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What the Scotland Independence Vote Means to Farmers

This Thursday will be a momentous moment in Scotland’s history as the country decides whether or not it will break up the 307-year-old United Kingdom and claim independence. The final decision will have impacts on all Scottish industries, including agriculture.

Farming is one of the most important industries in Scotland, second only to tourism for its impact on the rural economy. Annual output of Scottish farming is around £2,300 million (or $3,726,000), with livestock, cereal, and milk and dairy products as the top three outputs. The food and drink industry export £5.3 billion in goods each year, with whisky making up £4.3 billion of this export market.

Unrelated to the upcoming referendum, Scotland recently hosted 220 agriculture journalists from around the world for an international ag conference. Not surprisingly, the vote was a hot topic during the conference. Here are some comments from Scottish farmers and political representatives on the vote.

Both sides of the debate
As the National Farmers Union of Scotland President, Nigel Miller isn’t allowed to publicly voice his opinion on the impending vote. So his answer on what the vote means to farmers shows both sides of the debate.

“Scotland support levels [for farming subsidies] compared to those of Europe is a critical issue,” says Miller. “The U.K. did get an uplift in funding by €45 million from Europe, because the U.K. budget on average is lower than that of Europe. The issue is that most of that didn’t actually come to Scotland.”

Part of this argument is that Scotland’s ag interests differ from the rest of the U.K., Scottish farmers face different challenges, and rely more on subsides from the European Union (EU). By having a direct Scottish representative, Scotland would be able to negotiate and potentially get higher subsidies for its farmers. Right now, Scotland receives around €600 million a year in direct payments, at €130 per hectare (or $68.11 per acre). This is the third-lowest share of direct payments in the EU and lower than all the other parts of the U.K., where the average payment is €229.

The question is, “are we going to get a better deal negotiating for ourselves and being independent, or are we going to be better with the U.K.?” says Miller.

The other big issue for farmers is what a “yes” vote would do to export markets. Scotland does export food to Europe and other parts of the world, “but the reality is our big market is England,” explains Miller. “Do we want to exclude ourselves from British local food by being independent? That is something farmers are grappling with.”

One such farmer is Ian McLaren, who farms 3,000 acres in the Perthshire area of Scotland. He says, “80% of our market is south of the border. I don’t want a yes vote.”

Alex Salmond, Scotland First Minister who is leading the “Yes” campaign, also spoke at the conference. According to Salmond, you can explain the reason for a “yes” vote in four figures: 1%, 20%, 25%, and 60%.

“1% is Scotland’s population relative to the EU,” he says. “We have 5 million people and there are 500 million people in the EU.”

20% is Scotland’s share of the fish stocks in the EU; 25% is the country’s share of renewable energy reserves; and 60% is the share of oil reserves. “If you want to understand why Scotland should be independent, just think about these four figures and take the logic,” Salmond explains. He also points out that the food and farming industry is valued at €12 billion and in the last five years has increased exports by 50%. This was made possible, he says, through a range of initiatives and the quality of Scottish produce.

“I hope, I believe, indeed I know, that as we continue to consolidate our position and profile as a country that the agriculture industry will be a part of the framework that allows us greater success in the future,” he adds.

Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Miller says the most important thing is how the decision is handled. “The vote is an exciting thing, but we have to make a decision and whatever we do, bloody make it work,” he says. “Forget about being divided. The real win will be uniting together and making whatever settlement we make work.”

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