President Martin Kennedy address to Autumn Conference

Address by President Martin Kennedy to NFU Scotland Autumn Conference in Dunfermline, 26 October 2023. 

Where are we with future policy? 

Many people ask us what is coming down the track as we’re not getting told the details.  Some of it, as you have heard, is beginning to emerge, but the fact remains that we still do not have the final details.  All we do know is there will be further change and we will be asked to do more. 

That change, however must tie in with what NFU Scotland’s priorities are, These focus around our eight key priority themes which include, in no specific order whatsoever:

  • Future funding
  • Rural economy
  • Better regulation
  • Public Engagement
  • Fairer supply chains
  • Effective conservation
  • Climate change
  • Optimal land use. 

There’s a lot in there, but if we get all of these priorities right and in line with our thinking, then not only will farming and crofting be in a better place, but Scottish Government will be much better placed to meet their own targets. 

This is the very reason we remain engaged with government to make sure we influence the decisions made that will avoid a cliff edge situation.

Today doesn’t give near enough time to talk about all of these in detail, However, I would like to reference how important a number of them are and how important the integration of these themes within the recently published Agriculture and Rural communities bill are.

First of all, a few comments on the bill itself, many have commented on the fact that it isn’t just an Agriculture Bill; it is also about rural communities.  My answer to that is you can forget about rural communities if you do not have a vibrant farming and crofting sector. So, I am quite happy to see the relevance of rural communities on the face of this bill. What we must remember is this is a framework bill that enables powers to be flexible enough to adapt to any situation at any given time. Given the current global scene, that flexibility must remain to allow for example an even greater focus on food production where this is deemed necessary. So, in that respect we must make sure that the broad spectrum that this bill covers is not derailed and tampered with that in any way detracts the focus away from food production.

I mentioned the lack of detail which will inevitably come as part of the secondary legislation, this is when we need to pay the greatest attention as there will be some out there who will want this to be either too prescriptive or indeed have far too much focus on the environment to the detriment of not only the viability of farming and crofting businesses but actually to the environment itself. 

We often talk about our industry’s ability to adapt, but it shouldn’t only be ourselves that should adapt to the current situation.  Scottish Government should also adapt and listen to those who know better through generations of experience how our landscape and environment ticks. As an industry we have adapted over the years to numerous situations and problems that have been thrown in front of us. Right now, these situations and problems are numerous, whether that’s to do with climate change, increased retailer pressure on primary producers, being asked to do more on a diminishing budget or simply the disconnect we now have between our consumers and ourselves.

Not that many decades ago we were seen as the most important part of society as we were providing the one thing that we cannot do without, wholesome nutritious food. 

So, what’s changed? 

You could simply say that it’s how we value food that has changed and to a large degree this is correct as we now, on average, only spend 14 per cent of our income on food. That is the lowest in Europe and the third lowest in the world.

That is a shocking statistic given how we pride ourselves on our production standards and fully justifies our demand that food production is put at the centre of future agricultural policy, underpinning the wider economy, rural communities, climate action and nature restoration.

A sustainable and profitable agricultural industry is key to Scotland’s ambitions, an issue we discussed in detail with the First Minister this week, and having the appropriate powers in place to deliver the necessary level of support is a crucial factor in that. On that front it is absolutely essential that we continue to lobby the UK government at every opportunity to highlight the necessity of our ask for that increased multi annual budget for agriculture. And I ask you cabinet secretary as we did on Tuesday of the First Minister to do the same.

Understanding rural Scotland is equally important but yet again we are challenged by a growing number of experts and academics who do not fully understand how the Scottish landscape works and operates. This is a very dangerous situation, and we are now seeing the error of not listening to those who have generations of practical experience in managing our countryside.

The recent extreme flooding has hit lives and livelihoods as numerous homes, business properties, livestock and crops have been lost. That pales into insignificance in comparison to the tragic loss of life we have also seen, and I know all our thoughts and wishes are with those families who have been affected. 

Up to around 30 years ago, right across the country, we would regularly remove gravel and silt from strategic pinch points on our rivers. That river management was always seen as routine and required maintenance, and in many cases, the material removed was either replaced in the flood banks or indeed recycled for another use which made perfect sense.

Not only did this protect valuable high value crops, but it helped enormously in protecting towns and villages from flooding. This was, of course, at no cost to the taxpayer. 

In 1992, fellow farmers and I were stopped from removing gravel that had built up close to General Wade’s Bridge in Aberfeldy (built in 1733) because of the presence of freshwater mussels – mussels that had adapted and thrived for decades previously alongside the active river management that took place. The impact of that inability to actively manage the river was apparent to the whole community in the recent storms.

When you look at photos of that bridge from 1929 and 7 October 2023, the question now arises will Wades Bridge still be there in another 30 years’ time if we don’t act now and allow active river management. 

Of course, it is not just infrastructure that has been impacted, many millions of pounds have been lost in valuable crops that have been destroyed. 

Here lies the problem we have a very limited amount of this type of productive land in Scotland yet from an economic perspective it punches way above its weight. One per cent of our land yet 16 per cent of agricultural output. Again, this is our fault on two fronts. 

Firstly, inactivity on river management and secondly, which we warned about constantly is the situation we now have with the exponential increase in numbers of beavers. 

We now have real evidence showing their impact on areas where there was never the issue of flood bank blow outs prior to their reintroduction.

We have now come to the point where we simply cannot afford to have any of these rodents present in areas of productive land, end of.

Biodiversity is something that we all like to see and many species have adapted to management and management has always been in the best interest of balance for so many positive reasons. However reintroducing species and over protecting others does nothing for the managed balance that’s in everyone’s interest. Now is the time to listen to those in the know on what is best for rural Scotland, not those who are in the dark.

Cabinet Secretary, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am still optimistic about our future but to achieve all our goals we must be heard and let the industry lead the way. Food production delivers so much more than food.

Thank you.

Author: Martin Kennedy

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About The Author

Martin Kennedy

Martin is a tenant farmer in Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire and farms with his wife Jane and three daughters. They have 600 ewes and 60 cows on the farm rising from 800ft to 2,500ft. Martin served two years as Highland Perthshire Branch chair, before representing East Central region on the LFA committee in 2009. Martin went on to be Vice-Chair before chairing the committee for three years. He was elected Vice-President in 2017 and elected as President in 2021.

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