Originally posted in Issue 11 (April 2017) of the SCF Crofter magazine:-
As I look out of our croft house window, drinking a mug of Kvass (a home brew ferment made with waste rye bread), my eyes are drawn to the bare inbye fields, and I wonder – where have all the oats gone?
The Crofters in our township have memories of their Father’s growing grain (or corn as it is commonly described up here) – and there are old photographs of fields covered in oat stooks and rusting grain drills lying under oaks to prove it . But in our township at least, it is an activity of the past – a pursuit of toil and graft no longer entertained.
This pains me as small scale grain production is as much entwined with crofting heritage as the more frequented endeavours of potatoes, sheep and peat cutting. And if it stops for too long we are in danger of losing it, as the skills of our predecessors slowly fade away. Grain production should not only yield a product, but also have useful synergies with other crofting activities, such as providing a useful bite to animals following the winter, and bedding following the harvest.
Historically in the Highlands, crofters would typically have planted small stands of a mixed landrace, including small oats, black rye and bere barley, primarily for subsistence. Last year on our croft we had a go at growing two small separate stands of oat and barley – it was a lesson in what not to do as much as what to do. The barley failed, probably due to the amateur cultivators, but despite our horticultural abuse and the dreich weather, the oats thrived and we managed a harvest. This coming season we are keen to also plant a stand of rye – it too should enjoy our cold, inclement highland weather.
So is the toil worth it? Yes. But why? Well, on the one hand we are keeping these skills alive, lest the hard practicalities of doing small stands of grain in the highlands be forgotten. But more holistically, we are starting to piece together how small scale grain production fits into a bigger local food tapestry. We run a small micro bakery called doughies, from the croft house, baking slow fermented sourdoughs weekly supplying a local Deli and food hub. We also run a small fold of Dexter cattle. Growing grain is symbiotic with both. Small scale grain on crofts has a part to play if we want to reimagine our food system, and perhaps get a bit closer to the Government’s ambition of Scotland as a good food nation.