The north face of farming

Scottish farming is associated with rugged conditions and poor land only suitable for livestock, but there is a growing progressive movement that wants to change this perception, finds Jack Thompson.

Things take a long time on Skye,” explains Phil Knott, a crofter and fruit grower on the Isle of Skye. “The ground is difficult, there’s lots of rain, the latitude is against us, the salt-laden gales are a challenge. Even growing trees is a challenge. Growing fruit can be done, but it’s a challenge.” 

There’s a temptation to think of Scotland as a rugged, wild land that is only good for sheep and cattle farming. But while the conditions on the Isle of Skye are certainly tricky, Knott wants to refute this long-held view. 

“You can grow pears here if you want,” he says. “I’m not going to have 20,000 pears and I’m not going to be supplying Sainsbury’s, but I can supply the local shop. I can feed my family and neighbours.” 

Knott has a three-hectare croft, a type of small farm particular to the Scottish Highlands and Isles governed by its own set of laws, on the scenic Sleat Peninsula in north west Skye. As a former wildlife and land management expert, he also comes into crofting with an ‘untraditional’ vision. 

“We’ve put [the land] to fruit and veg, and we’re managing the open spaces for nature. We’ve got the deer fences up and we’re establishing fruit trees,” says Knott, in a soft Scottish accent. 

Crofting in Scotland
Crofting is a type of small farming specific to Scotland. 

“I can see how quickly the soil and biodiversity can recover. With little help really, nature can do its own thing if you let it. There’s huge potential because the mindset is ‘this land is difficult, and you can’t do anything but graze it’. That’s just not the case, but it does take time,” Knott insists. 

According to Nikki Yoxall, sustainable farming lead at the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) in Scotland and farmer in Aberdeenshire, this encapsulates Scottish farming perfectly. 

“There’s this paradox that you find in Scotland: there are pockets of real innovation and creativity, contrasting with people who say, ‘it’s always been this way and we’re never going to change’,” she says. 

Yoxall, whose own farm specialises in rare and native breeds of cattle, echoes Knott, strongly believing that the ‘poor’ Scottish land has more potential than people believe.

“People will say that you can’t grow tall grass on the west coast because the soil is too poor; over here in Aberdeenshire we’re able to get tufted hair grass taller than we are. We’re seeing giant dandelions, and that means the soil is able to have capacity for the roots.”

Phil Knott
Phil Knott is within a small but growing movement of young, progressive farmers. 

As a Soil Association ambassador in Scotland, Yoxall is part of a network of progressive farmers aiming to communicate the value of agroecological farming to the wider public. 

“There’s ten of us in Scotland and we’ve all been given support and training on how to create media content so that we can share our story,” she explains. 

It is a movement that is certainly gaining momentum, and according to Michael Clarke, chair of NFFN Scotland, this is thanks to younger farmers like Yoxall and Knott “who aren’t afraid to question how it’s always been done.”

Clarke is no stranger to this concept either, combining conservation with sustainable farming in Dumfriesshire, where his farm has become a haven for rare bird species through a dedication to habitat creation, planting over a kilometre of hedges every year.

He says this is in stark contrast with the general culture of “you’re not a real farmer unless you squeeze production out of every square inch”, and in a similar vein states that much of the progressive work being done by farmers is “in spite of policy, rather than because of it.”  

Or as Yoxall frankly puts it: “Anything that is being done in a more regenerative or agroecological fashion is absolutely being done by farmers individually, without support from the government.”

Challenging perceptions of what can and can’t be produced north of the border.

This comes at a particularly pivotal moment in Scotland for two reasons. Brexit offers the Scottish government an opportunity to redesign farming policy after 48 years of European subsidies, and even apart from what Westminster rules, since agriculture is a devolved sector.  

Equally, as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) takes place in Glasgow this November, the spotlight will be on the UK and Scotland as the host nation to show environmental leadership. However, Clarke says: “The hosting of COP26 in Glasgow is having a discernible effect on climate change policy support and the industry’s response but, sadly, biodiversity loss hardly figures and remains the poor relation.

“A win for biodiversity could be a win for climate change, it’s by no means always the other way around.” On top of this there is the prospect of another independence referendum very much in the foreground, but this is little reason to celebrate, according to Clarke. 

“It would not be good news for our sort of farming,” Clarke stresses. Agroecological farmers like Clarke, Knott and Yoxall, are still very much in the minority, so supporting conventional farming is likely to garner more votes for Scottish politicians hoping to bring independence to the nation. 

“There are a lot of votes in supporting mainstream farming, and they’re worried about upsetting and disturbing the bandwagon too much,” Clarke reflects. 

Despite this, there is cause for positivity, whether it’s Knott witnessing his soil’s rapid recovery on the Isle of Skye, or Yoxall’s confidence in the progressive farming community who have come together through Zoom during the pandemic. 

Clarke on the other hand finds solace in the passion of the younger farming generation such as Knott and Yoxall. “I think the fact you’ve got younger people pushing this, that is my main cause for optimism.” 

Top of the crofts

Over 80 per cent of Scottish land is deemed poorer quality. The nation’s policies and subsidy system are representative of this. 

Crofting is a system of small landholding unique to the Scottish Highlands and Isles. It comes with its own laws and only applies in certain areas of Scotland, known as the crofting counties. 

Crofters have a duty to be a resident, or live within 32 km of their croft; to not to neglect their croft; to cultivate their croft and put it to purposeful use. There are 20,867 crofts in Scotland, averaging five ha. 

This article was initially published in issue 6 of Wicked Leeks magazine. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu by clicking here


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