This week’s stinging attack on the Shetland Livestock Marketing Group (SLMG) was about as ferocious as debating gets in the Town Hall and illustrated the hostility between factions which plagues the islands’ agricultural industry.
SLMG chairman Ronnie Eunson was not present to listen to the debate. Nor was former SLMG chairman Jim Budge, the SIC councillor whose plea last month for the group to be given the £25,000 it needed to prepare a make-or-break business plan had failed in the chamber.
Wednesday’s attempt to restore the grant to £25,000 instead of the £12,500 it had been cut to by the development committee eventually failed by 10 votes to nine. It was convener Sandy Cluness who raised the issue, calling for the previous decision to be reversed. He said it had been put to him that SLMG was a very worthwhile organisation and with the government defying state aid rules to pump billions of pounds into keeping banks and car companies going, £25,000 did not seem an awful lot. Frank Robertson backed him.
Vice-convener Josie Simpson, as chairman of development, had been responsible for the grant application being hauled before councillors last month rather than being approved internally by officials. He backed the decision to offer only half.
Many members wanted to have their say. Allan Wishart backed increasing the grant, saying that fishing and crofting were the two original Shetland industries and absolutely essential to island life. It was council policy to try to sustain rural communities and crofters were the people who could live on the land in those areas.
Gary Robinson was against increasing what he considered to have been a “very generous” previous offer and he was concerned a precedent would be set by supporting SLMG. He said there had been “a degree of sabre-rattling from one or two individuals” in SLMG and now the council was expected to roll over to their demands.
Allison Duncan had missed the last debate on SLMG and went straight for the jugular. “I totally oppose giving them any money at all,” he said. “SLMG is a Mickey Mouse outfit. They are out for themselves and don’t give a damn for the benefit of Shetland agriculture.”
With 235 members it represented less than one-third of “the agriculturalists” in Shetland. Criticising the group’s trade with Faroe, which landed it with bad debt, he asked whether a credit check had been done on the company which took the lamb. Then he alleged: “Some of the food that went there was unfit for human consumption.”
Caroline Miller found Mr Duncan’s comments offensive and asked that her disapproval be recorded. “Good!” Mr Duncan replied. Later Mr Simpson censured Mr Duncan, saying he could not accept his language regarding SLMG. A lot of people had worked very hard in the group and it was wrong to accuse them of doing it for themselves, which, he said, “always happens in a small community”.
Rick Nickerson also waded into SLMG, expressing serious concerns about the state of the company and the fact it was being considered for assistance without having to provide the kind of financial details any ordinary member of the public would have to do.
Andrew Hughson said he was most concerned that the convener was willing to offer assistance in contravention of state aid rules, an act which he was not prepared to accept.
Frank Robertson said the group did very well indeed in running livestock sales in conjunction with Aberdeen & Northern Marts. If the group collapsed it would cause problems getting rid of stock. The deal to send lamb to Faroe had gone wrong because the businessman paid for the first shipment but not the second and then he “disappeared”. He said SLMG was looking into new markets on the continent but they needed to be developed and crofters had to have the confidence to finish small lambs to the standard required.
Addie Doull pointed out that although SLMG does not have a lot of members there were many more non-members who made use of its services. One non-member who does want to start using the group’s auction mart and sales service is Laura Baisley who said she regretted not having been a member and was impressed by a “very efficient and professional” pony sale she attended last year. She said one of the problems was that smaller crofters were too complacent and had not been forced to co-operate with other producers, which was what was needed.
Bill Manson warned it would be far more difficult to create a new sales and marketing organisation than to keep SLMG going. He was sure somebody would “appear out of the dark” to run a sale but just what kind of sale would it be? As for losing the Laxfirth abattoir, he said it would be “utterly ridiculous” if islanders could not eat lamb without it being shipped out first.