Scottish Land and Estates Conference: Agriculture Minister speech - 21 May 2024

Speech delivered by Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity Jim Fairlie at the Scottish Land and Estates Annual Conference in Edinburgh on Tuesday 21 May 2024. 

Good afternoon folks. It is my great pleasure to be here today at one of the real highlights of the rural calendar and to speak at your annual conference.

This isn’t actually the first time I have eaten lunch at the Scottish Land and Estates annual conference, or as it used to be called the Scottish Rural Property Business Association.

I can’t quite remember what year it was but it must have been around 2009 when the then Lord Stormont, who is now, as I’m sure you all know, the Earl of Mansfield, was my Contract Farm agreement partner on Kindrum Park Farm in Logiealmond.

It started as a 2000 ewe and 36 cow contract, which we then increased  to 2200 ewes and 75 cows, where we fattened everything ourselves and kept a more or less closed flock and a closed herd.

I had started the first farmers market in Perth and had also been selling lamb to my brothers 2 Michelin Star restaurant in Gleneagles when I was a shepherd at Glenearn Estate. And I carried that on when I took on the contract at Kindrum Park and it was for that reason that my brother and I were asked by Suzanne Urquart on behalf of the then Lord Stormont, to come and speak at your conference to talk about short supply chains, direct selling and the relationship between farmers and consumers – something that is incredibly important to me.

So, Andy and I came along and spoke and then had a quite fabulous lunch and very much enjoyed the company of Lord Stormont and a few of his friends, where we debated how to put the world to rights. That included tackling the power of supermarkets, getting more local produce into public procurement, building strong relationships between the public and farming and shouting very loudly about the quality and provenance of our fabulous Scottish brand.

What we discussed then was vitally important for that time and is every bit as important today, so the theme of resilience may be what is in the title today, but Scottish Land and Estates to my mind, have always been about resilience.

That resilience has never been more important to be aware of when we reflect on the challenges of Brexit with all its gifts, from shortages in the labour market to export and import costs and the burdens of bureaucracy that didn’t exist before. The Pandemic has changed people’s behaviour and led to incredible pressures on businesses trying to bounce back.

Unpredictable, changing weather patterns and how we are all having to adapt to our new realities.

Whether that is in legislative changes, market volatility, land use changes, war in Europe and the potential for a Trump administration, things undoubtedly feel less secure now than they have done for as long as I can remember.

Weather has and always will be a key component of rural working. We have all had to manage that, but it’s clear that things are changing on that front as well.

The recent storms and flooding have caused real damage in many of our communities both on farmland and in towns. We have seen houses, businesses and crops wrecked by floods, and there is no doubt the cost of living crisis has hurt many businesses across rural and island Scotland.

But it is those Rural businesses that will play a vital role in overcoming these challenges - and in building a prosperous, wellbeing economy across Scotland.

This was underlined by the findings of the recent Scottish Land and Estates report on the contribution of rural estates to Scotland’s wellbeing economy. The report found that rural estates generate around £2.4 billion annually in gross value added for the Scottish economy – supporting around 1 in 10 rural jobs.

Therefore, all of you in this room today have a vital role in ensuring a prosperous economic future and the oft used phrase, a just transition to net zero. That’s why the resilience of Scotland’s rural and island businesses and communities are a top priority for me.

Food security, it wasn’t a much used phrase in our language when I was growing up, because food has always been plentiful. And that goes without saying doesn’t it?.

 And with the behemoth buying power and global reach of supermarkets, supply lines have always been filled. Food scarcity used to mean that they had run out of Pringles, or maybe didn’t have the cereal we really liked despite their being ten other choices on the shelf. That’s what folk thought about as food security.

But we have all seen how quickly that can be disrupted, and it is why we must ensure we have food security right here in Scotland.

Clearly, it is farmers and crofters who are pivotal to that food security and feeding our nation, but also for driving our rural economy and ensuring that the industry can deliver not only world-renowned food and drink but also for our climate and nature outcomes.

Our Vision for Agriculture sets out how the Government will support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. 

And the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, represents a significant milestone in reforming our support systems. The Bill provides Scotland with a future framework that will support farmers and crofters to meet our immediate and long term food needs sustainably, to adapt to new opportunities and to the challenges. And to make the changes required to ensure that agriculture continues to play its part in cutting emissions, mitigating climate change, and enhancing nature and biodiversity.

Now I couldn’t possibly talk about this section on food production, alongside enhancing and restoring nature without mentioning the phenomenal work being done by your Chair Dee Ward. If you don’t already, check out his Twitter feed to see some brilliant videos about biodiversity he has created and encourages up at Rottal. And use that as a marketing tool as to how these two seemingly competing aims of growing food and climate and nature restoration can go hand in hand.

Making that co-existence the new narrative in the public psyche is for me, a vital ingredient in our long term success. It is through co-developing measures and regulations with our rural partners that we ensure the powers sought in this Bill are best used.

I know that sounds like jargon but it means something. It means that the industry are absolutely at the heart of the development of policy, so we are doing with the industry, not to the industry, and that is vital.

We take this approach because it is how we will ensure support will work for our farmers, crofters and land-managers and that they are on board with what it is we are trying to do. The voice of SLE is one we are very keen to hear from.

With the first changes to agricultural support coming from 2025, we have set out a road map of change, providing clarity, a clear timeline that shows the structure of the future support framework, how and when current schemes are likely to change, and when new measures will come into effect.

It also includes information on the support available to businesses to begin to plan now.

These first changes from 2025 include:

  • A new calving interval of 410 days measured on an individual animal basis added to the Scottish Suckler Beef Support Scheme, to help cut emissions intensity and make beef production more efficient.
  • The introduction of the first Whole Farm Plan conditions which require farmers and crofters to complete two baselining activities from a list of options including carbon audits, biodiversity audits, soil analysis, the creation of animal health and welfare plans or integrated pest management plans.
  • New conditions for peatlands and wetlands under Good Agricultural Environmental Conditions (GAEC) 6 of Cross Compliance to help protect vital carbon stores.

We need everyone to get involved and start preparing for change. And with support available now as Part of Preparing for Sustainable Farming, for conducting, carbon audits, soil analysis and conducting animal health and welfare measures, I would urge all famers and crofters to take advantage of this support to prepare for 2025. The route map will continue to be updated to ensure our farmers and crofters have time and resources to prepare for future changes that will be introduced in the coming years.

Crofting plays a vital role in retaining people in rural and island communities, and we need to continue to protect crofting for the benefit of future generations. Each year the Scottish Government approves and provides crofting businesses with over £40 million through various support schemes that help crofters maximise the full potential of their crofts, generate economic activity and help prevent rural and island depopulation.

As many of you may know, officials have been working on proposals for crofting law reform since 2022.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank the very helpful contribution provided by Scottish Land and Estates through the Crofting Bill Group - with particular thanks to Jackie McCreery and Alan Balfour. The proposals being considered cover a number of key areas and priorities and we hope to be making an announcement regarding the next phase of this work in the next couple of weeks.

One sector of the rural economy that is growing is Agritourism, which undoubtedly has a sustainable future delivering a high quality, authentic visitor experience with agriculture and food and drink at its core.  It helps encourage young people to stay in the rural communities where they grew up, and keeps multiple generations of farming families on the farm and in employment.

And it is not just about agriculture – a successful agritourism sector has a knock on effect of helping other local businesses to prosper. The Scottish Government’s commitment to the growth of Agritourism is clear from our £443,000 of support for the Agritourism Monitor Farm Programme.

I was delighted to hear that Scotland has been announced, last week, as the successful bidder to host the Global Agritourism Conference in 2026. It is expected that it will attract up to 1000 delegates from across the world, giving us a golden opportunity to showcase the sector and encourage investment. Huge congratulations should go to the absolute dynamo that is Caroline Millar for the energy enthusiasm and sheer hard graft she puts in for the agritourism sector.

Developing a more skilled workforce in rural areas directly contributes to the Scottish Government’s ambition to build a fair, green and growing economy. But rural Scotland faces skills shortages, with an ageing population and a shrinking labour force. Vacancies have become harder to fill for many rural businesses threatening future economic prosperity. As I said, Brexit is the gift that just keeps on giving.

But we are acting to address these challenges. The independent Commission for the Land Based Learning Review reported in January 2023, and we have accepted or accepted ‘in principle’ all 22 of its recommendations.

And acting on these recommendations will help attract and equip more people with the skills and knowledge needed to work in the land-based and aquaculture sectors. And our funding for Lantra Scotland helps to promote the diverse and rewarding careers available in our land-based, aquaculture and environmental conservation sectors.

I had the great pleasure of attending the Lantra Awards earlier this year and it was brilliant to see the enthusiasm and energy of the next generation setting out on their careers in rural Scotland. Sometimes it’s good for the soul to take a look at what is happening to give you optimism for the future, and so many of those young folk gave me great optimism.

The Scottish Government’s Knowledge Transfer Innovation Fund also helps support industry projects that bring rural skills and innovation from concept into on-farm reality. With previous KTIF projects, we have seen how the support of innovation and knowledge transfer can inspire farmers and crofters to stay connected and develop resilience against challenges facing the agriculture sector. I am delighted, therefore, to announce that this year’s KTIF will open for applications later this week and look forward to seeing the projects that come forward.

More widely, we’re doing as much as we can to support businesses in our rural and island communities, including through a strong Non Domestic Rates relief package, maintaining in Scotland the most generous small business rates relief of any UK nation.

And in the Scottish Budget we announced a new 100% non-domestic rates relief for hospitality businesses located on islands in recognition of the challenges these businesses face, capped at £110,000 per ratepayer. Our rural enterprise agencies - and in particular, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and South of Scotland Enterprise - have a key role to play in addressing the challenges faced by our rural and island communities.

Over £82 million has been allocated to Highlands and Islands Enterprise and South of Scotland Enterprise in 2024/25 to support their work and help them unlock the full economic potential of their regions. They provide specialist expertise, training and funding to help businesses adapt and better respond to economic opportunities and challenges.

They also support the development of infrastructure to help businesses remain in their local area and to employ more people. They support community wealth building through building community capacity and capability, and developing community assets.

The enterprise agencies are working closely with Government and other partners to resolve issues that present a barrier to communities and business growth, such as digital connectivity, transport and local housing provision. They are actively involved in the Regional Economic Partnerships in their areas and in developing and delivering regional economic strategies.

Now we know that the contribution that our islands make to Scotland is immeasurable. In response to a public consultation held at the end of last year, we have recently announced that work will now commence on a second iteration of the National Islands Plan, to be published in 2025.

We will place a new focus on ensuring our investments address priorities identified through our work with local communities, to tackle challenges together and fully support their ambitions.

For this reason, I want to emphasise the important role you all have to play. We want you to help us shape and inform those plans.

In March, we introduced the Land Reform Bill, which aims to ensure that the benefits of land ownership, and decisions about how it is owned, managed and used, are more widely shared, including in ways that support the development of rural businesses.

We want Scotland to have a strong and dynamic relationship between its land and its people, and to be a nation where rights and responsibilities in relation to land are understood by all, and its natural capital are fully recognised and fulfilled.

This Bill is based on a substantial body of work carried out by the Scottish Land Commission, and has been informed by consultation and engagement. We will obviously to continue to engage with Scottish Land and Estates as the Bill progresses through Parliament. 

So to conclude - the importance of land-based and other businesses across rural and island Scotland cannot be understated.

Only if you succeed, can we build a prosperous, wellbeing economy.

Only if you prosper, can we achieve a just transition to a new, world-leading green economy.

And only if you remain resilient, can we preserve the viability of our rural and island communities.

As the First Minister set out last week, child poverty is a scourge that a country as wealthy as ours should not be dealing with. But we are, so that has to change. We all have a moral imperative to do so. But it also just makes good sense both in the health of our nation, the capabilities of our people and the prosperity of our businesses.

That combination of John Swinney and Kate Forbes are a formidable force for good. And they are crystal clear that you cannot tackle the problem of child poverty without building a strong and resilient economy. And the First Minister’s government is a firmly pro-business administration that will tackle these difficult and complex issues, and that you are a vital partner in that quest .

I could not agree more ladies and gentlemen, and I can assure you I am with you every step of the way.

Thank you.

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