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Next Generation Vice Chairman's Blog - 10 April 2019

A decade is a very short time in farming terms writes Zander Hughes, vice chairman of NFU Scotland’s Next Generation group.

September 2012 saw the first two Forestry and Land Scotland (formerly Forestry Commission and Forestry Enterprise Scotland) tenants take up 10-year Limited Duration Tenancies on two units in Fife.

Craig Malone became the tenant of Pitcairn farm, a mixed unit, while myself and my wife Laura became the tenants of an arable farm, South Dundonald.

We have all worked exceptionally hard since then to build viable businesses, with both units farming without any Basic Payment Scheme support until 2015.

Although my family’s unit of South Dundonald farm was not deemed large enough to be considered ‘full time’, we were extremely enthused to make the most of the opportunity when it came to us.

In the seven years since we took up the tenancy, we have implemented a realistic crop rotation, imported a significant amount of organic matter, and have carried out lots of work on the steading to enable grain to be dried and stored.

Due to more than half of the farm being re-instated from opencast coalmining, it has not been without its problems. Half of the farm has now been turned to temporary grass as growing arable crops on it has been unpredictable at best, and an outright failure at worst.

Most of the problems occur from poor drainage which has not been helped by extensive tree planting around the edges of every field on the farm where the drainage system outfalls are. Despite these challenges, and the relatively short tenancy, it has been our mission to leave the farm in better shape than we found it.

In order to meet the financial demands of running the unit, we have significantly diversified our business into agricultural contracting and we now sow in excess of 1,000 acres annually, as well as contract spraying around 10,000 acres. We also have a contract with Frontier Agriculture to carry out mobile seed potato treatment that so far this year has treated around 2,700 tonnes for growers across Scotland.

I am extremely passionate about the contracting side of our business and strongly believe it has big potential in the future as more people within industry turn away from the traditional tenancy model and opt for alternative contract or share farming arrangements instead. In terms of my family’s circumstances, contracting has given us a moveable business in case we have not found another opportunity by the time our LDT comes to an end in 2022.

Finding another opportunity beyond 2022 does, however, remain my first priority, and in order to progress this I have applied to NFU Scotland’s Joint Venture Hub.

I am hugely encouraged by the initiative shown by NFU Scotland in establishing the Joint Venture Hub to act as a matchmaker for those looking for and those offering opportunities. It is my hope that the Joint Venture Hub is supported by all as a means of creating opportunities both for people like myself, as well as for others who are considering retirement or scaling back.

It was stated at the outset of the Starter Farm process that there would be no continuation of the lease after the initial 10-year period, and that by then a tenant should have sufficient capital to move on to a larger opportunity.

The Forestry and Land Scotland policy stated: ‘Our policy is to offer Starter Farms for a defined period with the intention that the successful applicants will be able to build their business experience and capital in that period and then move on at the end of the stated period. The process will begin again to help another new entrant.’

If either Forestry and Land Scotland or the Scottish Government has a plan for the way forward, then I believe this needs to be aired to tenants now to allow time for business planning and restructuring to occur. I along with others now have young families, and we are anxious to plan ahead for their sakes.

In light of the continued chronic shortage of tenancy opportunities, we have asked Forestry and Land Scotland to confirm that 2022 remains the end date of our lease, or if opportunity exists for a renewal. We have been firmly assured that no extension will be given, and that Forestry and Land Scotland wishes to re-start the new entrant process.

To us, this seems to go against the entire vision of the starter farm scheme. If there are no continuation steps available, then the entire starter farm process has been a waste and there seems little point in repeating the process?

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