Crofting: Scotland's traditional form of farming is on the rise
Scottish Crofting Produce Mark scheme promotes and protects provenance of crofters’ produce
The image of the hard-pressed crofter working his small plot of land while holding down a number of other jobs is a familiar one. Typically, the produce from that land is the ‘store lamb’, raised on the croft and then sent down south to be fattened (and made profitable) before going to market.
But with the introduction of the Scottish Crofting Produce Mark, that traditional route is being augmented by those eager to explore fully the benefits of such a remarkable means of food production. Certainly, the guarantee of provenance that the mark provides feeds straight into the public’s growing desire to know exactly where the food on their plate comes from.
Launched in 2009, the Scottish Crofting Produce Mark can be found on beef, pork, lamb, mutton, potatoes, vegetables and soft fruits, eggs and dairy produce, honey and preserves, as well as non-food items such as wool, knitwear and tweed.
The mark signifies that the produce in question comes from a croft, or similar small agricultural holding, in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, with the producer a member of the Scottish Crofting Federation. Importantly, it ensures that the marked product meets certain laid-down standards of quality, animal health and welfare, hygiene and total traceability.
Undoubtedly there is plenty of potential for the mark. The Scottish Crofting Federation is, notably, the largest independent association of small-scale food producers in the UK.
Of course, there are challenges in getting food to market in a sustainable and efficient manner, across a landscape that is some of the least populated in the whole of Europe. The need for conveniently situated abattoirs, to drive down food miles and maximise animal welfare, is a case in point. For example, adjusted for population, Austria has around 77 times more abattoirs than Scotland, with nearly two-thirds of these on Austrian farms.
Russell Smith, who crofts 76 hectares just outside Bonar Bridge with his wife Evelyn, recognises the problems of small-scale food processing, having shifted from raising poultry for food to breeds for showing when the former proved uneconomic. Besides also raising a flock of 140 breeding Cheviots, he is to be found at the Dornoch farmers’ market once or twice a month with cartons of fresh eggs, proudly carrying the Scottish Crofting Produce Mark. He also gives visitors close-up views of a working croft with a holiday cottage and a mini-caravan park with a stunning view over Loch Migdale.
Russell makes a powerful point: ‘You must remember that buying a crofter-marked product is unique, in that you are not just buying something produced in a way that is traditional and less intensive, truly caring for the land. You are also supporting a system that keeps people in remote areas, people with a stake in the community. Care homes stay open, schools stay viable; a whole society can live on.’
On their 44-hectare croft at Reidchalmai, near Golspie, Robin and Penny Calvert are also finding fresh ways to make crofting pay. Instead of raising lambs that would ultimately head south, Robin’s strategy was to cut his flock in half and, with the time gained, grow them on himself, to reap the benefits. Key to this has been a home-built cutting room and chiller to hang, cut, slice and pack those sheep, as well as poultry, pigs and locally sourced game. He also makes sausages, hot-smokes lamb, and bakes a tasty ‘crofter’s pie’, all available via his website, or at local farmers’ markets.
The Scottish Crofting Federation is bullish about the future of crofting, petitioning the Scottish Government to create 10,000 new crofts by 2020. That is some ambition, given that there are at present just over 18,000 crofts, according to the Crofting Commission.
For the Federation, crofting is ‘the model best placed to deliver the Government’s emerging policy goals for agricultural and rural development’. Politics aside (and crofting has been wryly described as ‘a parcel of land surrounded by a sea of legislation’), that should mean an increasing amount of locally produced food, with clear provenance, coming to market – good news for locals and visitors alike.