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Agenda: Challenge facing agriculture is to do with land use, not who owns it

Like most farmers, I seem to spend most of my life in a boiler suit and wellies.

My family have lived at Balbirnie in Fife for many hundreds of years as farmers and landowners. I farm about 3000 acres and own two farms which I let to tenants, so these days I am as much a farmer as landowner. My situation is replicated across Scotland.

Like many farmers, I am proud to feel I am following in the footsteps of parents and grandparents. Six full- time and one part-time members of staff are employed on the farming side of our business and I am also part of a group of farmers supplying a business with oats for porridge, even appearing on one of their cereal packets.

There have been a number of informative contributions in The Herald recently regarding the pattern of land ownership in Scotland and what should emerge from the Scottish Government's land reform review.

However, there appears to be a tendency to pigeonhole the arguments. Community land-ownership good, private landowner bad and farmers getting a raw deal appears to be the convenient shorthand. This polarisation does not reflect the realities of everyday life in rural Scotland. It creates a more adversarial debate than need be the case. In short, there's room for all of us.

The land reform campaigner Andy Wightman argued in a Herald farming column this week that this is the year to be bold. In one respect he's right in that there needs to be more flexibility in contractual relationships between landlords and tenants.

Where he goes too far is in advocating an absolute right to buy for tenant farmers; that is, a farmer should be able to buy his land whether or not his landlord wants to sell.

This would drive a coach and horses through fundamental property rights and would be the equivalent of someone being forced to sell the flat they rent out in the West End of Glasgow because the tenant fancies staying put and owning it themselves. It is hard to convey how destructive this measure, even just its discussion, would be to agriculture.

People such as Mr Wightman advance this argument because they want to see land and wealth redistributed. Their concern for agriculture is, in my view, secondary. Don't take my word for it, ask the overwhelming majority of farmers across Scotland. It would not help the next generation of farmers who would not be able to afford the consequences.

Big farmers could and would get bigger, further reducing the land for let that will be crucially important to new entrants. There are challenges to be met to improve tenant farming but these are complex issues the industry is working very hard to address.

The last thing agriculture needs is to be embroiled in a wider land ownership debate when so much can be achieved that would make a real difference to farming.

The tenant farmers at Balbirnie run successful, productive operations and we often pool and share resources. We come together to discuss solutions to problems, often over the farm gate. We all belong to the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS), and to many other organisations. I am also a member of Scottish Land & Estates.

What matters to all of us involved in farming in Scotland is what is done with the rural land rather than who owns it. We need to ensure efficient and effective use of our land resource.

As well as working with our tenants, I also co-operate with other farmers to grow specialist crops, including potatoes or vegetables, and we all try collectively to play to our strengths. This often ties in with food production in Scotland which, many will agree, is a key priority.

Likewise, we work together to hire in bespoke machinery for certain jobs for which we cannot justify buying a single machine. It is this kind of constructive collaboration that is what will serve Scottish agriculture's interests best. Farmers far prefer pulling on their wellies and getting on with the job to being used as political pawns.

Contextual targeting label: 
Agriculture

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