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by Tom Freeman
21 June 2019
Associate feature: Royal Highland Show is a chance to talk about innovation and efficiency

Combine harvester - Image credit: PA Images

Associate feature: Royal Highland Show is a chance to talk about innovation and efficiency

The Royal Highland Show is 179 years old this year, and what started as a platform for Scotland’s farmers to showcase their livestock and wares to each other has grown into a huge event where they can showcase their produce to the whole country.

Over a thousand exhibitors flock to Ingliston with the very latest in agricultural machinery and food and drink.

According to Alan Laidlaw, chief executive of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS), as much as 60 per cent of those visiting the show now come from non-rural backgrounds.

“These people, most of them, want a good day out initially. They want to have fun and enjoy themselves,” he says.

“Lots of them are very interested in food. Our food language has changed probably more significantly in the last ten years than prior to that.”

Laidlaw describes a visit to the show as an “exploration”, where people can discuss their food with the people who produce it.

“You can wander round and speak to people like Angus McDowell.

“Literally his wheat field that produces the wheat for his flour is metres away from his mill. Not food miles. We’re talking metres.

“He is the guy who grew the crop, who built the mill to mill the wheat to bag the flour. He’s at the show.”

However, the show also remains a vital date in the agricultural calendar, where farmers can go to network and share innovations. 

“Because of the mechanisation of farms, it’s less sociable. In some people’s diaries, the show is the first time they’ve been off-farm for months, or it’s the only fixed point in their diary,” says Laidlaw.

RHASS has been collecting stories from farmers and industry partners and one particular story stood out to Laidlaw.

“There’s a lady I’ve known for a few years now, I enjoy her company and got to know her well, and she said she’d been through some really dark days, on three or four different occasions,” he says.

“I didn’t know that about her. She’s looked back, and every time she’s been triggered out of her depression it has been at the Royal Highland Show. Four different occasions.”

Mechanisation is just one factor in which farming continues to change and evolve. For Laidlaw, much of it represents increasing efficiency in the sector.

“In the past, people have applied a negativity to mechanisation, because they assume it’s about scale and about what kind of agriculture we are.

“But ultimately a potato harvester that can harvest lots of acres in a day is just taking the back-breaking horrible work out of agriculture.

“To be honest people don’t really want to do that,” he says.

“People then say that’s a poor part of agriculture, but never complain that they drive a motor car welded by a robot.

“Why would we have a different view on efficiency and making sure our equipment is fit for purpose in agriculture than we would on anything else?

“It’s because we care about our food. I’m delighted that we do.

“I had lunch with a good friend at our house when we were living in East Lothian.

“It was a harvest day and every seven or eight minutes a large tractor with 15 tonnes of wheat on the trailer behind came flying past our window.

“It went to the farm, tipped it off and went back to the combine.

“My friend turned to me and said ‘I’d hate to have his carbon footprint. Look how much diesel he’s burning.’

“And all that. I turned to him and said: ‘Whose carbon footprint is it?’

“I asked: ‘Well, what did you have for your breakfast this morning?’ He’d had Weetabix and toast.

“I said: ‘You don’t get any irony that that might be your carbon footprint?’

“You could see the coin dropping, that this is an outsourced food production model we’ve got.

“The reason the farmer has a high carbon footprint is because he’s feeding thousands of people.”

In a country with an abundance of rain, Laidlaw believes efficiency is the discussion Scottish agriculture needs to be having.

“We are good at growing grass and good at products from grass, whether it’s beef or lamb or milk, whatever it might be.

“We had a young farmers trip that came back from California where people were growing almonds.

“An almond takes 48 inches of water a year to grow, and they’re growing them in California which gets less than an inch of water.”

“So, when choices are all about sustainability and the environment, there’s a reason we always had haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night.

“It’s because it’s seasonal produce of its time that could cope with winter weather. You weren’t having strawberries on Burns Night.

Mechanisation, in the form of renewable heat and carbon dioxide from waste products pumped into polytunnels, now means Scottish strawberries can be bought eight months of the year.

But with farming changing so quickly, there is also an increased awareness of mental health and business resilience. New Zealand author Doug Avery, who wrote seminal book The Resilient Farmer, was brought over by RHASS to speak to Scottish farmers. It became a sell-out national tour.

Avery’s message about being open to change, having an entrepreneurial growth mindset and making sure you have a support network proved so popular farmers were “getting agitated” for tickets.

Knowledge transfer and awarding innovation is just the latest evolution of the mission the RHASS has to support rural communities.

“It’s all about being open to change. I’ve always said that ‘aye been’, the farming expression of ‘we’ve always done it like that’, is one of our biggest risks,” says Laidlaw.

Of course, two factors at the top of the political agenda now mean change is gathering apace.

The first of those is Brexit. Laidlaw says the uncertainty around the sector’s future has become “wearing”.

“If it was an event and it had happened, we’d know where we were,” he suggests.

“I heard a farmer talking a wee while ago, around the Article 50 time, and he said ‘Look, I am sewing crops today with fertiliser I bought 18 months ago to feed an animal that’s not yet born yet, that will be born in the post-Brexit world.’”

Brexit has also prompted the suggestion of a lowering of food standards to allow trade deals with countries like the USA.

“A back door to lower food standards is not going to help anybody in Scottish agriculture.

“That’s where the discussion becomes ‘I think it’s important I know I’m feeding my kids safe food,’” says Laidlaw.

The other factor is the Scottish Government’s declaration of a climate emergency, but Laidlaw points to the fact Scotland’s climate targets originated in legislation focused on agriculture and land use.

“This is not an event for them, it’s not a crisis that cropped up in 2019, they’ve been talking about it for ages.

“So, a lot of the farming community are well ahead in terms of the efficiency we talked about earlier.”

Where farmers have been forced to make efficiency savings by the market, they have also been improving their environmental footprint, he argues, pointing to the eradication of BVD.

 “People get hung up on certain types of food or agriculture and say it must be organic or it must be vegetarian.

“Actually, importing organic babycorn from Nigeria, that’s going to have a different impact from buying a small piece of beef at the high-quality end from ten miles down the road.”

And with people increasingly aware of food waste, there is no better place to have these conversations than at the Royal Highland Show, Laidlaw suggests.

“If you have got a question about food, why not bring it here and be part of the debate. What better way to influence farmers than talk to them directly?

“When you see someone do something really, really well, whether it’s a pastry chef or a sushi chef or a carpenter or an artist making something beautiful, you get up close and you see what’s behind the effort.

“The Royal Highland Show is a great opportunity to come and see that behind-the-scenes stuff and realise how hard work it is.

“I don’t mean that for anyone to feel sorry for producers, but to understand why you should covet a potato and not chuck it in the bin.”

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