Landlines by Halidon

The saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” occurred to me when I read that NFU Scotland is going to focus on more effective communication with its 10,000 or so members.

At present the union uses its own monthly magazine, trade magazines, emails, its own website, mail shots, texting and social media in its attempts to keep members up to date and to let them know what is being done on their behalf; and, incidentally, as it always argues, for the thousands of farmers who aren’t members.

And let’s not forget the many local newspapers throughout Scotland with farming pages or the fact that Scotland, now almost alone in any area of the UK, still has four daily newspapers with regular farming sections.

Yet – and this is my interpretation of the feelings of NFU office-holders and headquarters staff, not a quote from their official statement – they get the feeling that many farmers still do not know what is going on in their industry or what the union is trying to do in its dealings with the Scottish Government, Westminster, Europe, the world.

How about another saying? The planner asks: “I wonder what would happen if…” The plodder says: “I wonder what’s happening?” The plonker exclaims: “How the hell did that happen?”

I believe that the plonker category, with much the same membership I suspect as the group that the NFU believes isn’t getting its message no matter how they try to put it out, is a small one.

But not as small as it should be because no matter how far farming has developed in the past 20, 30 or 40 years there are those who will always be taken by surprise by a moving world. I’ve been at NFU meetings, college and other conferences, and farming open days where a subject that has been discussed, debated and written about for weeks or months still comes as a surprise to some participants.

We all know that at busy times of year on farms it can be difficult to keep up with the outside world. Nose to the grindstone isn’t the best position to be in to worry about anything beyond the farm gate.

Less labour on farms, more one-man businesses, the never-ending complexity of rules for form-filling, keeping cattle and sheep, complying with water use and environmental legislation, health and safety and much else all make it difficult to keep up.

That’s why the NFU has tried hard with its website, texts, emails and other modern methods of trying to get an idea as effectively as possible from one brain into another. But if farmers won’t use the technology, or pay attention to it if they do have it, I wonder what else the union can do? Tear its collective hair out? Try carrier pigeons? No, it’s going to carry out a phone survey to ask members what they want done to improve communication. I wish those doing the survey the best of luck.

I sympathise with the union’s feeling that it isn’t getting its message across. For years some of us have said, and many innovative farmers have shown, that there must be less emphasis on farming for the subsidy by complying with, or even bending, the rules and more emphasis on improving performance and ideas as the best farmers do.

As with keeping up to date with NFU, and other, information, that’s more easily said than done. I know that as well as anyone. But it has to be said even if the usual feeling after having said it is to ask yourself: “Is there anybody there?”

I wonder if Alan Renwick, head of the Scottish Agricultural College’s land economy and environment research department, has been asking himself that question in the past couple of weeks after a speech he made at Carnoustie.

He said: “I believe that the CAP” – the European Union’s common agricultural policy on which most subsidies depend – “is a barrier to innovation within agriculture in Scotland.”

Farming profits might have increased over the past two years, but Scottish farming’s productivity has fallen by an average of two per cent a year every year since 2005. But not in all sectors – soft fruit and field vegetable production has increased by 70 per cent. Are these two sectors subsidised? Do growers have to be on top of their games at every stage of growing, marketing and dealing with supermarkets? Answer no, and yes, respectively.

Mr Renwick said: “Scotland’s farmers” – including all those sectors that rely heavily on subsidy to break even or make a profit – “need to think about how to continue their farming businesses without support. There will be no going back to the old days.”

Unfortunately, he could be wrong about that as debate about changes to the CAP wends on its interminable way. Subsidies are not going to disappear.

All he, and I, can argue is that collecting the subsidy will be increasingly difficult and complicated and the more effectively a business can make its way without subsidy, the better.

Perhaps the NFU might try to get that idea over, by morse code if necessary.