Farming is one of the main sources of income for Islay and there are only few pieces of land where you won't find farm animals. Farming is a very important part of island life. Farming is also important to preserve the landscape and wildlife visitors love so much. But with prices of cattle dropping due to international competition and ever rising transport costs the farmers on Islay are facing tough times. To get a good inside view of the importance of farming on Islay and its problems please read the following article which was written by Malcolm Younger, and published in the Ileach in February 2006. In that same edition of the Ileach was a related article about farming on Islay seen from an environmental and wildlife point of view by Jack Fleming from the RSPB.
'profitability is being squeezed to extinction'
Is there a future for farming here in Islay? The quotes in italics are taken from last years issues of The Scottish Farmer newspaper, and illustrate factors affecting farming today. On top of the apparent travails of the industry, Islay farmers have their own challenges as a result of the island's geographical peripherality. Any industry in this location bears the penalty of remoteness, but for farmers this comes on top of the chronic weakness of prices for their product across the board. In their favour, though, are the generally benign climate, good for grass growth, geese permitting, and the extensive tracts of fertile pasture overlying the limestone bedrock in many parts of the island.
'Brazil's dark secrets'
The outlook for farming trade is dominated by the international picture. As long as buyers can source a particular product more cheaply in another part of the world there is relentless downward pressure on the price here. It is not difficult to understand that a Brazilian or Thai producer can turn out beef or chicken sufficiently cheaply that even allowing for the cost of chilled transport halfway across the world it lands on our butchers' and supermarkets' shelves at a price that is hard for local farmers to match: in many other places labour and land are cheaply bought, there is plenty of sunshine and little in the way of the environmental or animal welfare regulation that binds us. Brazilian beef or Thai chicken may be tough or tasteless, but not necessarily so. To sell relatively high cost, locally produced beef and lamb in a competitive market requires that they should be of a reliably high quality and associated with a high standard of production in the minds of consumers who are prepared to pay a premium for them. Branding is only effective so long as it is positive with plenty of substitutes, the reason to choose Islay beef or lamb must be that the taste and tenderness were always better than the competition. One bad experience can be enough to lose a consumer's business.
Much farming produce is bought by supermarket companies which are few in number and have the power to dictate the price they will pay. Individual farmers can do little to resist, as long as the buyers can find a willing seller at a lower price down the road; and they almost always can. Some producers have taken to direct marketing on the internet or at farmers' markets, but such sales are only likely to be part of the answer. In the past there were marketing boards which tried to ensure high prices for produce, but they were deemed monopolistic and consequently outlawed by the European Union. The supermarkets' dominance has steadily sapped the lifeblood from small shops, but it is consumers who have brought this about in their choice of where to shop. There is something depressing about the uniformity of these soulless emporia, but we all use them because it is easy to park and our needs can be met under one roof. It is a common perception, too, that supermarket prices are lower, though this may be achieved by their bearing down on the price of a basket of staple items such as bread and milk, while making healthy margins on less readily compared goods. Dairy farmers have particularly suffered in recent years from the fact that their product serves as a loss leader, and many have quit the business.
'33,000 gns A-A jewel at Perth'
In fact, most cattle and sheep on Islay are kept not for their meat, but for their calves and lambs which are sold for fattening on the mainland. Only a small percentage is finished on the island and since there is no abattoir they have to be boxed up in floats for the long journey to slaughter on the mainland. If farming on the island is to continue to thrive it must first of all maintain its reputation among mainland finishers: they buy store cattle and sheep from Islay because they know that once relocated to the grasslands of Aberdeenshire or Dumfries their animals will, on average, gain weight and quality better than many of those reared elsewhere. This is the result of a good tradition of stockmanship allied to the choice of reliable breeds and fertile land. The headline prices for pedigree bloodlines often seem to part company with reality, but to obtain the desired quality it is increasingly necessary to pay over the odds for the best commercial breeding stock.
'solutions for the modern farmer'
What more can Islay farmers do? The high cost of transport, of peripherality, is a fixed penalty - the politicians of Edinburgh and Brussels are unlikely ever to allow road equivalent tariff pricing on our ferries, and it seems improbable that we will enjoy significantly cheaper fuel in future. Islay cattle and sheep finished elsewhere are sold to consumers as Scotch beef or lamb, their origins unacknowledged. Options should therefore be examined for adding value by finishing and possibly slaughtering a greater number on the island: moves are already afoot to find a means of opening a new slaughter house on Islay. Another possibility might be for farmers to form strategic alliances with mainland producers to create vertically integrated supply chains capable of controlling the production and ultimate sale to the consumer of branded Islay-born beef and lamb. Those farmers who can collaborate harmoniously may profit. Above all, the emphasis must be on quality and innovation.
'record high for farm debt'
When profitability on the farm is slim, the consequent effects can become significant. There is less money available for the maintenance of infrastructure and to invest in the good health of the soil. The generally low level of agricultural rents on Islay compared with those on the mainland may be some compensation for farm tenants, but it is sobering that renewing a couple of roofs in the steading or a replacement fenceline can easily cost the equivalent of several years' rent of the entire holding. While it can fairly be said that that is the landlord's lookout, it does not betoken a healthy future for the industry. Feed merchants, tractor salesmen, and vets are among others who depend to a greater or lesser extent on the farmer's business. It is also of concern that many rely on the low interest rates we have enjoyed in recent years to help make servicing the farm overdraft bearable. If the economy were to deteriorate and the painfully high interest rates we knew in the past were to return the consequences could be severe.
'farming not seen as 'sexy' enough'
Another trend is that the number of those involved nationally in farming is diminishing - the average age is not far off the normal retirement age. Recruitment is restricted largely to the sons and daughters of farmers, there being few not brought up to the job who seem able or willing to go into farming. Many farmers have diversified into such businesses as transport, holiday accommodation and contracting: in some cases the profitability of the diversified businesses will have overtaken the farm. It will inevitably transpire that increasing numbers will retire from active farming, indeed government policies on subsidy and agricultural holdings law appear to have been designed to further that end.
'biological mowers or a 'rentagrazer''
Some fear that in future farmers will become glorified park-keepers, totally dependent on public subsidy. A system of rewards for good stewardship of the landscape and penalties for bad has been set up. Future subsidy will be ever more dependent on the provision of perceived public benefits: abundant wildlife, attractive places to walk or picnic, unpolluted rivers and lochs, opportunities for employment, retention of cherished landscape features such as woods, heather moorland or dry stane dykes. It is frequently observed that these objectives are formulated from an urban perspective. This may or may not be a justified complaint, but the reality is that it is the urban majority that has the votes and whose representatives hold the purse strings. Some farmers eschew environmental subsidy schemes and provided they do not fall foul of the penalties for poor standards of welfare or pollution, and they can profitably produce what the market wants, that is their prerogative. Policing landscape quality and animal welfare demands a level of bureaucracy and intrusion that is at times almost intolerable, but state subsidy will not continue unless such checks and balances are put in place: in the absence of subsidy farmers would be left with all the sticks but none of the carrots. It matters not whether the regime is popular or not, it is here and all must make the most of it.
'death by a thousand cuts'?
It looks as though farming will carry on in Islay, though it may increasingly become a part time activity. The number of farmers nationally will continue to fall, gradually, even if in Islay at least there is a heartening number of the next generation who appear to wish to get involved. The outlook is by no means universally bleak and there will continue to be good opportunities for those willing to grasp them.
No one with even the slightest interest in agriculture can be unaware of the sweeping changes that UK farmers are facing now. Yet another reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has led to a fundamental shift in support payments. The move from production and headage payments to a Single Farm Payment (decoupling), which will reduce over time through modulation, has potentially massive implications for the way in which the Scottish countryside is managed. World trade and the need for the EU to simultaneously reduce direct support for production and cater for the ten additional countries (accession states) largely drive these moves. Few people even attempt to defend the old system where, with average subsidies in some years of £26,000 per Scottish farm, the published profits were only £3,500. This was clearly unsupportable and, with that bottom line, would not keep many farmers in business anyway. SEERAD have recently published a list showing the amounts paid to each farming business and another function of this is to clearly show the areas receiving the greatest support I'll give you a hint; its generally not the north and west!
These combined factors are of great concern to RSPB Scotland. Together with a wide range of bodies, ranging from Crofters Foundation and NFUS to Historic Scotland, we have been involved in a working group trying to determine prescriptions of work and payment rates under what are known as the agri-environment schemes. While some older schemes are still running, the Rural Stewardship Scheme (RSS) and the new Land Management Contract Scheme (LCMS) are those currently available. These (although the RSS will be part of the LCMS in time), in my view, offer Scottish farmers the best current chance to make up for the drop in income they face as their SFP is modulated, i.e. those funds are reduced and moved into other rural development payments. This means that we believe that these schemes must be fully and properly funded, which they most certainly are not at the moment (don't get me started on how much English farmers can make from their schemes!!).
RSPB Scotland has faced some criticism for strongly recommending that the level of modulation should be at least 20%. This is not a figure plucked from the air and, contrary to what some may believe, is not aimed at making things worse for farmers; it is the amount of modulation we believe is required to adequately fund schemes such as LCMS. I also believe, since what is known as Pillar 2 funding is couched as general rural development, that unless farmers do everything they can to clawback the modulated amount it may well be accessed by other, quite legitimate, countryside developments (or as one disparaging colleague suggested; the drumming and hugging centre up the glen!).
Why should it worry us? Well, Scotland's countryside is special largely because of human activity, the way people have used the land over centuries has shaped our landscape and created the opportunities for our habitats and species to flourish, in spite of occasional conflicts as management methods change. This is especially true in places like Islay where the island is acknowledged as being an area of high quality stock farming but also rich in wildlife, often as a result of that very farming. This is probably the best opportunity for Islay farmers and for farmers in similar areas; play to the strengths of what they support in wildlife terms and (hopefully) be adequately recompensed for that work. A comment heard from a few farmers is that they do not wish to be 'park keepers'. I cannot see it that way, even with my farming background. The removal of the need to keep certain numbers of livestock to maximise return (sometimes with detrimental effect on both the land and farmer!) means that farmers can select the numbers of stock which best suit their systems and management choices. With farming activities an integral part of maintaining many of the species and habitats of greatest importance, e.g. corncrake, chough, wet grassland, tying these into agri-environment schemes should be comparatively straightforward.
Farmers can still farm the land, modified and altered systems perhaps but there can be no more flexible workforce in the country. You can still find men who started work on farms behind a horse and retired from driving a combine linked to a satellite! A few forward-thinking farmers have already achieved a mind-shift to recognise the wildlife on their farms as another 'crop' for which the public are prepared to pay. Others, often with bitter experience of refusal of entry to schemes at various stages, are more wary. It is true that the question still remains as to how well funded these schemes will be but better by far I believe to become as involved as possible, to access whatever funds are available, lobby for better funded and more appropriate schemes; RSPB Scotland will be one of several organisations doing just such lobbying.