After four years as vice-president, NFU Scotland’s Nigel Miller has become widely known as a doughty fighter who throws his heart and strength into a cause and has a reputation for taking practical steps to solve a problem whenever possible.
When foot-and-mouth disease struck southern Scotland in 2001, for instance, Mr Miller believed the best way of saving his farm and its livestock was to head into the heart of the disaster in Dumfries and Galloway where he used his veterinary qualification to enrol as a temporary veterinary inspector.
“It was easier to do something practical rather than stay at home worrying about when the disease would wipe us out,” he said. “It’s no good waiting to be a victim.”
The same philosophy is being applied to the most challenging aspect of the new NFUS president’s term in office. With a historic single farm payment system still operating in Scotland, the country has everything to fight for in the CAP negotiations and its farming union is very much on the front foot, in constant discussion with the most senior European Commission officials. An invitation has been extended to Dacian Ciolos, the EU agriculture commissioner, to visit later this summer and Mr Miller is determined to ensure the union pulls out all the stops to get the formula for future agricultural support absolutely right.
“It’s crucial not just to our farmers, but for the landscape of Scotland and the general public,” he said. “The last reforms gave us stability in a decoupled world, but cut out young people from the industry. That now has to be addressed. We also need to ensure that money is spent on active farmers, not wilderness. And the distribution of money in the Less Favoured Areas (LFA) has to reflect the intensity of that activity.”
In Mr Miller’s opinion the Scottish Government’s much heralded Pack Report – a blueprint for Scottish farm support – which was published last year was useful in establishing principles, but failed to come up with appropriate delivery mechanisms for LFA producers.
“Under the Pack recommendations places like Orkney, north-east Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders would be significant losers as would LFA dairy producers.
“It’s vital we get that thrashed out because these regions produce the critical mass of livestock which maintains the country’s core beef and sheep industry. We can’t afford to lose them.”
At Stagehall, his 365ha (900-acre) farm on the edge of Stow village in the green valley – known as Galla Water, where the river flows through to join the Tweed in Galashiels – only the last few sheep are still lambing. True to his strong veterinary principles it’s a closed flock of 900 ewes – half of them crosses and the other half North Country Cheviots. There are also 170 suckler cows of traditional breeds. Most of the farm is grassland, but there’s around 607ha (1,500 acres) of hill land, some cereals and a small area of forestry is currently being planted.
In this part of the country though, trees have become a sensitive subject.
Like many other farmers Mr Miller is extremely sceptical about the Scottish government’s forestry targets, which aim for 25% of the land mass to be covered in trees by 2050 instead of the current 17%. The controversial policy has already seen many hill farms bought for planting, which has created deep tensions in remote rural areas where the Forestry Commission has allegedly approached hill farmers to sell entire farms. The strategy is now of serious concern to the union which has recently asked government to “think again”.
“The policy was adopted when we didn’t fully understand the carbon recycling system on grassland or the importance of peat land in carbon terms,” he said. “Some of the policy drivers may be false and could have a disastrous knock-on effect on fragile communities in high valleys. Too much forestry in the wrong places would change livestock systems and impact on the critical mass of production.
“We are keen that the new government, which will be elected on 5 May, should look again at a land-use strategy and focus more on regional policies. We want to contribute to that debate and have made that known to all the political parties.”
NFU Scotland might not have agreed with every policy taken by successive Scottish governments since 1999, but Mr Miller firmly believes devolution has been good for farming and the rural community.
“It has given us a better platform than our colleagues have south of the border. It’s easier to influence politicians,” he said.
An issue close to his heart is what he regards as the “heavy-handed”, disproportionate penalties imposed on those who fail the rigorous EU cross-compliance inspection system. He argues that the severe penalties for even minor faults drain the energy out of farming and act as a major disincentive for young people to get involved in the industry. However, he is optimistic that NFU Scotland may have devised a solution that Scotland might one day pilot for the whole of Europe.
“We’ve been looking at finding a way of achieving a high degree of self-regulation, which would take the form of a professional body which farmers could pay to join. There would be a sort of pre-MOT check that would cover all the controls on the farm and which, if successfully passed, would put farmers outside the penalty system.
“We have discussed the idea with the commission and it is keen to investigate it further, as is the Scottish government, which recognises that this country’s livestock bias means some compliance systems are particularly challenging and even one fault on a passport can tip a farmer into a penalty situation.
“The government knows that if our scheme worked it would mean higher levels of compliance, a better buy-in from farmers, cost savings, less conflict and an end to the car-crash scenarios we’re currently witnessing. It would take farm assurance to a totally different level.
“The idea has been discussed with the NFUS board in the past week, which has agreed that, for a significant number of members, it could be a real step forward. The commission is looking at it as we speak and we are optimistic that something along these lines could be adopted in the 2013-14 reforms.
“We might even get the Scottish government to back a pilot before then, which would create a template for all member states.”
Some of the old chestnuts, which were a key part of policy in the previous two NFUS presidencies, have still to be cracked and Mr Miller has frequently insisted that he intends to continue the fight for a more equitable share of the market value for food producers. He said he has been encouraged by the support from the public on occasions when the union has mounted demonstrations at supermarkets.
“We need to be proactive in monitoring supply chains and getting more powers for the adjudicator to investigate and expose profit margins at all levels,” he said. “It’s something we want to move on – fast.”
The scale of the challenges in the next few years is not lost on this steady Borders farmer who has never been one to settle for an easy or predictable life. As a young man he regarded following his father into the farm as too comfortable an option and instead left home to study vet medicine in Edinburgh. The professional training not only gave him the opportunity to work professionally off the farm, but also gave him added authority in negotiations with Westminster during the Bluetongue crisis and subsequently as the Scottish beef industry has acquired TB-free status and is now working towards the same position for Bovine Viral Diarrhoea.
Stagehall is currently run by Malcolm and Angus, two of his four sons, and unlike many farming fathers Mr Miller clearly enjoys relinquishing control and watching another generation make changes. Letting them get on with the work may be easy, but on a sunny spring day when the ewes are lambing he admits to being torn when he has to get into his car and head for Edinburgh, London or Brussels instead.
But the comments are rapidly followed by his trademark stoicism: “The intensity of commitment and travel has definitely picked up and there’s a certain loss of control of my life. But I guess that’s part of the deal. I’m here to do the job.”