January 2018
We have lift off!

At the time of writing, Heb Veg is in the final throes of an overly long delivery, and what follows is an outline guide for you to consider what it would take to grow your own and why you should consider it.

We moved to Ness just over three years ago with a vision of being self-sustaining and delivering fresh fruit and veg to the local community. Whilst that ideal remains we have had to adjust our timetable.

Our Croft had to go through first registration, followed by a subdivision, and then assignation. Through no one’s fault, other than overly bureaucratic process, that process took nearly 2 years. If we had found that arduous, it was as nothing compared to navigating the Common Agricultural Grant System (CAGS), which was put into place to part fund capital works, but in reality puts up a number of blocks to innovative crofting ideas, instead focusing on traditional beef and lamb.

Indeed so intransigent is the system that our original application was rejected first time because “the growing fruit and vegetables is not a justifiable agricultural use of a Croft.”

An appeal and pressure from local councillors and Scottish politicians eventually saw this decision reversed, but at a cost of a further six months. However, at the end of that period, we had an agreement to receive grant funding for four Polycrubs.

For those who are unaware Polycrubs are the Arnold Schwarzenegger of polytunnels and have been field tested in Shetland for the last nine years in winds up to 120 miles an hour.

Sold by Nortenergy, the polycrubs is made from marine rigging and twin ply polycarbonate sheets which will insulate horticulture from windburn and provide a suitable growing environment for a range of vegetables.

Nutritional advice is a moving feast, and accepted wisdom is constantly changing. Generally speaking, the view is that meat is likely to become a luxury within our lifetime, and for health reasons should be consumed no more than once a week. Further, fresh fruit and vegetables should make up a minimum of two-thirds of our diet, in order to ensure that we receive the balance of vitamins and minerals our bodies require.

Into this mix comes the spectre of Brexit. Regardless of what political position you take, the bare facts are that 75% of all food consumed in the UK comes from Europe, and 90% of seasonal labour associated with fruit picking likewise comes from the EU. When challenged about this in a recent Radio Four interview, Michael Gove flippantly replied that the UK “will just grow more.” Clearly, he has not given any consideration to land availability and that the grant system is funded by the European Union. Whichever way you play the scenario out, food costs are going to rise significantly in a post-Brexit Britain and, in an era of ongoing austerity where inflation constantly outstrips wage growth, a panacea to that is to grow your own.

Whilst the Isle of Lewis has a rich history of agriculture, at present it imports in excess of 90% of all consumed food from the mainland. Recent history, such as the refinery blockade of 2000 and the widespread riots of 2011, shows the fragility of our national institutions when facing significant public ire and one must question how urgently our governments would address the matter should the ferries not run or the cost of even the most basic food become beyond the reach of the ordinary public, such as has happened in Venezuela. How high up their list of priorities will the Western Isles be?

Growing your own your own vegetables is relatively easy, albeit time-consuming. However the payback, in the long run, will be more than worth it. That said there are a number of things to consider, chiefly soil conditions (a survey and report can be undertaken for as little as £40), track access (if you are planning a commercial venture), and a water supply for irrigation. Whilst at first daunting these issues can be easily addressed. SAC in Stornoway have taken care of our soil report and Danda Gillies has put in a new track to the Croft for us. We are fortunate to benefit from a fresh water spring on the land, but there are a range of options available including the use of water butts and timed pumps leading into drip systems.

The wonderful land of the Internet offers a myriad of ways to increase yield growth and maintain healthy soil. Effective compost can be easily achieved by mixing horse manure, local seaweed, and male urine and left to decompose for a year. An alternative is the use of chicken manure and, as with horses, you are looking for a mix of 30 parts of carbon to 1 part nitrogen to create the ideal environment for microbes to break down the organic material into compost.

An additional way to promote soil health is breeding and release of earthworms. Whilst the density of earthworms in the soil is considered to be an indicator of soil health, the Western Isles suffers in this regard. Earthworms are considered important as they improve many soil attributes such as moisture content, water capacity, and structure. It is easy to bring on a small wormery inside your house, fed on detritus that would usually go in the green compost, and then transfer outside when the worms are mature.

Finally, technological advances continue to drive innovation. Previously expensive grow lamps that were highly energy inefficient have been replaced by LED equivalents and cost less than 2%than that of their bigger cousins, as well as having a substantially lower power usage. Combined with solar-panel powered drip systems, it estimated that nominal capital expense can see drastically reduced grow times and yields up to 500% greater than those crops that do not use Grow LEDs and drip irrigation.

In closing it is important to consider what the payoff is. In an era where most bank accounts offer little to no interest, it is estimated capital outlay will be recouped in 2-4yrs, and that is to say nothing of the mental and physical health benefits of working outside. That said, do not estimate the amount of time is takes to seed, weed, and crop. For all that, the final product on your plate will far exceed anything that you buy in the supermarket.

In the next instalment, I hope to detail the installation process of the Polycrub, and the first stage of seeding of this year’s crops.