Scottish farmers and industry leaders are in no doubt that devolution has brought significant benefits to Scotland.

But while most see the need for greater autonomy for the Scottish government to get rid of the shackles of DEFRA, especially in relation to EU negotiations, there is little appetite among farmers for independence, which the SNP plans to pursue with a referendum in 2010.

Farming leaders point in particular to the adoption of the historical basis for the calculation of the Single Farm Payment, which has avoided the shambles in England and ensured the timely payment of SFP to Scottish farmers.

The creation of the stakeholder consultation process allowing all sectors of the industry to meet the Cabinet Secretary or his top officials within hours to deal with any emerging crisis and feed into government policies is also viewed as a big plus.

Over the past year, the Scottish government has come up with a compensation package of £25m for sheep producers after the disruption to trade caused by the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey.

An extra £40m of LFA support, £3m for bluetongue vaccine and a £10m new entrants’ scheme have also been announced.

The Scotland Rural Development Programme, largely negotiated by the previous Lab-Lib administration, is worth £1.6bn over seven years and important initiatives have been taken to develop a Scottish Food Policy and cut red tape.

“There has been a complete change in the political mood in Scotland,” says NFU Scotland chief executive, James Withers. “We have got rid of the Labour-dominated politics of urban Central Scotland, with a more balanced Scottish Parliament where farming MSPs constitute the second largest group next to lawyers.

scenic view to Jura

“However, we have seen no evidence to justify support for independence, although we would like to see the Scottish government get more power. If the referendum supports independence, it will all depend on the deal we get from Westminster. If we get a crap deal, it won’t work.”

The Scottish Parliament is working better than ever, Mr Withers reckons, with no party having an absolute majority and parties being forced to speak to each other and work together.

Lib Dem MSP Ross Finnie, who was rural affairs minister for the first eight years of devolution, says devolution has made a “huge difference” to Scottish farmers.

“When I became minister, the relationship between the government and the industry was dire,” he says. “The minister with responsibility for agriculture spent most of his time at Westminster and was hardly seen in Scotland. No strategy existed for Scottish farming and farmers were struggling to survive.”

Mr Finnie made it his business to get around Scotland to meet farmers and is credited with creating the stakeholder system which is now the cornerstone of policy development in Scotland.

Various groups were established to look at particular issues and the outcome was a policy document, A Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture, which has guided policy ever since.

Mr Finnie is credited with being a listener and doing a good job in a difficult situation as a minority partner in a largely Labour administration.

Headage payment

He plays down the frustrations of having to go cap in hand to DEFRA and the Treasury to get anything done and points to the SFP settlement, the introduction of a beef envelope to allow a headage payment on suckler cows and the restoration of LFA payments to their former levels as evidence of the autonomy Scotland enjoys under devolution.

Devolution came into its own during the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 when Mr Finnie, then NFU Scotland president Jim Walker and Andrew Campbell, the convener of Dumfries and Galloway Council, worked together to deal with the crisis far more effectively than in England.

“There was no messing about,” Mr Finnie says. “The vets set the programme at a 7am meeting every morning and the army got on with the job.”

He also claims credit for the pre- and post-movement testing programme, which, he says, has kept Scotland “ahead of the game” and largely prevented bovine TB from crossing the Border.

Mr Finnie’s successor, Richard Lochhead, with the title of Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, has enjoyed a honeymoon period with the industry since he took over 15 months ago.

He has impressed with his grasp of the industry, honed during his years as shadow rural affairs spokesman and his willingness to listen.

A raft of initiatives have been launched and task forces set to work, mostly in the food sector to promote Scottish produce and the industry now awaits to see if the government will deliver.

But he has been criticised for announcing a £10m new entrants’ package over the seven years’ duration of the SRDP, which falls well short of the £10m of annual funding promised in the SNP’s election manifesto.

He has angered pig producers by failing to endorse a £1.7m package to compensate them for losses resulting from last year’s foot-and-mouth outbreak, instead announcing £1m for future market development.

The anger he met from pig producers has surprised him, but he insists the funding package will “secure a sustainable long-term future” for Scotland’s pig producers.

NVZ compliance

He is also on a collision course with the industry on NVZs, although his hands are tied by Brussels on this and the SNP’s deep-rooted opposition to GM technology.

“I have worked hard to ensure the NVZ regulations are fit for purpose and comply with EU regulations,” he says. “I accept the provision of additional slurry storage will be a big challenge for many farmers, but a 40% grant is available under the SRDP for this investment.”

On GM, he is adamant that the Scottish government will not yield to pressure and has the support of First Minister, Alex Salmond, who believes the adoption of GM would undermine Scotland’s image for quality, natural food.

“We are always willing to enter into debate, but we have no plans to go the GM route,” says Mr Loch-head. “We see no benefits for Scotland. More scrutiny is required of the claims made for GM. It is a global issue.”

This is the very point made by NFU Scotland president, Jim McLaren, who has called on the Scottish government to sanction research into the safe development of GM crops.

He wants to see research carried out independently by government institutions, rather than multinational companies with an axe to grind and points to the possible environmental, as well as economic, advantages of farming in the future with fewer chemical applications.

“What happens in 10 years’ time if Scotland is caught in the past using crops that require substantial chemical usage while the rest of the world has moved on?” he asks.

But Mr McLaren accepts that in general the advantages of devolution are “undeniable” and far outweigh any disadvantages. He points, for example, to improvements in health care which benefit farmers just as much as the rest of the population and praises the access NFUS has to the Cabinet Secretary.

The fact that Mr Salmond, Mr Lochhead and finance minister John Swinney all represent rural constituencies is an added bonus.

Mr McLaren suggests England could also benefit from a sort of federal structure, similar to Scotland or Wales, rather than being dependent on national politicians such as the UK minister, Hilary Benn, who, he says, is totally divorced from the realities of farming and food production.

Opposition

The only dissident voice has come from Conservative MSP and prospective MP Alex Johnstone, a dairy farmer in Kincardineshire. He recognises the benefits of devolution, but believes Scottish farmers are losing out because of the Scottish government’s inability to influence policy at Westminster.

“Scotland doesn’t have the level of input into policy that we had previously,” Mr Johnstone maintains. “We are being isolated from the big policy decisions and have found ourselves in a bit of a time warp.”

He says NFU Scotland should be spending more time talking to all the parties in the Scottish parliament, rather than aligning themselves with the government, as no single party had a majority in the parliament.