Why Fife's oat farmers are embracing localism
The story behind one of Scotland’s premier oat-growing areas
Priorletham Farm has provided John Picken’s family with a livelihood for 90 years. In contrast to his grandfather’s day when livestock played a big role, the emphasis is now on the ingredients of Scotland’s most iconic victuals: wheat for whisky and oats for porridge.
As farming hits the news for a variety of gloomy reasons, from dairy farming difficulties to the ethics of intensive piggeries, Picken is upbeat. ‘Oats are a natural success story for Scotland,’ he says. ‘Fife has a lovely climate for them, and they fit well with modern farming methods – they enhance the land they’re grown in, breaking the cycle of disease. Modern varieties are bred to reduce the straw length so there’s more grain per acre, which has had a big influence in making harvesting less problematic.’
Five-hundred-acre Priorletham, located just to the south of St Andrews, supplies Quaker Oats and Fife family bakers Fisher & Donaldson. That relationship began during a conversation with Sandy Milne, a director of the bakery, about the importance of localism.
Picken says: ‘I asked him why he didn’t buy his oats in Fife and that was that, we now supply them with 100 tons a year. I keep telling Sandy he has the best oats in the country!’
Picken advocates that, for global success, modern farming can, should and must encourage localism, something that relatively new organisations like SFQC (Scottish Food Quality Certification) aid. ‘The consumer nowadays wants to know it’s local,’ he points out. ‘The worldwide oat market is caused by good marketing, good products and professionalism. We no longer just rely on planting something; we’re trying to satisfy a market.
‘The customer wants more than just an oat. They want to know what’s happened to that oat, the process of storing and drying it, and our Scottish Quality Crops accreditation can give them that.
It’s like buying anything with a stamp of approval: you know what you’re buying. We’re trying to tell people we’re a modern industry now. I think Scottish oats are in a good place.’