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Dingwall veg box producer pulls plug as costs soar – and warns more will fold without government help

Staff are being laid off at Knockfarrel where the decision was taken to stop planting this year.

Jo Hunt, Knockfarrel veg box producer
Jo Hunt took his urgent message to the Scottish Parliament. Image: Supplied.

A crofter behind a successful veg box scheme has laid off staff and pulled the plug on this year’s planting because of soaring costs and lack of financial support.

Jo Hunt, of Knockfarrel near Dingwall, revealed the difficult decision as he made a warning to government about the desperate need to reform taxpayer support for small-scale agricultural businesses.

“We’ve been doing all the right things, producing food, locking up carbon, creating jobs and value, but it’s not enough,” he said.

“We’ve had MSPs visit to see all the good work here but the pats on the head have to turn into money. We need to reward farming.”

Three of his four staff were given notice at the enterprise, now 15 years old and established in the community.

Knockfarrel near Dingwall
Knockfarrel stopped planting near Dingwall because of soaring cost of production. Image: Supplied.

The scheme supplies 220 boxes a week to customers. But their spending has dropped 15% because household bills are rising.

At the same time, pig feed for the croft’s animals is up 70% while energy and insurance bills have doubled.

Mr Hunt’s company only gets £1230 a year basic payment grant based on eligible food production land while larger farmers can rely on bigger subsidies, he said.

In previous years, he could expect turnover of more than £200,000 a year, allowing him to reinvest about £15,000.

But that available sum reduced to zero last year and will be a £20,000 loss this year.

‘We’d fold by summer’

“If we begin planting this season, we’d fold by summer,” he said.

“Our customers have been supportive and some offered to pay more, but our food shouldn’t just be for those with more money.

“It was a hard decision to take, especially with staff at this time when the cost of living is so hard.”

Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon
Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon is steering agriculture reforms at Holyrood. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

He bought the croft with his family in 2010 and set about improving 40 acres of unproductive grazing ground and an old croft house.

The business was improved with new buildings, fencing, soil improvements, woodland and organic methods.

He prides the business with being “carbon negative” at a time when reversing climate change is high on political agendas.

The business had about 80 types of fruit and veg, as well as meat. Other produce such as lamb was sourced from neighbouring farms.

Knockfarrel veg box producer: ‘Reward those who deliver the goods’

Mr Hunt was an economist before developing the business and is now working two days a week as a consultant to make up for the downturn.

He took his message directly to the Scottish Parliament this week as part of a wide consultation to reform agricultural support.

The Scottish Government is looking at how to pick up where Brexit caused problems for subsidies, regulations and future support.

Mr Hunt wants the SNP to test a minimum income on his sector, and to consider paying small business by staff numbers instead of small amounts of land.

“If the new Agriculture Bill is to live up to its promise of a Just Transition to sustainable farming, then it needs to reward those of us who can actually deliver the goods – no matter the size of their farm,” he added.

“In the switch to regenerative farming, big is no longer best.”

UK budget concerns

On Wednesday morning, Scottish Government rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon was in Holyrood to answer MSPs’ questions about the progress of reform.

She was told the initial framework appears too vague and producers need clarity.

Ms Gougeon said: “This is why the evidence the committee is under taking is so important and why we go through this process.”

She also raised concerns about being able to set out how much money is available to support producers.

“It’s not possible for me to make a commitment on multi-annual funding when I have no clarity beyond next year what our availability will be from the UK Government,” she said.