A Perspective on Women in Agriculture and life at D&R by Alison Aitken
Posted: 7 February 2019
It's quite often the case that, as a farmer’s daughter – especially if you have a brother – you might know that you want to work in the industry, but the reality is that you may never take over the farm.
This was the case for Alison Aitken, who was brought up on her family farm in Peeblesshire, alongside her brother and two sisters.
Keen on the farm, but never holding any intention to take on the role of active farmer, Alison did an honours degree in Glasgow, before blazing her trail in the world of rural surveying, a role that sees her massively involved in the agricultural industry.
She took the time out of her busy schedule to tell The SF a bit about herself, her job, and how she views certain aspects of the modern world of farming.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your background?
I was brought up on a beef and sheep farm in Peeblesshire, and I always loved being involved in the business.
It was always going to be my brother, Michael, who took the farm on, though, and that has indeed, happened.
I did a commercial surveying degree at Glasgow Caledonian University, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do long-term. I did, however, know that I didn’t want a job that would mean I was stuck in an office, five days a week.
I took a year out, and it was then that I decided that I wanted to go down the route of rural surveying.
What is your home life like?
I stay in Glasgow just now. My other half works in Stirling as a land manager for a housing developer, so Glasgow is the ideal commute for us both. I like Glasgow as a city, from the point of view that you don’t feel too far away from rural areas. That really suits me.
Work wise, my partner and my paths do cross very occasionally, but he has to deal with my colleagues more regularly than we’ve had to deal with each other – which is probably a good thing!
How did you end up at Davidson and Robertson?
A job came up at Bowlts Chartered Surveyors, in Elgin, and I jumped at the opportunity. It was there that I carried out my training, qualifying as a Chartered Rural Surveyor in 2014. Working in the North-east was a great experience. Then three years ago, I started at Davidson and Robertson in their Bathgate office. In 2017 I gained Fellow of the Central Association for Agricultural Valuers (FAAV) and I’m also an RICS Registered Valuer.
Due to expansion, our office moved to a base in Linlithgow. Shortly after, I transferred to the to the Lanark office and am now a Senior Surveyor and Branch Manager there too.
What does your working day consist of?
I do a little bit of everything. I always tell people that you need to know a lot, about a lot, in this line of work. There’s a really wide range of things which we deal with.
I largely do a lot of property management work, dealing with both landlords and tenants. I like to think I’m balanced when it comes to the two sides, with a foot equally in both camps.
I also do a lot of utility work, but on behalf of landowners and farmers, not for the utility companies. I like to think that we help protect our clients from pressures bigger businesses may apply.
I do occasional farm sales and valuations, often for tax or lending purposes. I also head the property management working group within the firm.
What do you enjoy about your role?
I do enjoy doing sales work, especially if they’re an existing client that I have a relationship with. You can often be helping people going through retirement and things like that, and they are often not easy situations, so it’s good when you know people and know that you are providing them with the service that they need and deserve.
I also like that no two days are ever the same, and I’m out and about a lot, seeing clients and going to meetings. We have clients all over the country, so I get to travel a lot and see different areas.
I’m largely Central Belt-based, but I also do work elsewhere in Scotland, as well as in Northern Ireland. It’s good to see what other people are up to, it certainly gives me a wide range of experiences.
What is the set up at Davidson and Robertson?
At Davidson and Robertson here in Lanark, we have three full time staff, a Director, a surveyor and me along with one part time land agent, who also works on his family farm at home. .
There are nine D & R offices in total, with around 50 staff – spread out from Cockermouth right up to Maud in Aberdeenshire.
We need to be spread out, and location based like that, so that we can give our clients the best service possible and be accessible for them.
Our sales are growing year on year, and we are seeing more and more coming through.
How do you view your role as a woman, within the business?
I would say, as a company, there’s quite a 50/50 male/female split, and there are definitely more women coming through into professional roles.
In our graduate intake this year, three of the four individuals are female, so that’s encouraging.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever felt discrimination, being a woman.
One story does stick in my mind, though. As a trainee with my previous company, I went out to shadow on a rent review for a farmer in his 70s or 80s. When myself and my colleague went into his house, he pointed me towards the kitchen to, ‘put the kettle on’.
I didn’t take that as discrimination mind you, I more considered it as elderly people being stuck in their ways.
I’m a great believer that the best person for the job should get it, regardless of who they are, or where they come from.
I attended the Women in Agriculture breakfast seminar at the start of the Royal Highland Show this year. The marquee was packed and there was a real buzz. I totally agree with what Minette Batters said – the success of women in agriculture comes when being a woman in the job isn’t newsworthy.
If you work hard and deserve a role, that’s the role you should be given.
What issues do you see facing the industry, just now?
There are a lot of issues coming up for us, such as the Tenant’s Amnesty. We’re doing a lot of work on behalf of Tenants and Landlords, but I think we need to make more people aware that the Amnesty is actually taking place and the importance of it.
We’re certainly not touting for work on the back of it, because you don’t need an agent to be involved in order to take part.
I genuinely just see the process as a massive opportunity for both tenants and landlords, that could have so many positive ramifications for their relationship in the years to come.
We have some tenant clients that are going through their process on their own, face to face with their landlords, with us giving them advice in the background, and I think that is a really good way of doing it.
Quite a few people are disregarding the Amnesty if they are comfortable that they have reliable successors, but even then I urge people to take part, it really will help in the long run.
Brexit and its effects are certainly going to be a hot topic for the next few years - but it’s still a bit wait and see. Regardless of the final form Brexit takes, businesses that are proactive and fully understand their asset base, income and costs, will be best placed to succeed. At D & R we’re encouraging our clients to be proactive, supporting them with strategic planning to help turn Brexit’s uncertainty into a positive direction for the future.
Those who are clearest about where they are now and their potential opportunities are best placed to handle whatever the outcome.
Do you think that land agents get an unfair reputation?
In many ways, yes, unfortunately. As an industry, we’re trying to improve the reputation of land agents. We all seem to get ‘tarred with the same brush’ in many ways, but when it comes to landlord/tenant relationships, for example, we really do want to be seen as fair.
Some agents do come down on one side or the other, but we make a concerted effort not to be like that.
It’s not a bad thing to get a land agent involved in your business – the majority of the time it really does help!
How do you view the future for Davidson and Robertson?
The company as a whole is definitely growing and maturing. In the relatively short time since I started with the business, I have seen four new offices open, and that’s something that I would like to see continuing.
The market place is changing - we are looking at a lot more diversifications, more work with renewable energy and forestry. Traditional landlord/tenant relationships are changing too.
When I won my award last year within the CAAV (the President’s Prize for the highest mark in Scotland) – which was a great honour – I was the fifth person in seven years from Davidson and Robertson to win it, and I think that speaks volumes about us a company. It was a major achievement.
We take on a lot of graduates, but we don’t get them qualified then like to see them go elsewhere, we try our best to keep them within the company and help them grow professionally.
We’re generally quite a young company, and quite a lot of people comment on that, but I see it as a strength. We also have plenty of experienced, senior staff, and I think the combination of the two is an invaluable asset.
What are your plans for the future?
As far as my future is concerned, I’m looking forward to continuing to develop my career within Davidson and Robertson.
I’ve actually just been promoted to Lanark branch manager, so I’m excited to build on that and help the company continue to develop and grow.
As an office, we have a really good client base, and I really enjoy working with them. Generally, I just really enjoy my job. It’s like anything in the world of agriculture, it’s always changing and keeps you on your toes – I certainly never get bored!