to hear some impressive presentations from farming mentors as well as two ladies from SRUC to around 30 prospective pre-apprentices on the opportunities available in farming.

I found myself chatting to a lady there who seemed very chuffed about something, but I couldn’t make out what, although there was three young folk standing next to her looking equally happy.

I asked her if she had kids involved and she said triumphantly – Yes – Jack here has done it, Amber is doing it and her twin sister Iona is about to do it. Take a bow, Vicki Thomson, you are singlehandedly keeping farming going in Angus with your offspring.

Also speaking was an ex pre-apprentice who worked for me a couple of years back. Maddie Cairnie wanted a livestock placement, but no mentor was available, so I took her on for the summer to check irrigation in strawberry tunnels.

After that she went to work for Neil and Jillian McEwan at Lunan Bay Farm, helping with their cashmere goats to produce the only cashmere (highly prized) in Scotland. She now has her own flock of Shetland sheep at Lunan Bay, and I was struck by the growth in her confidence since she started her pre-apprenticeship and the impressive way she spoke about her experiences.

It made me very proud to think that Ringlink’s pre-apprenticeship had given her a leg up and set her on her way. If anyone is considering becoming a mentor, the benefit is so much more than just finding an employee.

The three participating Machinery Rings, Borders, Tarff Valley, and Ringlink, working in collaboration with SRUC, have now trained 280 pre-apprentices over the past five years. Some 57% of trainees had no previous farming background, and 80% of them are still working in the industry.

Only 15% of trainees are female, so although that is a big step forward, there is a lot more to do. Scottish Government has been having a torrid time of it lately, but they have given invaluable support for the pre-apprenticeship scheme.

There is only funding for one more year, but Cabinet Secretary Mairi Gougeon 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. The scarcity of a skilled workforce in agriculture has never been more apparent.

Discussions are underway with government officials to gain sustainable long-term funding that will allow the pre-apprenticeship to continue and expand in the future. I hope in time that all the Rings can be involved, and this remarkable scheme can be available across the country.

I am also very encouraged by the recent announcement from Mairi Gougeon that £570,000 will be made available to Lantra for training courses for women and the Next Generation in agriculture. This will help plug the massive shortfall of skilled workers in agriculture, and Ringlink and the other Scottish machinery rings are the ideal partners to deliver that training.

Elsewhere, The Oxford Farming Conference released a report this week by ex supermarket buyer (poacher turned gamekeeper) Ged Futter this week – 'Is the UK Food Supply Chain Broken?' to which the answer would seem to be not quite, but in areas like fresh produce, it is definitely fractured.

The report is well worth a read, pulling in as it does around 40 interviews from business owners across the different sectors of agriculture, and sending out strong messages to growers, packers, retailers, and government. For growers, the first message is that the reward is very often no longer worth the risk, and we need to be certain of our costs and returns before committing to growing.

We also need to be on top of our costs throughout the season. The need for more co-operation amongst growers is alluded to, but not specified, and I would like to have seen more emphasis on it, not from an ideological point of view, but because I believe it is the only way we can have fair negotiations with retailers and packers in the future. Individual growers don’t usually have the time, the volume of production, or the skill set to ensure a profitable return.

Regarding retailers, there is too much to go into depth here, but there is a compelling insight into how the German retailers Aldi and Lidl have affected the incumbents with their low-cost model based on efficient and simple supply lines. The other retailers have a more complex, expensive (for growers) structure, yet have been driven to push for lower costs without ditching the complexity. This includes an audit burden that becomes more complex and distended every year as retailers compete on net zero and environmental targets.

An easy marketing soundbite for a retailer means reams more paperwork, stress, and man hours for a grower. For the UK government, Ged Futter has these damning lines: “I am not going to make any suggestions with regards to what political decisions and actions Government needs to do differently, there are decades of reports written by industry experts that have suggested changes including these reports.”

House of Lords Inquiry into Horticulture 2023 Outcomes from the UK Farm to Fork Summit 2023 Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain 2023 The Government Food Strategy 2022 National Food Strategy 2021 The Agriculture Transition Plan 2020 The Agriculture Act 2020 A Plan for Public Procurement – Food and Catering 2014 UK Food & Drink International Export Action Plan 2014 The Beddington Report – The Future for Food and Farming 2011 The Curry Report – Farming and Food 2002 Add to these the myriad of Scottish reports, inquiries, Acts and food strategies over the past decade, and it starts to feel like there has been enough talking, and perhaps it’s time for a bit of doing.

This could be a case for Mulder and Scully from the X Files, for the Truth is Already Out There. Maybe, just maybe, we will find it in 2024. Happy New Year everyone.