On 7 July 1599, Shakespeare was still writing for the Globe, and that is when my family started farming outside Pitlochry – where I still live and work today. Growing up on the farm, my parents taught me 'farm first,' meaning that the farm came before everything else. If this meant going without, if it meant no holidays, if it meant staying up late or getting up early, then that is what would be done. Not because we owned anything but because we belonged to it. It is our meaning in life to look after the farm.
When I reached high school my head teacher even pulled me into her office concerned about our lifestyle. She asked, 'When last did you have family time?' I couldn't understand what she was getting at and replied, '... we were castrating lambs at the weekend.' But she said this didn't count. What she failed to understand was that it was a different culture entirely, a different way of living.
It was December 2014 when I realised things weren't that simple, that life on the farm was propped up by a complex grant system issued by the EU called the Common Agricultural Policy. It is a massive policy taking up 40% of the EU budget. I only really thought about it in 2014 because that is when it stopped working.
In 2014 the Scottish government had introduced a new computer system to manage this grant. The computer system wasn't ready and wasn't working. We eventually received a decreased payment, and this was just the start. In 2015 there was a five-month late payment, again decreased – only 80%. In 2016, the payment was so late that the government issued a part payment loan to farmers. Overall the subsidy was almost a year late – and this trend
is spiralling. Still the computer system is faulty beyond function.
This subsidy is now dangerously out of sync for Scottish farmers. But without it an estimated 90% of farmers would go out of business within a year as it makes up an average 55% of our income. The Scottish government has driven farmers into the hands of the banks and the depths of debt.
Last January due to this disruption my dad had a heart problem and that's when I decided to finish my studies and go back home. I knew the stress was bad when I visited my parents from university and I would hear my dad getting up to redo his budgets at 1.30 every morning. There would be plan A, and plan B, and plan C, throughout the week. He said he couldn't look at the numbers by daylight. Yet, the sheep still have to be fed, vet bills still
have to be paid, there is no telling the taxman that you're suddenly missing over half of your income. It hurt me to see my dad, after all of his hard work, being put in a position like this. We were constantly being told to get with the times and run the farm like a business. Yet what business does not know when, or even if, money is coming in?
Following the financial disruption this year, the government launched a new suicide hotline in an attempt to stem the number of farmers taking their own lives. Farmers, who take identity from their livelihood, who are often isolated with traditional 'stiff upper lip' attitudes, are not fit socially to be bearing this level of uncertainty.
This isn't just a problem for now, a temporary 'glitch' as the government attempts to reassure us – it is putting down roots. Already I look around and the farms surrounding me have given up. They may not have walked off but they intend to retire and not pass the farm on to their family. There are no alternatives when we are not even told when the situation might be resolved. Every month is a lottery of checking the bank account and phoning around your neighbours as if you're going mad.
The financial disruption has shattered our 'farm first' image: farms are seen as a burden rather than a privilege – for who would want this for their children? When I complain, as I often do, about the dying farms people say: but isn't this great for you?; you will have more land, more opportunities, more subsidy for you. And this is what upsets me most. There are
so few farmers in Scotland and yet we are expected to turn on each other. It's almost cannibalistic – a starving body breaking down its muscle mass only to survive.
Yet say you don't particularly care about Scottish farming. We could just import all our food and forfeit the food independence we have left. Does it not concern you that our own government mismanaged this so drastically and that we don't really hear about it? The Common Agricultural Policy equals around 40% of EU funds: that's €58 billion a year. To mismanage 40% of EU funds, surely that is gross incompetence? It certainly concerns me that our government can bring an industry to its knees through an organisational 'transitional' error. Yet there are no investigations; there is painfully little media coverage.
The loss of the stability of farming is a loss in culture, a loss in mental well-being, a long-term, long-reaching loss. It hurts all the more when we feel it is a loss we bear in silence.