Agree or disagree with Jim Walker’s views he’s never less than entertaining and the former president of NFUS and Quality Meat Scotland was at it again at Kelso Discussion Society.
Red rag to a bull doesn’t quite do justice to the number of topics that set him off and he seemed to take aim at most of them at his usual machine-gun speed. He criticised politicians for gimmicky policies, NFU Scotland and livestock organisations for failing to stand up to politicians, civil servants in Scotland and Brussels for endorsing common agricultural policy (CAP) systems designed for administrators rather than farmers, and farmers for complaining about unfair treatment from supermarkets and meat processors.
As a prime exponent of doing it, he advised farmers to think for themselves about how to tackle their future. Have the guts to take the tough decisions, he said, and make sure you have the skills to apply them. Learn the rules of whatever game you’re in and play to them better than anyone else.
He also had a word, and it wasn’t sympathetic, for aspiring and actual new entrants to farming who complain that they aren’t given a fair chance. Mr Walker said: “Not finding it easy to get a start in farming is just the way of things. It’s never been easy. You’ve also got to wonder why we should encourage them into a life of slavery.”
It wasn’t quite like that for him, but he pointed out that when starting with a hill farm in 1984 – courtesy of his father – he had 130 beef cows and 800 breeding ewes, but also an overdraft of £150,000.
A long struggle to establish a sound business followed, he said, but when “the wheels fell off” hill farming in 1996, he, like many others, received a massive setback. That was also when he decided to get involved in farming politics and the rest is, more or less, history.
He added what I often think myself – although not mentioning that great minds think alike because there would be a race to provide the alternative saying about fools – that no one is forcing new entrants to try and get a start. If they are determined and refuse to give up then good luck to them, some will always make it one way or another.
At last week’s successful AgriScot show at Ingliston, Jim Fairlie outlined one of them. From a housing estate in Perth, Mr Fairlie got a job working with sheep when he left school. He was hooked and went on to work as a shepherd for more than a dozen years while always looking for land to rent and sheep to graze on his own.
Six years ago he got the chance of a contract farming agreement with Mansfield estates and now runs 2000 ewes and a small herd of cattle on a hill farm.
Most of us can think of at least one example of something similar in our own parish. There is no “one fits all” magic formula, but it can be done.