Farm Feature

Persistence pays off for farmer’s son Iain Mackay

WHAT do you do when there is no farming business to be handed down or the finances to get your foot on the ladder? Farmers Guardian meets two new entrants whose determinism and self-starting spirit has given them a firm foothold.

IT has taken Iain Mackay a long time to get back into farming, but the results are now plain to see.

Despite coming from an agricultural background – his father and grandfather retired from their tenanted farm near Loch Lomond before he could take it on – a patient Iain had to wait more than a decade to get his own place.

Now he is the proud owner of 1,000 ewes and 50 cows on a remote hill farm on the Isle of Mull, just off the west coast of Scotland, supplying a specialist butcher in London with his Highland beef, but he admits it’s been a long, hard slog to get into the industry and not without its challenges.

Iain studied Agriculture at Oatridge College, near Edinburgh, before starting as a contractor – gathering, shearing and fencing.

“I did that for nearly 10 years, but in the meantime I was always trying to get into agriculture – taking small grass lets, trying to buy a few cattle and a few sheep.”

But the decision he made early on was to have a major impact on his ability to get into agriculture full-time.

The lack of availability of land is a real killer

Iain Mackay

“I managed to get a small piece of ground, and I’m talking about five hectares. I put on four cows and 20 sheep on that ground then when the quota system came out, because I had already taken on ground, I wasn’t classed as a new entrant then.

“That has affected me right throughout the 10 years it took me to get into a good-sized farm.”

Self-starter

“It became a slow process and I wasn’t helped when they had the CAP reform, in that I had those five hectares for one of the reference years, and I had gone up to 500 hectares by that stage.

“They then did a calculation over three years, so it reduced down any entitlement that I was going to get as a farmer.”

Instead of stagnating, Iain bought machinery from the money he made from contracting and kept on looking for available land.

“I thought it would be good to understand it on a small-scale, before taking on a bigger farm if the opportunity came along. I really regret that now, because it has stood in my way missing out on that entitlement.

“I would have been better off holding out for a bigger farm, rather than taking on small parcels of land.”

Finally, however, the farm he always wanted became available. He moved to the Isle of Mull where he worked some ground with about 50 cows. Then came the chance to contract farm at Torloisk.

His extensive beef and sheep operation now has 1,000 Blackface and Blackface cross Cheviot ewes roaming the 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) along with 50 Highland cows. Half of the cows are kept pure and half are put to the Simmental bull.

It’s a one man operation but he does take in contract and casual labour.

“It’s getting more and more difficult to find people with the skills to work on a hill farm – those who know how to work dogs and gather and shear sheep.”

That said, the opportunities for work are available and his route to market is mostly the mainland town of Oban – two hours away by lorry and boat – although he is also involved with Quality Meat Scotland on the monitor farm scheme.

“I’m the monitor farm for Mull but we’re doing a lot of trials putting in fodder crops and finishing more of the lambs on the farm and adding value selling them fat.”

He also sells some of the Highland bullocks to a specialist butcher in London and exports cattle to Switzerland, this year alone, 25 heifers and three bulls have been sent so far.

Iain wasn’t entitled to any funding because the owners of Torloisk moved the entitlement and put it on to naked acres, but he says they were very sympathetic to his situation, so much so, they didn’t charge him any rent until he was able to buy some entitlement of his own.

He used his savings from contracting and a bank loan to buy the livestock and get him started.

“I have about 2,000 units of entitlement on the place now. I was very lucky someone gave me a hand financially to buy that, which I am paying back over three years.”

Pro-activity

Money aside, Iain believes the other main challenge facing those wanting to get into farming is the availability of land

“Even if you are quite dynamic and you’re not too worried about working within the subsidy system, the lack of availability of land is a real killer,” he says.

“You really need entitlement to farm, to be unsubsidised just now, when everyone around you is subsidised, is just about impossible and it’s up to you how you use that money to then improve your own farm.”

When asked what advice he would he give to anyone thinking of getting into agriculture, his answer is simple.

“They need to be really aware it is going to be a long road. It really is. The whole system is not geared up at all to allow people into the industry.”

But that does not mean he is just prepared to talk about it as he becomes increasingly involved in trying to help tackle the challenges.

“I’ve spoken to politicians and ministers about making the process more user-friendly and I just hope they listen this time.”

One of his suggestions is to offer tax breaks for landowners to encourage them to let more land, with extra rewards for renting to new entrants. He would also reform subsidies so they are given on merit.

“They have to close all the loopholes and make the money available only to active farmers.”

Another area of focus is succession. “A lot of my peers, their fathers or grandfathers still hold the chequebook, are there working the farm without the chance to be dynamic and move the farm forward.

“It’s not just new entrants, there are a lot of young guys out there who are working on the family farm who are just never going to get a chance until they’re 50 or 60.”

Consistency

Future plans include expanding the sheep and cattle herds. He wants to work with more buy-in sheep to get some lambing percentage and concentrate more on marketing what he produces.

Although he would like the security of a 10-year tenancy instead of the existing five-year agreement he has now, Iain is largely happy with how things have finally turned out.

Would he have done anything differently if he had his time back again?

“I wish I’d known how to work the system better, I’d be a lot better off. They keep changing the system and there needs to be some consistency over 10 years to allow someone to get into the industry and set themselves up. This continual moving of the goalposts is very difficult for a young business.”

Still, he’s managed to negotiate the obstacles so far and is starting to reap the benefits.

“I am making money but it is more a lifestyle thing. Having said that I bought a brand new Land Rover two years ago, it’s the most basic model but I’m not down to just bread and water.”

Despite the fact the industry is hard work for new entrants and old hands alike, Iain says he wouldn’t work at anything else.

“It’s difficult to say what I enjoy about it, because it’s just in me. I’ve never woken up one morning and thought ‘Well, I’ve got to get out and go to work’.

“It doesn’t feel like work. It’s a way of life. It’s in your bones.”

Torloisk Farm facts

  • 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) tenanted for five years
  • 1,000 Blackface and Blackface/ Cheviot cross ewes; 50 Highland cows.
  • 85 per cent calving; 85-90 per cent lambing
  • 7ha (17 acres) of silage, which yielded 150 bales
  • 5ha (12 acres) of rape/stubble turnips to finish lambs
  • Precision farming technologies used

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