The question that drives you

What is the question that drives you? The one that keeps you awake at night (in a good way)?

For me it is questions like “where have all the oats gone?” “why are crofters not growing rye anymore?” and How can small food production on our croft be closed loop?” You can blanket these questions under the header “Why are crofts not producing food anymore?.

For anyone familiar with the enneagram personality type system, my character type is a number five – the investigator. I like to work away at a problem and work out a solution. At heart I am an engineer (most happy when understanding how things work, often practically by taking something apart and reconstructing). But this doesn’t stop at metal tolerances and electrical currents – this question is at its heart about a broken machine (the food system) and in some respects this blog over the years has been taking that machine apart to try understand it. Looking at the food we eat; looking at the food we produce.

Most crofters (a small tenant farming system in Scotland) do not make money from their crofts. They instead spend the bulk of their time away from the land earning a living with whatever mainstream occupation pays the bills. The croft business (if indeed it is run as a business) economically at best covers its direct costs, or is a loss making enterprise.

That is not to say crofting is not valuable. Far from it. There is rich heritage and tradition in working a croft; there is real subsidence value in the produce that makes its way into the fridge and larder; there is priceless joy in working the land.

But for the time being at least it seems that there are less people in the fields producing food at scale on their crofts, despite the enormous potential that small scale agriculture could have on changing the way we produce and distribute food locally. The average working age crofter cannot afford to spend much time working the land. The current agriculture policy (CAP) does not come close to fully supporting a small scale food producer. Brexit may be a change-maker in this regard as the CAP is swept away, but only time will tell (and it won’t happen overnight).

In the interim I’ve been following several small scale producers around the world who are making a living from local food without subsidies Ridgedale Permaculture in Sweden & the Green City Acres in Canada to name a few. I’m certain there is a sweet spot for alternative models of small scale food production based on regenerative agriculture & value added enterprises on a croft in the highlands.

So I have recently been pondering the question “how to make a living producing food on the croft”. Note I have not put “how to make a living from the croft” as is common with croft diversification. I have mixed feelings about non food production enterprises such as holiday accommodation and renewable energy where you can undoubtedly make a living. With the exception of renewable energy (my current mainstream gig is a hydropower engineer) – these non food enterprises will not change the world- or at least not change the core food system in the way that it needs to change.

I would say our food system is in the limelight at the moment. The rise of Veganism. Growing awareness of one-off plastic packaging. The growing threat of Brexit on our food origin. The health impacts of eating Ultra-processed food.

Doughies – our small croft based microbakery – is not aligned with the mainstream food system. Wholesome, zero waste, no packaging, slow & non processed food. It would be easy to go “all in” on producing sourdough as local demand increases, but I would like to grow in a different direction – by growing some food alongside our micro-bakery. Previous blog posts have spoken about growing rye in particular (for bread production) and I think the area of growing food at small field scale might be the missing cog in making a croft work.

We have one of the other prime cogs in the we already keep animals on our co-owned croft, to produce meat (beef, pork) and eggs. Animal husbandry is one of the strong traditions underpinning crofting culture. It is also satisfying to rear slow meat, with full knowledge of what has and has not gone into the animals. We eat this meat & eggs ourselves (subsistence) and sell the surplus. These animals produce a valuable commodity when it comes to growing food – fertility (compost).

This year we are going to start turning this fertility into food in the field. So far we’ve got the compost area sorted, the beds planned and a nursery polytunnel on order. As soon as the tunnel is up they’ll be seeds going into modules. We also experimenting with growing some mushrooms (another post on this soon). The loose, organic plan is to get a dozen or so field scale beds pumping out selected veg for selling in local cafe/restaurants, via the local food hub, and at the farm gate.

Driving questions are good. Answering them is a sometimes  a slow pursuit of dogged persistence. But most problems worth solving require a sustained effort. Fixing our food system is a problem worth solving.

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