After-dinner speeches can be a bit of a mixed bag. Some are very good and others terrible, some are funny and others are serious.
The one given to the Fellows and Associates of the Royal Agricultural Societies last Thursday night at Ingliston was in the very good but serious category.
The Fellows and Associates might be seen as a daunting audience. It would be difficult to find a gathering with more knowledge and experience of the agricultural industry than these men and women. Between them they have seen it all and tried most of it.
Quite a task, then, for young Lanarkshire dairy farmer Jim Baird. In a family partnership on 450 acres, he milks 340 cross-bred cows on a forage-based system.
He hardly spoke about his farm, though. His subject was entrepreneurialism and the need for Scottish farming to see more of it.
He said his views had been forged partly from his own approach to business, where reinforcing the bottom line came before pride in achieving top yields.
But they had been greatly boosted by a recent Nuffield Scholarship sponsored by the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland.
Again Jim didn’t say much about the farms he had visited around the world, but instead majored on the people he had met. Those who succeeded had in common a refreshing brand of entrepreneurialism which took little account of convention or of what others were doing.
In the US in particular failure didn’t carry the same stigma as it did in Scotland. In American eyes It was more admirable to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.
Some of the most successful farmers were those who had become decision-makers at an early age. They learned from their mistakes early in their careers.
But could all of this fresh enthusiasm be translated back to the Scottish experience?
Jim believed it could, but it would need a change in mindset. Talk of doom and gloom was counterproductive and only served to persuade people that they were in a twilight industry rather than one that was up for every challenge.
He was mildly critical of NFU Scotland, too, for concentrating exclusively on how much its members would receive from the new CAP.
This was a qualified remark, though, as he acknowledged that NFUS was a representative organisation and was duty-bound to argue for what its members saw as being in their best interests. I think that is fair.
More controversially, Jim argued that farming might be better off in the long term without subsidies at all. Most of the value, he argued, was capitalised in soaring land values or rent increases.
A similar point had been made at the conference which preceded the dinner.
As reported in Saturday’s Courier, John Campbell, who amusingly always describes himself as “a diversified hill farmer”, made the point that Rural Priorities grants had done nothing but distort markets leading to over-supply, especially in the poultry sector. Strong words considering, as he freely acknowledged, his own egg business had been a major beneficiary of the grant scheme.
Jim Baird’s theme, however, wasn’t centred on grants and subsidies as much as the need for personal development. He had taken part in the Scottish Enterprise Rural Leadership Course a few years ago and found it hugely beneficial. Over a decade 350 young Scots had been through the course, and many still kept in touch.
He was in two different dairy discussion groups where benchmarking and sharing of information openly were key elements.
He had also recently completed an MBA and was a board member of Dairyco, the milk industry levy body.
His philosophy, it appeared to me, was to mix self-help and cooperation. Having a clarity of purpose was key.
“Opportunity comes to the prepared mind,” he concluded.