Each year the farming calendar in Scotland is punctuated by the Royal Highland Show. It stands out not just as a farming spectacle, but a key business event at which rural leaders, farmers and business men and policy makers meet and take the pulse of the rural sector. It never ceases to amaze me how much is crammed into the show, and there is always another layer of discussion, or engagement that you never knew existed. But this was a particularly notable year because it was also the first anniversary of the EU referendum. I remember distinctly visitors to the show wandering round in muted silence last year as they tried to process the outcome.
There is so much about the campaign and the vote that is hard to make much sense of. I recall attending the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2016, and in a straw poll of conference delegates, only one or two hands waved bravely in the air in favour of out. Yet by the time the next key industry event of Cereals 2016 came round, a further straw poll seemed to indicate a bit more of a shift in the industry’s voting intention. After the vote it was said, certainly in England, that many farmers voted for out, although I haven’t detected the same consensus back home.
So we are still left in this limbo of uncertainty of what the impact will be on the industry. There are those who embrace enthusiastically the prospects of free trade, less reliance on subsidy and perceived reduction in red tape. Then there are others who fear tariffs, low cost imports against a backdrop of reduced farm support and limited access to labour. The industry is told to prepare for these changes, Brexit is coming, but how to do that at farm level is a hard card to play.
Nevertheless, we are already seeing the industry respond. Most notably there is certainly more movement of farmland in the market. The agents say we have been there before; the ship is steady. Interest seems to be there to match what is on offer as others manoeuvre to take advantage of the opportunity to grow their businesses. The market has long had unsatisfied latent demand for land, and for some this is an opportunity to make their move. One thing is for sure, we are seeing the industry restructuring, and no doubt the industry that will visit the Royal Highland Show in five years’ time will look very different from now. Will it be larger, more commercially focused, with a tight control on costs of production and marketing relationships, or will it be focused on provenance, on quality, on premium export markets, and high welfare and environmental standards? Perhaps a healthy mix of both, as different businesses focus on their strengths and opportunities. For others, no doubt, it will lead to an exit from the industry, by choice for some but not for others.
It was with all these questions in mind that Brodies was delighted to support the Oxford Farming Conference debate at the Royal Highland Show. This was the first time this iconic debate had come to Scotland. The motion was that “UK agriculture would thrive outside of Europe”. After a fascinating and lively debate, with great contributions from the audience, the motion was carried by a considerable margin. You might say: well it would be wouldn’t it. Who is going to forecast their own failure? One thing is for sure, agriculture has been around for a long time, people need to eat, so we can be confident of its continued existence. British agriculture has a long history of innovation and so why should that stop? The question I am sure is in the back of most people’s minds is how do I make my business one of those which succeeds? That is the Brexit challenge. There is a lot to be done and for our part, we look forward to continuing to work with our clients, with forward-thinking legal solutions, as they face up to and embrace these challenges ahead.