The new chief of Scotland’s red meat levy body has the unenviable task of showcasing the organisation’s merits at a time when farmers across the UK are questioning their support for statutory levy bodies.
However Sarah Millar, who recently took over the reigns as chief executive at Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), says she is ready to listen to, and communicate with, levy payers across Scotland.
Mrs Millar – a proud farmer’s daughter from Lanarkshire and an Angus farmer’s wife – says she has been made from the community she is now working in.
“The challenges that I hear farmers, processors and auction markets face, I hear every morning over the breakfast table and I hear every night,” said Mrs Millar.
“That means I understand those challenges first-hand and also the cumulative impact of smaller challenges that mount up.
“In my role at QMS it means I need to take cognizant of that; sometimes we just need to take a step back and look at ourselves from the lens of our levy payers.”
Quality Meat Scotland’s counterparts down south, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), are doing just that.
Following levy-payer votes to abolish its horticulture and potato remits, AHDB is currently running a ballot for its other levy payers – which includes red meat producers south of the border – asking them to vote on their priorities for the future and to score the areas of work delivered by AHDB.
Mrs Millar said she would be open to a similar ballot at QMS, but only if that’s what levy-payers wanted.
“That would very much need to come from the members themselves,” said Mrs Millar.
“My ears are definitely listening but I suppose I would hope that we can demonstrate our impact so that they feel that is not a necessary route that they need to go down.”
Mrs Millar acknowledged recent criticism of the organisation’s assurance schemes and complaints about the loss of the Scotch premium, but said assurance was there to ensure market access, rather than setting a price.
“The assurance scheme really is there to open up doors to market,” added Mrs Millar.
“None of the major processors will take animals that are non-assured. Any of the volume markets are looking for that assurance standard.”
Showcasing the work of QMS – which oversees and promotes the Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb and Specially Selected Pork brands – is a priority for Mrs Millar going forward.
“We need to demonstrate our impact and be able to put a tangible output on what our impact is on the industry that we ultimately work with,” said Mrs Millar.
“Since I’ve been appointed, myself and Kate Rowell [QMS chairwoman] have been out as much as we can in the farming community and we have been listening very hard.”
She added: “We are looking to come out at the end of April with some more details about how we are going to address that because part of the challenge has been that for the last two years we have been behind a computer screen.
“We have really missed that face-to-face engagement and being able to showcase at events like the Royal Highland Show or Taste of Grampian what we do as a farming organisation.”
She said some of the work that QMS has been doing during the pandemic includes developing and running promotional campaigns, including the current Meat In The Middle initiative to encourage flexitarians to buy Scottish red meat, and working to develop a road-map for how the red meat sector will reach net zero.
“Climate change still, you know despite everything that’s going on, is the biggest challenge we as an industry collectively face,” said Mrs Millar.
“But for us there’s something, which is a bit of a perverse thing, that the war in Ukraine has brought into a sharper focus; the world still needs to eat.
“Climate change will impact globally how we produce food but in the UK, and in Scotland in particular, we have a really good news story because we have a natural production base -nature resources, the grass, the rain, and the topography – that lends itself to growing meat protein and ultimately growing calories for our domestic production.
“It means we are not relying on those calories from other parts of the world who may not be able to produce them in away that actually lends itself to meat.”
And Mrs Millar’s message to anyone questioning what QMS does, the role of farm assurance or anything else related to the red meat industry is to get in touch.
“I want to see a Scottish red meat supply chain that communicates, respects and drives goals together and we want to increase the Scottish red meat value chain year-on-year,” said Mrs Millar.
“The very first step in all this is to renew our visibility with our levy payers, revamping our engagement and communications, but also rebuilding trust.
“I think if there’s one thing I’ve listened to it’s that farmers want to be able to trust us. For me, as a product of the farming community, that’s something I want to be able to do.”
She encouraged anyone wanting to get in touch to send an email to email@example.com and said: “I’m happy to speak to people and go through any concerns; we are not a closed door and we are happy to have these discussions.”