Andrew Arbuckle: Plenty of food for thought among the carrots and ice-cream

OTHER than having artificial stars shining in the roof, the main hall at the Fairmont Hotel, St Andrews bears a close resemblance to Grand Central station in New York.

Then to accentuate the Stateside look of the hotel the main staircase might well have been used by Fred Astaire half a century ago on account of the way it wends its way down into the hall.

But today there will be no dancing lightly up and down the stairway, instead there will be the slightly heavier but hopefully not muddy tread of farmers from all across the country arriving for the annual meeting of NFU Scotland.

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The delegates will adjust easily to the change of date with this first ever annual meeting of NFU Scotland to be held at the beginning of the week. Some of them may even forget they are far from home on St Valentine's day.

And why do they gather? For some it is an opportunity to catch up with friends from all around the country. So the hotel will reverberate with dialects from different parts of the country.

Almost universally they will open their conversations with a comment on the weather. And, in this regard but none other, the weather this winter has been kind, giving tremendous opportunities for comparison with momentously hard weather in years long gone.

The farmers will also gather to catch up on the latest political moves and this year there is a fair edge to this part of the agenda.

Capitalizing on the fact that this year there will be Scottish Parliament elections, the union will be holding a hustings as part of the two day jamboree.

Representatives of the major political parties will be on parade and their policies will come under scrutiny from an audience whose lives are largely shaped by political decisions.

Also on the political menu is a visit from the south by Defra minister Jim Paice, who will speak this afternoon. His contribution and thoughts on how his government will present the UK case will be listened to with rapt attention. There is great concern that the attitude to CAP reform south of the border is completely different to the favoured options of the Pack report.

If that is still not sufficient political input, Scotland's cabinet secretary for rural affairs, Richard Lochhead will speak to and take questions from delegates tomorrow morning on all topical agricultural matters.

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As is the custom, the cabinet secretary will arrive with a little bag of goodies. It is the modern political equivalent of beads and glass mirrors for the natives.

So what will he bring this week?

I would reckon the news will be on the government's animal health plans.As for the gifts, government pockets are pretty empty these days but there is an election on the horizon so something will be scraped together.

The minister's contribution will take place immediately following the election of the new union president, with current holder Jim McLaren standing down after four years in the top seat.

According to the impressive board of honour at union headquarters, the new man - and all have so far been men - will be the 60th NFU Scotland president following on from a certain W Donald from Ayrshire some 96 years ago.

The name to go up in the frame will be either Neil Miller or Allan Bowie, the two current vice-presidents; both able operators and if the betting fraternity are to be believed with little between them for the agricultural punter. If he is unsuccessful in his bid for the presidential slot, Bowie has indicated he will contest for one of the two vice president places. There he will compete with Alan Crichton, John Picken and Ian Wilson.

Union chief executive, James Withers commented on his blog that the union was fortunate in having such a strong hand in those willing to take on the top job.

The self same urbane Withers did not even blink when one commentator suggested the interest in the union top job was only because they saw it as an entry into the chairmanship of Quality Meat Scotland; two of the previous union top men having parachuted into that quango.

So some delegates will come for the craic and some for the political steer but all will relish the meal put on tonight.

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Although the union has long ago abandoned the practice of the annual meeting travelling around the regions of Scotland, it has stuck to the policy of having the food provided from the region in which it would have been held.

Tonight the meal will celebrate some of the best produce from the Ayrshire region of NFU Scotland.

With Ayrshire in the frame, the main course will centre of some Ayrshire beef coming after an opening course of pheasant and Ayrshire bacon terrine. Somewhat daringly, the pudding course will consist of sweet Ayrshire-produced carrots with ice cream, followed by a selection of local cheeses.

And after all this - and possible some of the water of life - some delegates will stagger up the grand winding staircase slightly less steadily than they were on the way down.