Farmers’ union members elected Andrew McCornick as their new president this week. Nancy Nicolson spoke to him immediately after the hard-fought election
What you see is what you get.
That was Andrew McCornick’s mantra throughout NFU Scotland’s long election campaign and it was still his slogan two hours after he emerged the victor. And it’s probably a fair self-assessment: from the minute you meet him you get the impression this big Dumfriesshire farmer is a man who rarely wavers in his beliefs.
In many ways he is an archetypal farmer. Strong hands are testament to the physical graft of livestock work; his manner is quiet and determined; and his language is unambiguous.
“The First Minister’s coming soon. Get tore in and get our message across,” he told his audience just seconds after being elected.
And while he says it was difficult to challenge the incumbent president, Allan Bowie, he has made it clear since November that he believes the union and the industry is in dire need of a different style of leadership.
“It was a big, big decision but I was getting a lot of people asking me to put myself forward for it and that was the main driver,” he said.
“It started when people became aware that an election was possible, that Allan and I had both been in the top team for two years. Members were saying ‘we want you to take on the presidency’.
“They wanted something different. They had seen how I worked as vice-president, how I operate, and the sort of technical stuff that I get involved in. I understand it and I was able to communicate it to them.”
From the outset of the campaign he made it established that it was an all-or-nothing fight and he wasn’t prepared to stay on as vice-president.
“It meant that at least there would be change at that level even if I didn’t get the president job,” he said.
“Succession is important to me. It’s important to my own business and its important to this place too. We can’t have the same-old, same-old. We need energy and freshness, to keep churning that over, not sitting in a rut. We need people who’re going to think afresh – and there are people out there with great skills and abilities. Let’s harvest that and make our industry better.”
McCornick believes he was successful because he made it clear he was determined to ‘see things more robustly attended to’.
“Yes, I’m outspoken but I don’t want to burn bridges. We need to go in with a solid message and it needs to be backed up with knowledge.”
His mission, he says, is to achieve a profitable agricultural industry that’s sustainable and innovative.
“If we get a proper return from the market we don’t need support but until we get a proper value for what we’re producing there needs to be support and for some sectors more than others.”
In the short term his most pressing challenge is to draw up a union strategy for a post-Brexit world.
“We need to get this strategy in place because there’s a vacuum needing to be filled so it’s where our priority should be. We then need to get it out to the membership and let them rip it to pieces and shape it. That’s the way my brain is working just now, but obviously the new board will have a view and they make the decisions.
“We’ve got a cracking team, new faces on the board. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and energy and you’ll see that coming out.”
Back home, beef and sheep are the cornerstones of the McCornick farming business at the 230 hectares Barnbackle unit near Lochfoot. Alongside his wife Janice and two of his sons he farms 160 suckler cows and 600 breeding ewes. There are also with small herds of Charolais and Luing cattle. He was brought up on a dairy farm in Wigtown and spent two years on the union’s milk committee before working on an arable farm as a young farmer, so he has a broad overview of most sectors of the industry.
The day-to-day farm work will be carried out by his family when he’s immersed in union business.
“It’s already in place. My wife and sons have noticed my absence over the last two years and that’s certainly not going to change. I’ve a good team at home and my boys are enthusiastic about me being away more,” he said.
“Janice and I started up in fairly humble beginnings and we built up a business we’re really proud of. The satisfaction is seeing our family getting on with the job, and I want that job to be something that’s profitable for these guys.”
And while he can’t hide his eagerness to get stuck in to Scottish farming’s top political job, he insists he won’t to be transformed by the high-profile role.
He said: “I set out in life to be a farmer and I will always feel like a farmer. That hasn’t changed. I want to be out there as a representative of the membership and I’ve got the support to do it now.”