Fit for Scotland: Q&A with Martin Kennedy
Holyrood speaks to Martin Kennedy following his election as the new president of the National Farmers Union Scotland.
Farmers have had a lot to adjust to in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and leaving the European Union, how would you say they have coped?
Farmers and crofters have always been very adaptable, it’s in their DNA. I think this is because, although there is always some form of routine, things like the weather or a change in market demand has meant that they have had to adapt to survive. So, although things like Brexit and COVID have presented some real problems, we know that whatever is in front of us won’t go by us - meaning whatever lies ahead we will simply have to make the best of it.
However, there is one serious difference between the two, Brexit is more of a market issue in terms of how we can either buy or sell products without having too much price interference, so that’s something that’s in our nature to have the ability to deal with. COVID has had much more of an impact on the health and wellbeing of farmers and crofters. The lack of agricultural shows and annual events that for many is their relaxation and social time has definitely had a detrimental impact.
How has NFU Scotland supported its members over the last 12 months?
NFU Scotland has played a huge part in supporting its members over the past 12 months. As soon as the first lockdown was announced last March, we dedicated a specific webpage on our website that kept our members up to date with daily changes announced by the Scottish Government. It was obvious that things like being able to get seasonal workers across to help our soft fruit and veg sector was going to be challenging. We initiated a go to page on our website that tried to match up many people who unfortunately had either lost their job or had been furloughed with those who were looking for people to help out on a farm.
We were also holding weekly - if not daily - meetings with stakeholders right across the industry, including the Scottish Government, to allow us to both feed in what our concerns were and also feed back to our members what the current situation was.
Farmers are renowned for having to adapt to the times. Are farms of the future going to be operated from a laptop or will we continue to see traditional farming?
COVID has forced the use of technology for many businesses into a necessity to survive. NFU Scotland is no exception to that and the way our staff adapted to working from home but still provided a top-quality service is credit to the professionalism of our whole team. In terms of farming from a laptop, that’s already started.
Over the past few years we have been taking more detailed soil samples of our fields, the results of which are transferred to a computer in the tractor which automatically adjusts the rates of inputs going on the land depending on the requirement of each part of the field. This not only helps the soil be more productive, it also allows us to target inputs which delivers huge benefits towards climate change mitigation. That said, there will always be the need for traditional farming practices, particularly in our more rural and challenging areas, but technology will also play its part there.
If you had one big ask of the Scottish Government, what would it be?
My one big ask would be to make sure food production and the environment is a core subject on the national school curriculum. Given that climate change and the environment are consistently at the top of the agenda and we know farmers and crofters will be absolutely key in being part of the solution, why - when every day in life we need a farmer to provide the one thing we cannot do without (food) - are we not teaching this in our schools? There is currently too much false information being bandied about at the moment about how food is produced, much of which relates to food production techniques in other parts of the world that bear no resemblance to how we produce our food here.
If we have learnt anything as we have battled through this dreadful pandemic, it’s the fact that food security is something we should never take for granted, both in terms of having enough of it and how it is grown and reared. In global terms, Scottish food production leads the way when it comes to animal welfare and environmental conditionality. This should be taught truthfully in our schools.
Are you optimistic for the future of Scottish farming?
Absolutely. I am sometimes criticised for being too optimistic, but I firmly believe that we have a fantastic opportunity to showcase Scottish agriculture to the rest of the world. This will be totally dependent on achieving a future agricultural policy that is fit for Scotland. There have been some real issues with Brexit, with trade flows etc, but it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, provided we can address these specific challenges and look at what positives could be achieved from leaving the EU. An obvious one is having a bit more flexibility to design a bespoke future agricultural policy that’s fit for Scotland. Agriculture is devolved and I am not suggesting we can do absolutely anything we want, as there are internal markets to consider, but we should be able to develop a policy that builds on our green credentials, maintains the important critical mass through targeting activity, and ultimately creates a greater demand for our products.
What do you think farming will look like in 20 to 30 years’ time with the onset of climate change?
I am not convinced from the outside that farming will look much different in 20 to 30 years’ time than what it does now. The reason I say this is because as the world population grows there will be an even greater demand for food and areas like Scotland will be in a great position to continually produce food in a sustainable manner.
What will be different, I’m sure, will be how it’s grown or reared. Science and technology continue to move at a remarkable pace, and I’m sure we will probably be looking at things like fully automated soft fruit and veg harvesting, where the requirement for labour will be less, feed additives such as methane inhibitors could be common place, and I am confident that in 30 years’ time Scottish agriculture plc will be carbon positive, so we will be looking at a vibrant profitable industry that everyone will want to be a part of. I did say it’s in my nature to always have my glass half full, unless of course it’s someone else’s round!
During the multiple lockdowns in Scotland, people have turned to all sorts of activities - from yoga and other forms of exercise to taking up cooking or simply drinking more - to cope. What’s been your secret?
I must say yoga isn’t really my scene and I’m also not famous for my cooking skills, but I must admit when it comes to sampling different types of red wine, I have managed to make a little bit of a hole in the cupboard, where we have built up a stock over the years. Nothing special you understand, in fact thinking how long it’s taken me to drink some bottles I’m pretty sure we’ve been the unlucky ones that have landed with the bottles that’s gone round the usual raffles TWICE. I suppose as a farmer there is always something to do, so looking for a job never takes long.
What do you hope to achieve during your time as NFU Scotland president?
As president I have three main goals I would like to achieve. The first is to make sure that we have the correct future agricultural policy in place that fits Scotland. One that not only delivers on climate change mitigation and environmental enhancement, but also keeps at its core the fundamental role of farmers and crofters - food production. My second goal is to have food production and the environment on the national school curriculum, and last but by no means least, my third goal is to increase the membership of NFU Scotland, to increase our ability to lobby in the best interest of our members.