Will supermarkets eventually own the countryside as well as the towns? This was the fear of some activists at a rural policy fringe meeting I attended at the party's Perth conference. As a prospective candidate for the South of Scotland it's a subject that clearly interests me. It's also difficult to take your journalist's hat off - "Supermarket Scotland" is a good headline...but what lies behind it?
There is a real problem attracting new entrants to farming, not just in Scotland. However the agri-industrial complex was not a dominating feature here - something that gave us an advantage in the marketplace, and which sustains our very varied - and culturally rich - rural areas. Farmers have smaller families these days and often their offspring prefer to pursue different careers. But primary production of food is very capital intensive, so who can afford to buy? Getting credit/mortgages is a problem for all businesses. This report from one of the biggest rural estate agents says neighbouring farmers tend to snap up the land and so you get consolidation. Agricultural land is also seen as a safe investment in difficult times. All this tends to mean that individuals, such as local people keen to enter farming, have no chance. One Perthshire famer pointed out that Austria, with its small population, supports 190,000 farms, so could we have a cap on farms getting too big? Then there are specific problems such as those faced by dairy farmers who are suffering because supermarkets use milk as a loss leader - you can now buy 2 litres for what you paid for a litre 6 months ago...this needs to be tackled at UK level so we might wait a while...
Supermarkets directly owning the land does not - phew - seem to be happening. But some argue the power of mass retailers over farmers means they are owners in all but title. This vertical integration is evident in both the UK and America, and is outlined in some detail in this article in Corporatewatch
This issue isn't just about farmers, but everyone who lives and works in the country. It's all about keeping young people and families in rural areas - depopulation is a big issue in Southern Scotland for example. There was constructive discussion at the meeting about how smallholders were like crofters without the title - how could they access similar help? Just finding a place to live is a challenge for people in the countryside, where wages are below the average. There are some innovative organisations building affordable rural housing - often just five or six social rented homes can ensure a community's survival. The Dumfries & Galloway Small Communities Housing Trust was cited as a good example and the Scottish government is keen. But some local authorities are better than others in encouraging it. There was discussion about renewables and the government's determination to stop The Crown Estate revenues going straight to London - but that deserves a separate blog.
Rural Scotland has its problems but there's lots to be optimistic about too, particularly in developing our natural advantages. We hear much about green power in that respect, but traditional land use also presents exciting possibilities. Richard Lochhead, the rural affairs ministers who spoke at the meeting, has focussed land use back onto food production, which is fortuitous given the world food shortage. He has also just put Scotland's first ever Land Use Strategy out to consultation. While we might worry about the Tescoshire threat, the good news is more small businesses based on land use are being born. Since 2007, there's been a fresh emphasis on adding value to natural produce - another reason dairy is suffering is that there were traditionally few outlets other than liquid milk. Given that the Scottish landscape is perceived as pristine across the world, there is a lot of scope in developing more food products. It's already well underway. Artisan-style businesses selling everything from tweed bags to whisky laced mustard are sprouting, if you pardon the pun, all over the country. Customers continue to be concerned about the provenance of their food, despite the recession. Sales of Scottish branded food and drink are up by a third since 2007, demand for our salmon and venison outstrips supply and whisky is by far the UK's biggest food export.
Of course independence would help rural Scotland enormously. Europe will review the Common Agriculture Policy in 2013 and only independent member states have a voice in shaping that.
The ideas raised in the meeting were serious and some will, I'm sure, help shape the manifesto. On the subject of local produce, one of the more light-hearted suggestions will strike a chord with many an ethical-but-weary Scottish shopper. It's all very well having lovely local goodies on display at the Farmers' Market. But why do we have to get drookit looking round the stalls, which are nearly always open air? It's a fair point. Even Glasgow's famous Barras market is mainly indoors these days, so why not produce markets? It's surely enought to know that the beasts had fresh air and lots of water. But it would be nice if we were a bit more comfortable, it might wean some of us off supermarkets too...