Social cohesion, leadership and support networks are at the heart of the success of Scotland’s Monitor Farm Project, according to one of the facilitators, SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).
In gathering evidence on the impact of the three-year programme, funded by the Scottish Government SRDP programme, a new report by SAC Consulting highlights that, as well as improving farm business performance, the lasting value is in the networks and relationships built in farming communities across Scotland.
“Monitor Farms are a powerful way of getting the rural community together to work collectively to plan a sustainable future,” explains Iain Riddell from SAC Consulting. “As we look towards a new era of farming support, a continued drive to boost farm profitability and the demands of farming to adopt new technologies, the farming community needs space and place to discuss how this can be done.”
Scotland’s Monitor Farm Project was run by AHDB and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) with facilitation input from SAC Consulting on six of the nine farms and financed by the European Union’s Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund (KTIF). The aim was to improve the productivity, sustainability and financial margins of the monitor farms – which spanned regions across Scotland and sectors – and of the farming groups which supported each one.
Over 70% of the participants said the programme had allowed them to form valuable new networks and relationships. SAC Consultant Niall Campbell, who facilitated the Lochaber group, said that the social benefits of the monitor farm model cannot be underestimated:
“The true and lasting value of this project is the trusted networks that have been created and the willingness of those involved to openly discuss ideas, to challenge each other to think differently and to learn from others. These are all core to running a successful and progressive business and plans to keep these discussion groups going beyond the term of the project is both credit to the programme and key to keeping farming businesses in Scotland at the top of their game. The change in mindset and networks gained from the programme are a significant legacy that will be felt for years to come both on individual farms and throughout the wider farming community.”
Peer-to-peer discussion and finding solutions from within is the basis of the monitor farm model. Each of the nine Monitor Farms had a “community group” of other local farmers in the region and within this a smaller business group which carried out benchmarking.
Discussion was led by the farmers with support from the facilitators to bring an outside perspective. Guest speakers were invited to cover specialist topics pertinent to each group, including a soil expert from Canada for the group in Morayshire.
In Angus, the Stodart family focused on data to streamline the business, reducing input costs and closely reviewing the profitability of their suckler herd. Alison Stodart said:
“The whole Monitor Farm programme has made us aware that you can’t measure something unless you monitor it. However, the numbers were only the beginning. The discussion that came after was where the real value was and, like us, many of the group made decisions about their businesses, explored ideas and implemented new ways of working based on this. The sharing of information was so valuable, and the mixed age groups brought different perspectives and a safe, trusted place to share ideas and learn from others’ experiences.
“Our farm is a totally different place now to when we started and the process has given us all a lot more confidence as a family and how we work together. We have become more professional as farmers; it’s not just a way of life anymore, it’s a business.”
All of the groups – set in Nithsdale, Lochaber, Sutherland, the Borders, North Ayrshire, Shetland, Morayshire, the Lothians and Angus – plan to stay actively in touch to support the development of their businesses.
The regular meetings over a sustained period of the Monitor Farms programme is invaluable for farming communities, according to SAC Consulting’s Laura Henderson, based in Elgin:
“What surprised us was that, even in such an agriculturally favoured area such as Morayshire, social isolation is a serious concern, particularly with the loss of Elgin livestock mart which has resulted in nowhere for local farmers to meet. The Morayshire group had found the Monitor Farm meetings very beneficial, bringing other enduring collaborative projects including a Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) group centred on cereal and agronomy discussions.”
In Shetland, the Monitor Farm Project provided the first discussion group on the island to focus on one farm over a three-year period and to bring in expert speakers. The farm is run by two young sisters, Aimee and Kirsty Budge, following the tragic death of their father. The Monitor Farm group includes a broad range of ages from 15 to 60+, has established a similar forum for sharing knowledge, practice and cooperative opportunities.
The Budges said that they have valued the learning from the project resulting in them making significant improvements to the farm business and developing a strong support network of local farmers and crofters. The idea for a lamb marketing group was triggered during the group meetings to help sell smaller lambs for export to Europe for the Christmas markets. The Shetland Hill Lamb Group has increased value by £10–12/lamb.
The meetings also allowed them to gain confidence in growing spring barley to supplement homegrown feed, despite the common problem on Shetland, farming the rough land of the islands.
In Angus, the Monitor Farm, run by the Stodart family, highlighted the value of using data to make efficiencies in the business and make it more resilient to farming without subsidy.
The data clearly highlighted that the suckler herd was struggling to make money, while fertiliser and chemical spend on arable was above average. The family has now employed an independent agronomist and signed up to be part of a buying group to reduce arable costs.
Finding the benchmarking so useful, some of the farmers involved have since formed a benchmarking group to share data and ideas going forward.
The group supporting Ayrshire Monitor Farmer, John Howie, said he gained huge confidence during programme:
“Being part of the Monitor Farm process has been challenging but rewarding. It has pushed me to make changes happen but has also given me the confidence to see them through,” John said. “Before, the farm was a family farm and that’s fine, but now it’s a business. We look at the farm’s potential and maximise output and profit off every acre.”
Hazel Muir, chair of the North Ayrshire Management Group said that the programme had been “fantastic”:
“I have enjoyed the diversity of meetings and the community has benefited from interacting with others and widening their network.”
The Ballantynes in Sutherland said “Being a Monitor Farm has pushed us to do things we probably would not have done otherwise and has moved our business forward 10 years in just three.”
A crofting member of the group, Graeme Bethune, added: “The programme has changed my mindset and I have since diversified to create a yarn business from my sheep.”
Lochaber Monitor Farmer, Malcolm Cameron, confirmed that this establishment of community projects and discussion groups have been a powerful legacy of the Monitor Farms’ programme, helping to bring people together and encourage connections, even in in the most remote regions of Scotland:
“One of the biggest unspoken challenges farmers and crofters face in this part of the world is the isolation, we just don’t see our farming neighbours like we used to. The Monitor Farm programme has given us the opportunity to meet as a group with shared vision and vested interest in the future of our local community and to share thoughts and ideas about how we can improve things.”
SAC Consulting has been involved in monitor farms since the first one started in 2003 and its consultants facilitated six of the nine monitor farms in Scotland’s Monitor Farm Project (2016-19).