Category Archives: Crofting

May 2018
Providing For Pollinators

With so many local holdings left as bare-croft, the windy conditions giving rise to windburn, and windblown salt spray causing saltburn to unprotected crops, it is easy to dismiss pollinators and their habitats as being too delicate for the harsher hebridean climes.

However, pollinators are vital to creating and maintaining the habitats and ecosystems that many animals rely on for food and shelter, and they facilitate the reproduction in up to 90% of the world’s flowering plants.

Approximately 1,000 of the plants grown for food, beverages, fibers and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we rely. In fact, one out of every three bites of food, from vegetables to fruits to edible oils, are a direct result of pollination services. In the U.S. alone, bees and other insects produce $40 billion worth of products annually through the process of pollination, and across Europe, the figure is estimated to be upwards of £75 billion.

Locally, a variety of bees and flies are a vital part of the wider ecological system, including fruit and vegetable production, and there are specific crops that can provide food to pollinators on crofts all of sizes.

One of the most important steps it to set aside areas for habitation. This could include rough grass, scrub, and the banks of drainage ditches and burns. By providing a diversity of flowering plants in these areas, so you can help support a wider range of pollinating insects with year-round food. Additionally, by planting willow, hawthorn, and other flowering shrubs, so you will boost the wind protection to your croft, and create natural shelter belts for livestock.

Existing areas that contain wildflowers, hedges and clover provide both food and shelter, as well as vital nesting and overwintering sites. Bare ground and moss covered areas will also provide an important habitat for bees and their nests. These areas can be managed with late season grazing to avoid disturbing active nesting site,   and to allow plants like wild mint, knapweed, and meadowsweet to flower. This diversity of plant is a great benefit to pollinating insects and ensures continuous food source that provides both essential sugars for energy and pollen which assists in breeding.

Croft holders can go even further by sowing clovers, wildflowers, and other nectar-rich species, such as birds-foot trefoil, vetches, and flax to promote insect habitation. It is worth noting that the number one reason for the decline in the bee population is habitat loss. Changes in our land use, including insensitive urban development and intensive farming, have caused significant losses and fragmentation of pollinator-friendly habitats. This results in bees losing the diverse food sources they need for a healthy diet.

It’s vital that bees have enough flowers to forage – and safe places to use for nesting, among vegetation, the soil and hedges. But since the Second World War, we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, leaving our bees with little natural habitat.

The loss of key habitats on farmland in particular has meant that wildlife, including bees, have become more dependent on protected wildlife sites. Yet government figures  show that in the UK, only 6% of habitats protected by EU laws are in ‘”favourable condition”.

Even when applied correctly, pesticides can have adverse impacts on bees by reducing their breeding success and resistance to disease. Scientists have found that exposure to pesticides can impair honeybees’ ability to navigate, bumblebees’ ability to reproduce and solitary bees’ ability to reproduce any young at all.

Pesticides are designed to kill unwanted pests, but their toxic properties and widespread use are also harming beneficial insects such as bees.

Neonicotinoids are a particularly harmful group of bee-harming pesticides. When a bee feeds on pollen or nectar containing them, their central nervous system can be affected. This affects tasks that bees depend on to survive such as feeding, homing, foraging and reproducing.

New research has also begun to show an increase in pesticides being found beyond the farms where the seeds are sown. As well as pesticides, the use of herbicides in parks, streets and on roadside verges reduces the availability of forage plants that bees and other pollinating insects seek out for food at different times of the year.

In summary, the situation for bees and other pollinating insects in precarious, but by setting aside an area for wildflower growth which is sheltered with the likes of willow or hawthorn, we can ensure that we all enjoy the fruits of our labours for many years to come.

Until next month, go green – go crofting.

April 2018
The necessity of cultivating soil

April has been another busy month for Heb Veg, with works on all four polycrubs being completed, and a thousand trees planted courtesy of a grant from the Woodland Trust.

With these jobs finished, we have been able to move on to seeding. We have had to first cultivate the soil which has previously been left as a bare croft. Cultivating is an essential fundamental that is quite straightforward: breaking up and loosening the soil in a planting patch. As with many things, there is often more to it than is first apparent, and this leads to some basic questions: Why do we cultivate?  How should we cultivate?  When should we cultivate?  Not to mention the distinction; what is the difference between cultivating and tilling?

Cultivating amounts to essentially two things: eliminating weeds from the plot and breaking up the soil to optimize the retention of nutrients and water. Nature takes its toll on the soil as the elements actively dry it into a crust. Cultivating breaks up the crusty soil surface allowing for a much easier penetration of water and nutrients deep into the soil where plant roots can gain access to them.

While almost everyone knows the importance of watering, it is also essential that air is able to penetrate the surface in order to benefit the micro-organisms in the soil that perform the various important tasks of improving the soil and creating nutrients for plants.

Cultivating the earth also makes it easier for newly germinated seeds to sprout through the surface of the soil.

While cultivating can also bring some weed seeds to the soil surface to germinate, cultivating will also draw up and expose these young weed sprouts, leaving them to die when left exposed on the soil surface. This also actively interrupts the germination of weed seeds in general. As weeds are systematically removed it decreases competition for water and nutrients, leaving everything for your plants to feed to their heart’s content.

Cultivating improves moisture penetration and thus helps with water retention. As more water is retained there is obviously a reduced need for supplemental watering. Last but not least, a cultivated plot with minimal weeds looks attractive and fresh.

In order to cultivate, the soil must only be loosened a couple of inches deep. If you dig too deeply you will only encourage the surface to dry out faster.

When cultivating, care must be taken to not disturb plant roots, which will cause damage to your plants. Working between the rows and not getting too close to your plants will prevent damaging roots and the plants attached to them.

Only surface cultivate when necessary. If you can easily observe that the soil surface has crusted over and that weeds are sprouting and on the offensive, it is time to shallow cultivate.

Do not cultivate when the soil is wet. By doing this you will risk further compaction. The soil should be dry.  In fact, err on the side of more dry than moist.  If it seems too moist it probably is.

Before you lay down seed is also a good time to cultivate. If working with small fine seeds they will have an easier time sprouting and thriving in cultivated soil.

Similarly, it is good to cultivate before planting flowers and vegetables.

Whenever you top dress the soil by applying compost or organic fertilizers, shallow cultivate to loosen the top crust of soil for integration of added nutrients and to reduce runoff from rain. This will also kick-start a process that earthworms and micro-organisms can complete by doing the work of fully integrating the nutrients deep into the soil.

Tilling is actually a form of deep cultivation that is necessary when preparing a new bed or when adding large amounts of organic material. Tilling will cultivate the soil 8-10 inches deep, perhaps even more if you are creating a new bed in an area where the soil is very poor. You can also till at a more shallow level of 4-8 inches when mixing soil amendments into your bed(s). This is ideally done at the end of the growing season. Autumn or fall tilling also provides the opportunity to supplement the soil with rough organic amendments that decompose slowly prior over the winter.  This is a near-perfect feeding situation for plants going into the next season. This is not recommended however unless your plan is to add substantial amounts of organic amendments to improve the soil. Some crofters do not like to disturb the natural work of micro-organisms and earthworms, other than when they are preparing a new bed. Digging in to the soil every few years in autumn can be done to a rather shallow depth, allowing nature to do most of the work.  Once spring rolls around, till as normal when preparing to plant.

Most of the reasons for tilling are similar to those for cultivating with some differences. Soil tends to become compacted over the years due to rain, foot traffic, etc. Air pockets that are created by the deep loosening of soil facilitate air and water penetration for plants to use. Air penetration is also important to the micro-organisms in the soil that perform all kinds of important tasks creating nutrients for the plants (as noted above with cultivation). Loosened soil makes it much easier for roots and root vegetables to spread out throughout the soil. This is very important if you have clay soil.  Tilling is also useful when turning over a previous crop after the season.

While not all horticulturalists agree about the necessity, frequency and depth of cultivating and tilling, all of the above practices are generally accepted and widely used. Much has been written about no-till methods, employing the theory that soil should be disturbed as little as possible.  While this may be important in acreage farms focused on reducing erosion, it may not be practical for smaller croft holders without the proper equipment found on large farms.

Until next month, go green – go crofting.

March 2018
Trees, Trees, Trees!

Staves mark out the density of saplings

Many years ago, I was fortunate to live and work for an extended period in Japan and lucky enough to be invited to join a traditional jujitsu dojo. There, the old master told me a proverb that has remained with me to this day:

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

March has been an eventful month for Heb Veg with works continuing apace on the croft as we gear up for our first round of seeding at the end of April. The big news is that we have had some thousand trees arrive, courtesy of The Woodland Trust, and we are giving over nearly a third of the croft to planting them up. Given that our main focus is going to be the production of organic fruit and vegetables, it may seem strange to be giving up so much of our land. There are a number of reasons behind this decision and hopefully, they will help you consider the benefits of planting trees on your own plot.

The first reason is essentially a global one; trees help create a diverse ecosystem that helps provide habitat and food for birds and other animals. At school, we are often taught that our environment is a pyramid, with Man at the top. In truth, it is more of a circle with many animals and plants interdependent on each other and their surroundings.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and potentially harmful gasses, such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, from the air and release oxygen. It is estimated that approximately fifteen billion trees are cut down every year, and we should be doing everything we can to replace this number, if not more. Our thousand trees may not seem like much compared to fifteen billion, but it is a start, and it estimated that a single large tree can provide a day’s worth of oxygen for up to four people.

Forests are among the most important repositories of biological diversity. Together, tropical, temperate and boreal forests offer very diverse habitats for plants, animals and micro-organisms. Biological diversity is the basis for a wide array of goods and services provided by forests. The variety of forest trees and shrubs play a vital role in the daily life of rural communities in many areas, as sources of wood and non-wood products, as contributors to soil and water conservation, and as repositories of aesthetic, ethical, cultural and religious values. Forest-based wildlife is a vital source of nutrition and has vital roles in ecology, such as pollination, seed dispersal and germination, and predation on potential pest species.

The Outer Hebrides used to be covered in the Ancient Hebridean Forest as late as some three hundred years ago, and this would have provided a habitat for a myriad of creatures, including insects that are crucial to pollinating fruit and vegetables. The Hebridean Ark project is being pioneered by the Horshader Community Development scheme in Shawbost and involves taking cuttings and seeds from surviving trees and growing 100,000 saplings to plant across Lewis and Harris in a bid to rewild a number of areas.

For all of the sound ecological and environmental reasons, there are good personal reasons to plant trees for those who wish to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Like many, our croft is both narrow and long, suffering from a prevailing south-westerly wind and zero shelterbelts. Windburn is a constant factor, and unprotected horticulture quickly withers because of this, with only couch-grass thriving.

Construction of the polycrubs continue

To address these issues, Danda Gillies helped us by taking a two-inch top scrape and form earthen bunds from the spoil. The bunds are up to 2m in height and have been formed so as to protect the saplings from the majority of the wind. This has had the added benefit of taking care of the couch grass, and all of the trees have come with staves and guards to protect against rabbits.

The trees have then been divided into two categories. The first category is those that form the outer perimeter. These trees are a mix of Alder and Grey and Eared Willow and are intended to break up the wind and protect the trees within their protective boundary.

The second category forms an inner section, and these are fruiting varieties. They include Blackthorn, Bird Cherry, Crab Apple, Dog Rose, and Elder. Although it will be many years before these year-old saplings bear fruit when they do they will provide a useful addition to the range of chutneys that we hope to produce.

However, the uses of trees do not end there. For many, there is a profound positive effect on reducing stress levels and a boost to mental wellbeing. In January 2018 researchers at King’s College London, assessed the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing. They found that being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing and that the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

Similarly, The Guardian newspaper reported in March 2017 that Middle-aged Scottish men with homes in deprived but verdant areas were found to have a death rate 16% lower than their more urban counterparts. Pregnant women also received a health boost from a greener environment, recording lower blood pressures and giving birth to larger babies.

In summary, planting trees on your croft have a myriad of benefits, from global pollution reduction, to promoting local biodiversity, and on to better mental wellbeing. And their fruit tastes good too.

Until next month, go green – go crofting.

Trees as far as the eye can see… or it will be in 10yrs time

February 2018
The Journey Begins

February has been a busy month for Heb Veg with both national and international policy changes giving us pause for thought.

At the beginning of the month, Fortune Magazine carried an NBC News article which detailed the precarious nature of the Californian food supply chain. Broadly, changes in immigration law have seen a rapid depopulation of the migrant labour that is responsible for picking fruit and vegetables. So catastrophic has been the change, that it is estimated that more than $13 million of fresh fruit has been left to rot in two Californian counties alone. Even the tactic of raising wages and increasing benefits has done little to encourage the filling of vacant posts, and the overall result is that Californian farmers have seen a 50% decrease in incomes since 2013.

Unfortunately, this gap in the jobs market is being mirrored in the UK. The TV magazine programme Inside Out South-West featured an article on the on the labour shortage in and around Plymouth where there is a 35% vacancy rate in agricultural jobs. Again, even increased wages and staff benefits were doing little to tempt the under 25’s who simply found the job of picking and packing too arduous.

The deficit in migrant labour is replicated in Scotland, and the Sunday Herald recently carried an article that farmers in Fife had to discard vegetables that would have fed 15,000 people for a year, because of a critical shortage of 4000 agricultural labourers. These jobs had traditionally been filled by EU migrants, but the fall of the Pound against the Euro and the uncertainty caused by Brexit has seen vegetables being left to rot in the fields and farmers sink into further debt.

The reason that we should all be concerned about this is that at present matters relating Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing are devolved to Holyrood, who in turn receive funding and implement policy from the EU. However where this area and its associated funding will reside after Brexit is one of increasing conjecture. Indeed the issue has become so thorny that Michael Gove refused to speak to the Scottish farming press during his recent visit to the bull sales, leaving it to the SNP’s Fergus Ewing to pronounce himself a champion of Scottish farmers. Even within the Westminster bubble, MPs who are scrutinising the government plans for the agriculture and farming industry post-Brexit are demanding the replacement of EU subsidies, but government ministers refused to be drawn.

Farmers would see the perfect storm should grants and subsidies not be replaced following withdrawal from the EU, and insufficient labour to harvest the fruits of their hard work would result in already heavily indebted farms pushed to the point of bankruptcy as well as significant cost increases passed on to the consumer.

That said there are funding opportunities available for those who are willing to search them out. Throughout February, Heb Veg has been working closely with the Business Development team at Business Gateway in Stornoway, and we have been awarded a grant from the Comhairle and Scape Reinvest Communities Fund. Unlike their counterparts at Rural Payments, the staff were easy to engage with and promptly to replied to electronic communication. The entire process from outline enquiry through to access of the grant took under four weeks, with all the wrinkles being carefully explained and ironed out in that time.

The result is that not only do our polycrubs continue to go up, and we hope that all four will be installed by the second week of March, but we are now able to buy in seed for our project. This year will very much be one of testing to see what does well, and what is too sensitive to the Hebridean climes. We will be starting with the basics such as carrots, various cabbages, and a variety of salad leaves. However, we will also be testing things like courgettes, peas, tomatoes, and even strawberries and garlic.

We have also been fortunate to get a tree grant over the line, courtesy of the Viv Halcrow and her team at the Woodlands Trust. Courtesy of Danda Gillies, we have created earthen bund shelterbelts, and by the end of February, we hope to be planting close to a thousand trees of which nearly half will be fruiting. The will include Dog Rose, Elder, and Crab Apple, as well as various others which will mix well with chutneys.

Additionally, we have begun discussions for turning the same shelterbelt into a habit for pollinating insects with another charity by way of seeding a wild-flower-meadow mix, and we hope to provide more details of that soon.

As we saw at the beginning of the article, there are various geopolitical circumstances that which are likely to see pressure put on both existing crofting businesses and subsidies. Combined with a lack of available labour this will cause the base cost of fresh fruit and vegetable to rise exponentially. The way to insulate ourselves against this is to consider growing your own. Any small parcel of land can be considered, and if you hope to use your croft you may be able to access the existing grant system up to March 2019.

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.