National Farmers Union Scotland annual general meeting: speech by Mairi Gougeon

Keynote speech delivered by Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands Mairi Gougeon at the virtual National Farmers Union Scotland annual general meeting and annual conference on 11 February 2022.

Martin, thank you for that warm welcome and for inviting me to address your members at the Annual General Meeting of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland. 

I’m as disappointed as you all are not to be meeting in person – but thankfully it does seem that we are now emerging from the worst of the pandemic.  Here’s hoping that this progress continues well into the Spring and that we can at least look forward to gathering for a Royal Highland Show in June, and regional and local shows and events throughout the summer. 

We all know how important it has been to keep food on the shelves – and with supply issues and now rising costs, how challenging that has been.  On behalf of everyone in the Scottish Government, I want to say thank you first and foremost to you all for keeping the nation fed.  There are few bright spots from this pandemic, but one has been seeing people appreciate food and where it comes from more.

Farmers and crofters produce great food all over Scotland, and this government is absolutely committed to supporting sustainable food production now and in the future.

I know there have been some unhelpful supply issues related to red meat in some of our supermarkets, but by challenging constructively – and I want to reassure you that in my dealings with the major food retailers, I do impress upon them the need to support and stock Scottish produce - we can ensure that they support our shared agenda to ensure Scottish people get to enjoy the best that our natural larder has to offer. 

That’s good for business, it’s good for the environment and it is good for the nation.  And I am proud to be leading the work to make Scotland a Good Food Nation and pass into law groundbreaking measures that will help ensure that people can enjoy more locally sourced, locally produced healthy, nutritious food.

Ensuring that we produce more of our food more sustainably sits at the heart of the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture.  Last week, I was delighted to visit one of the local craft butchers in my constituency to help promote QMS’s new steak guide.  Initiatives like this are key to helping reach new generations of customers and I will always welcome the opportunity to support the promotion of the food produced here in Scotland.

High quality, nutritious food locally and sustainably produced is key to our wellbeing – in economic, environmental, social and health terms.  So a core aim of this government is to support and work with farmers and crofters to meet more of our own food needs sustainably.  Now and in the future, we remain committed to supporting active farming and food production with direct payments.

We will support you to contribute to our Good Food Nation ambitions and Local Food strategy, particularly to create more localised supply chains, enhance producer value and cut food miles.

But we also want to support you to farm and croft with nature.  And we cannot ignore the urgent need to tackle the climate and nature crises – and I know you are already playing your part in this.

Since 2015, we have invested around £243 million through the Agri-Environment Scheme to support many of you to protect and enhance biodiversity, restore nature, improve soil and water quality and to mitigate climate change.

I have already announced that we will run a new round of AECS in 2022 and it is my intention to offer future rounds of the scheme up to and including 2024, subject to budgetary availability.  We have also recently approved all eligible environmental management AECS applications received last year, committing a further £26 million over the next five years.

These approvals contribute to the PfG commitment to double the area of organic land over the next five years and mean that the organic land receiving support has increased by a fifth.

We are committed to seeing more organic farming and organic produce for sale in Scotland, and working with the sector to develop a national strategy.  

But the priority right now is to support more of you to cut emissions and contribute more to our climate change targets.

There is no doubt that there are long term challenges here.  But there are also potential “quick wins”.  There are things that can be done now that will show a difference in the short term to emissions from agriculture.

For example, simply by covering slurry stores more effectively, we can meet 12% of the 1MT of the emissions reductions that has already been identified as achievable through the work of the Farmer Led Groups which met last year and by government analysts.

I firmly believe this IS achievable – we already know what we have to do and we have the tools to do so. 

So, to help with this, I can announce today that the whole of the current year’s Agriculture Transformation Fund of £5 million will provide funding to farmers, crofters and – for the first time - agricultural contractors to assist in purchasing low emission slurry spreading equipment and slurry store covers that are proven to reduce adverse impacts on water quality resulting from the storage and spreading of livestock slurry and digestate.

With the Scottish budget passed by Parliament yesterday, the scheme will open in April this year with applications due to be submitted towards the end of May. 

Given the supply issues that I know many farmers and crofters faced in the SACGS 2020 pilot the aim is to have a claims period that is as long as possible before a deadline of the end of February 2023.

We want applications to be on-line only through a purpose built system that should enable a straight forward application process and speedier assessment leading to an early issue of award letters.

I encourage everyone who can update their spreading equipment and improve their slurry storage to apply for a grant. 

We know how important animal health and welfare is to productivity and also, to the profitability of your business.  And I know from the involvement I have had in working with our Chief Vet and animal health team to support farmers affected by notifiable disease outbreaks, just how distressing such rare incidences are – for farmers but also their families.  No one ever wants to see the animals they care for, day in, day out, in all weathers, suffer.

But improving the wellbeing of livestock and reducing the impact of endemic diseases is also crucial for tackling climate change. 

Livestock that are ill produce more greenhouse gases, so the more we can do to eradicate diseases, the more we can do to cut emissions. Improved livestock health will contribute a further 11% to our identified 1 MT of reduced emissions.

I can therefore announce today, that the Scottish Government will work with industry to develop a nationwide control strategy for Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome or PRRS.

PRRS is one of the most economically significant endemic diseases of pigs in Scotland. It is estimated to cost the pig industry in Scotland approximately £3 million a year, around £80 per sow, £3.50 per finished pig, or typically £40,000 for a 500-sow herd per year. Research suggests that 40% of pig units in Scotland have tested positive for the virus.

Through our Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund, we provided just over £73,000 to develop a control plan on infected PRRS units on the Moray Coast.  Activity there focussed on testing and mapping; on raising awareness of good biosecurity; co-ordinating the sharing of information to communicate where disease was present; and allowing farmers to work accordingly to control the risks of spread through vaccination on farm.  It really was that simple and the results from that were remarkable – by the end of the project, the Moray Coast only had one PRRS-positive unit and vaccination was being used to control the disease.

So a similar approach to this project on a national scale has the potential to make significant strides towards eradicating PRRS entirely from Scotland.  One final benefit will be the decrease in antibiotic usage as a result of healthier herds – again, helping your bottom line and creating more resilient livestock.

Ultimately, however, we need to also enable all farmers and crofters to take action to tackle climate and change and cut emissions. 

I announced at your autumn conference that we would develop a National Test Programme.

Work to develop the detail of that programme has continued throughout the winter, with ARIOB providing essential scrutiny, challenge and oversight to those proposals.

And I cannot emphasise enough how much I appreciate the time, energy and expertise that the ARIOB members are contributing to our deliberations. 

With your President co-chairing the board with me, and the NFUS Policy Director, Johnny Hall, playing a critical role on the policy development group that works closely with officials – the NFUS is absolutely at the heart of co-designing and developing the actions that will transform farming for the future. 

But every member is playing their part and this speaks to our Vision for the Future of Agriculture – that we will work with and alongside, farmers, crofters and land managers, as well as wider stakeholders to deliver on our shared objectives.

The National Test Programme marks the start of a process to develop policy, regulatory and support mechanisms which deliver emissions reductions in line with our climate targets, and contribute to wider government objectives and priorities, particularly in relation to our net zero ambitions.

Track One of the Programme starts this Spring and will be supported with some of the £51 million funding already announced over the course of the next three years.

Track One will provide funding to support more of you to carry out carbon audits.  So far, so familiar. 

Already we estimate that at least 3000 carbon audits have been funded or supported by the Scottish Government.  If you are one of these 3000, thank you.

I know from talking with some of you that undertaking an audit produced results you did not expect and caused you to change some of your practices  - in some cases, practically overnight! 

If you are yet to undertake a carbon audit, now is your opportunity – please take up the offer of funding that will shortly be available.  Crucially, please act upon what you learn. 

It will help you cut emissions, it will help you improve your efficiency, and it should also help your profitability in the longer term.

But we have also been working on the other elements of Track One.  This has been the subject of impassioned and informed debate at ARIOB.

What else we offer is also supported by emerging but also longstanding evidence.

Healthy soils produce more, and produce it more sustainably and they can also help sequester carbon.

So the other key element in Track One will provide funding to support soil sampling and analysis including soil carbon analysis, to support nutrient management plans.

In order to ensure that we make the soil analysis meaningful and flexible enough to meet the range of farming systems across Scotland, we’ll be looking at creating an allowance for each business, looking at around £30 a hectare for each hectare of region one land.

There will be one final element in Track One of the Programme.

It  will include an opportunity for every suckler beef farm in Scotland to receive a livestock performance programme.

Detailed proposals and more information on how you can participate will be published in the coming weeks.

But I urge all of you now to please consider getting involved, applying for the funding, and to take part.

The sooner we have every farm and croft in Scotland assessing their current carbon footprint and the status of their soil, the sooner change can start to happen to improve both and contribute to a more sustainable future for the industry.

Because one of the aims in the Vision is to support you to take a whole farm approach to reducing emissions and environmental impact.  That underpins the approach to Track One of the National Test Programme.

A further aim is to help you to improve business resilience, efficiency and productivity, including through adoption and deployment of technology and innovation.

For centuries, generations of Scottish farmers have been adapting and innovating.  Every time I visit a farm or a croft I see and hear about this first hand. 

Earlier this week I was delighted to attend AgriScot to hear about innovation, knowledge exchange and best practice for the farming industry and recognise the finalists of the farm of the year awards.  The finalists were all selected because each of their farms and farming businesses are all trail blazing, innovative, or simply an example of a farm being operated to its optimum potential.  

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with the finalists.  The Logans of Holehouse Farm winning the dairy category, Lamont and Daniel Hair of Drumbreddan winning the beef, Preston Hall winning arable, Saughland winning sheep, Graeme and Louise Nicoll winning diversified farm of the year and Emily Mosley winning the business skills. 

Huge congratulations to them all and I hope that they will all be willing to share in their secrets to help others learn and thrive.

That process of sharing knowledge, skills and good ideas that work matters hugely to the well-being of the industry.

There are already many farmers and crofters doing fantastic work to help tackle climate change and farm more sustainably.

Earlier this year, I announced a new Agriculture, Biodiversity and Climate Change Network to help more Scottish farmers and crofters to share and learn from best practice to mitigate climate change.

Today, I can announce that there will be a new 5 year Monitor Programme to deliver outcomes aligned to Scottish Government and sector priorities.

The Scottish Monitor Farm Programme has significant credibility in its long history with improving knowledge exchange and community cooperation and collaboration throughout the life span of their previous programmes.   I want that to continue to help shape farming’s future. 

The new programme will involve detailed data collection, and enhancing knowledge, skills, and competence through collaborative industry buy-in. 

In particular the programme is expected to provide the information that is essential for driving Scotland’s food and drink sector forward, through strengthening rural economies and meeting Scotland’s climate change targets. 

And while innovation is key to the future of farming, so is resilience, and in particular, the resilience of the sectors which provide crucial support.

Vets are one such support.  And for a range of reasons – Brexit among them – the availability of vets, particularly in rural areas and who support large animal practice, is in short supply.

Brexit has placed particular pressure on the service currently operated by Food Standards Scotland to support the work of our abattoirs and meat processors.  Yet, there can be no “farm to fork” without their oversight and support – they are absolutely critical to the food process.

Put simply, we do not have enough of the right people with the right qualifications, yet we can create a more resilient approach and create opportunity for more young people in Scotland to want to pursue rewarding careers in veterinary, animal health and food safety services.

This was the premise behind this government’s manifesto commitment to create a new Scottish Veterinary Service that can meet all our needs across the public and private sector for land and marine based animal health.

I want to thank former Chief Veterinary Officer Charles Milne for his report reviewing current provision, and for his recommendations on what we might change and achieve with a Scottish Veterinary Service.

And because of the critical role that vets and other animal health professionals play in your working lives, I can share with you first that I have given the green light for a new Scottish Veterinary Service to be progressed.

The Service will replace the animal health and welfare functions currently delivered by the Animal and Plant Health Agency in Scotland. We will explore whether official controls in meat establishments by FSS, aquatic animal health services by Marine Scotland, and animal heath enforcement by Local Authorities should also be delivered by a Scottish Veterinary Service (SVS).

To help progress matters, we will create a Programme Board, inviting representatives of the organisations involved in the delivery and enforcement of animal health and welfare and food safety. The Board will be responsible for assessing what functions the SVS should have, and what format they may take.

A Stakeholder Working Group will feed into the Programme Board and I hope the NFUS will get involved in that. 

This will present some exciting opportunities to focus on what is best for Scotland. There will also be challenges along the way, but I am confident that a model designed specifically around the needs of Scotland will deliver efficiencies and an enhanced service, within the lifetime of this Scottish Parliament.

Creating a Scottish Veterinary Service will help your industry to flourish. 

Diversity will also help your industry to flourish.   This government is committed to a radical programme of reform during this Parliament to help make the industry more diverse. 

We will reform the law and develop crofting to create more active crofts.

We will also seek to remove barriers to tenant farming – and work is already underway to achieve this. 

We have already refreshed the food tourism action plan, and worked with the agri tourism sector led ably by Caroline Millar to develop its first every growth strategy.

We are committed to providing support for new and young entrants – building on the success and the lessons we can learn from the support that Scotland, alone in all 4 nations in the UK, put in place under the last CAP programme.

And we are providing more support for women in agriculture. 

Today is International Women in Science Day, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge the significant contribution women with science backgrounds are making in Scottish farming today.

Scotland’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Sheila Voas;  the recently appointed Chair of Scotland Food and Drink, Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne; all the women contributing to their experience and expertise on ARIOB; the Chair of Quality Meat Scotland, Kate Rowell; and of course, the newly appointed Chief Executive of QMS, Sarah Millar.

Of course, I cannot allow the upcoming retirement of the outgoing Chief Executive, Alan Clarke, to go unremarked.  I want to thank Alan for his service and contribution, for all his work to bring about change and to set the agency fair for the future – not least in reforming the approach to quality assurance which brings the scheme, the talent and the opportunity involved in this, home to Scotland through the awarding of the contract to the new SAOS venture. 

But while we have many noteworthy women already working in and contributing to Scottish farming and crofting, I hope we can agree that there is room for more to do.

We had already established the Women in Agriculture Practical Training Fund, being delivered by LANTRA Scotland, to provide opportunities for practical skills development – in everything from tractor skills to sheep dog training to hedge planting.

I can announce today that we are extending the Fund to include the Wider Rural Economy and that funding will be increased to £165,000.

While we know that there are more women who want to play their part in active farming, making that investment in their skills also has wider impact to the sustainability and resilience of farm businesses in the long term.

The statistics show that many farm and croft businesses in Scotland are family affairs.  And I am acutely aware that inflation is putting farm incomes under even greater strain – it’s not just households that face rising energy costs and a cost of living crisis. 

These stresses affect your businesses too. 

And more than many other sectors, you are already experiencing the negative impacts of Brexit first hand through labour shortages and trade barriers – these in particular are affecting our previously burgeoning fruit and vegetable producers, and of course, our export of our world renowned seed potatoes.

So while we must prepare for the future, we must also focus on the present. 

And I want to assure you that this government will always be on your side. 

This government will not remove direct payments.

I have also committed to maintaining basic payments at current levels for the duration of this Parliament. 

I also promised to get 2021 support payments to your bank accounts at the earliest opportunity – we are delivering on that. 

Basic payments were started in December at the earliest ever point, providing £363 million of support to date.

LFASS payments started in January with £50 million paid so far.

Suckler beef support payments worth £41 million will be started  in April.

Sheep support payments worth around £7 million will be started in May.

Finally, Scotland’s pig sector has dealt with unprecedented challenges in recent years, with pig farmers facing difficulties through no fault of their own.

The Scottish Government has listened carefully to our pig farmers and we have understood the importance of acting now.

As such, last August we launched the Pig Producers Hardship Support Scheme.

This scheme provided £715,000 of funding to producers who had been affected by the temporary closure of the Quality Pig Processors plant at Brechin and the loss of the plant’s export licence to China.

Recognising that pressures on farm have not gone away, and that severe difficulties remain for our pig producers, I decided to extend the Scheme to continue to support the sector.

I can advise that this scheme is now live and allows eligible pig farmers across Scotland to apply for funding worth over £680,000.

I would encourage all eligible producers to apply for this additional funding as soon as possible.

But I want to give all eligible farmers and crofters more assurance about payments.

For the last two years we have produced a payment strategy in order to offer certainty to the industry.  I will publish our 2022 payment strategy at the earliest possible opportunity but be assured that we will seek to maintain the current approach on timing of payments.  

This year the SAF window will open on the 15 March, and will close on the 16 May.  But with one key difference. This year will be the first to be entirely online.

I appreciate that this may be challenging for the very small number of applicants who previously submitted their SAF on paper but there will be support available to help with this transition including one-to-one assistance from RPID area office staff.

Maintaining support provides vital stability and certainty but by making the payments process more resilient now helps us to create a support system in the future that is founded on a robust and coherent framework. 

That framework will ultimately seek to do three things – deliver high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration.

You are already working with us to imagine the future that will achieve this.  NFUS and its members are key partners on this journey of change. 

I want to thank you for all that you are doing and contributing to this journey. 

And it is only by continuing to work together that we will be able to  transform how we support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. 

And crucially, ensure that farming, crofting and land management continues to play an important role in maintaining thriving rural and island communities all across Scotland in the future.

Back to top