for Farmers Weekly November 2012
New Luce parish, where I farm, is a curious shape when you look at it on a map. It has that "odd-shaped vegetable" look about it that would make teenagers giggle and the minister spill his tea if it was brought to his attention.
I'm sure the monks, or whoever made up the parish map hundreds of years ago, weren't aware by following the contours of a hill burn they were sketching a fair representation of the contents of a gentleman's underpants.
I'm also pretty certain they were not aware they were mapping out the future of European support for agriculture in Scotland.
Nevertheless, here we are in the 21st century and it's still a gerrymandered map to suit the capabilities of a minister's horse that forms the backbone of Scottish farm support.
The Less Favoured Area support mechanism still uses parish boundaries to define its qualifying area and if the Scottish government follows the advice of the Pack Inquiry, parish boundaries will be pressed into service yet again.
It's not that science and innovation have not moved on in Scotland. We have modern maps that would do a better job, we have just lacked the courage to use them.
The Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, now known as The James Hutton Institute, analysed and mapped most of the significant farming areas in Scotland 50 years ago. Its very detailed, colour-coded maps clearly show the great range of different soil types that are present right down to almost field level. The system is widely accepted by everyone as being the official agricultural land classification system in Scotland. It's just the kind of powerful tool that we should be using to direct support to farmers today.
Brian Pack initially mooted the idea of using the Macaulay Land Capability for Agriculture system when he made his interim report for the Pack Inquiry. Then, somehow, between his interim report and his final report, he changed tack and stumbled back down the road of using the capability of the parish minister's horse again.
Those on the wrong side of a parish boundary could find themselves producing the same product on the same type of land as their neighbour, but under a very different set of support criteria if the final recommendations from the Pack Inquiry are taken up.
To highlight the absurdity of the parish system, there is a bun-fight going on in Scotland, centred on the winners and losers that will be created when the current Less Favoured Area Support Scheme is replaced by the Areas of Natural Constraint prescribed by Europe.
With parish boundaries again being pressed into use to apply the qualifying criteria, the consequence is that of a couple of parishes on the west coast will lose out while a couple on the east coast seem set to become winners. Can you think of a better way to stir up acrimony than that?
I think the Macaulay system holds the key to an improved method for farm support in Scotland. It's an objective system focusing on land, instead of an archaic system made to fit rather awkwardly over the years.
Most eight year olds, once it was explained to them what the different colours meant on a Macaulay map, could draw up a new set of boundaries that would serve us better than the old parish maps. That is, as long as the grown-ups weren't allowed to interfere.