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Rethink Farming - Helen O'Keefe

Meet Helen who runs Middleton Croft in Sutherland in the Northwest Highlands. Earlier this year, she won the Scottish Crofting Federation’s Young Crofter of the Year award for her multi-hyphenated approach to crofting. She runs a tearoom, launched a local collective food hub and embraces small-scale horticulture and sheep rearing using regenerative approaches that are well suited to her croft’s diverse landscape spanning ancient woodland, hills, wetlands and grasslands. She farms seven acres across three crofts with shares in 3,700 acres of common grazing at Assynt.

Helen’s approach to crofting presents an inspiring vision for embracing diversity in land use and how collaboratively sharing the local marketplace can unlock a prosperous rural community – where a healthy landscape underpins food production to the benefit of higher quality produce and abundant wildlife.

Key facts:

  • By launching The Green Bowl to sell online and deliver locally, Helen has created an opportunity for crofters, growers and producers in nearby townships to access a local market and create viable agricultural businesses
  • She produces and sells her own meat, wool, eggs, fruit and vegetables
  • Her food hub has reduced the environmental impacts of food transport and distribution, lessening the pressure on intensive agriculture in other areas (including the “off-shoring” of their community’s food production footprint outside of the Highlands)
  • Her land management works in harmony with nature through sensitive grazing regimes and a focus on suitable timings and stocking density for the landscape, avoidance of chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers and tree planting with a right tree, right place approach

“The wellbeing of this land is important to me as I love the richness of life & diversity. I want to be able to produce food for my family & community, but I also want to protect (and improve) the incredible nature – landscapes, flora & fauna – around me.”

How can crofters help to restore nature and mitigate climate change?

Crofters manage huge areas of land, which include massive carbon stores (in the form of peat) and huge areas of globally rare and sensitive habitats which shelter many threatened species. They also produce food from this land without intensive inputs and have done for generations, in a way that not only works within environmental constraints but also helps to sustain rural communities and local economies.

Tell us about your approach to land management and nature-friendly food production.

We have huge amounts of biodiversity – insects, birds, small mammals, as well as wildflowers, grasses, sedges, mosses, lichens and fungi – across a range of different types of ecosystems (blanket bogs, limestone grassland, species-rich wet meadows, groundwater flushes). Stocking densities aren’t too high, thus avoiding either trampling damage (and resulting greenhouse gas losses from eroded peat) or overgrazing and associated eutrophication which would have considerable detrimental effects on floral and fungal diversity.

We don’t have many trees, so I’m planting more of these, both in shelterbelts and within my fields (as very low-density silvopasture), while being cognisant of not damaging other habitats (e.g. wading birds, who don’t like trees).

I’m trying to manage my grazing times to support better species diversity, allowing birds to breed successfully and to strengthen a range of habitats (long grass for some birds, short grass for others). Another reason for this is to try to cut my own hay for winter feed, which reduces the environmental impacts of brought-in feed.

“Crofting is, by its nature, low intensity, which allows more space for nature to thrive.”

I’m continuing this practice, while making small changes, including introducing some very small-scale hand-intensive horticulture and incorporating edible aspects to shelterbelts and silvopasture trees to produce more food from my croft. Crofting areas often do not have good access to fresh fruit and vegetables and, in recent history, most agricultural produce from the area (primarily livestock) has been exported, so the vast majority of food consumed here is imported (from outside the Highlands). I’m focusing on producing more food that can be sold and eaten locally.

What have the benefits been for wildlife?

Better biodiversity and better soil health. The trees will provide more habitat for woodland species, linking up with other small sections of woodland nearby to provide a more viable habitat. There is hardly any woodland here at the moment so this type of ecosystem (and therefore the species that rely on it) is sorely lacking in our area. Our soil is often poor in organic nutrients, so the trees should help improve that and also open the way for more variety of species.

Different grazing practices, and cutting hay, can provide habitats that are ideal for certain wading birds that were previously here in high numbers but are now in significant decline. But we still have better populations of several vulnerable breeding wader species than many other areas, with snipe, oystercatcher, curlew, golden plover, greenshank and dunlin all maintaining good populations thanks at least partly to extensive crofting practices. The Common Grazing (and some of the less-improved crofts) is also a remarkably rich hotspot for floral and fungal diversity, along with associated insect assemblages, with an unusual mix of temperate oceanic and boreal species which is found in only one or two other locations in the country.

How has selling The Green Bowl impacted your community?

It has increased our direct sales and doing this as a collective makes it worth doing, whereas individually, we would all be too small to be viable.

Selling our food locally has raised awareness of local produce, creating a demand and a market. Because of this, some new people in our area have started growing vegetables to sell locally. Some crofters are reducing their reliance on other employment because their croft business is becoming more economically viable. Establishing a market and system for selling local food has made it easier for new producers to get started, consumers to buy local and has increased interest, and excitement, about growing and eating locally.

Selling directly gives more control over price, so less uncertainty and a much more stable, independent market than selling into wholesalers or the normal livestock system. It provides a buffer against external market factors (like Brexit), but it is also more personally rewarding.

What have been the biggest learnings or challenges in embracing nature-friendly crofting?

Establishing a successful grazing rotation that fits with the imperatives of having enough grass for ewes during lambing (and tupping), but also doesn’t result in overgrazing while allowing waders to nest and fledge young, and later allowing flowering plants to flower and set fruit, has not been entirely easy. The supply of better quality, more productive grassland is very finite.

Also, managing the grass so some can be set aside early enough to allow a decent hay crop to grow (if the weather allows us to cut and save the hay) has not been straightforward. Hay has not been cut in our area for the past 40 years so the pasture is not in the best condition for it and we do not have the local knowledge on how to do it. We are also doing it all by hand and trying to balance this with other jobs during the busy summer tourist season which is a big challenge, but it’s also very rewarding when you see the neighbours’ kids having fun helping to carry the small, handmade bales back to the barn.

Encouraging the sheep on the hill (the Common Grazing) to make more extensive use of the ground available to them has been a challenge at times, though now that there are several generations out there, with experience acquired as to where the sweetest grass and the best shelter is, so it working better nowadays.

The attrition rate for trees – whether in shelterbelts, individual tree shelters or in the nascent orchard – has also been frustratingly high at times, and even of those that survive, thanks to great care and attention, many are not yet at a stage that could be called thriving. The deer caused significant damage until I erected a deer fence around the crofts and sheep continue to cause problems. I have had to learn a lot about how to effectively install tree guards against curious and itchy sheep! I haven’t found much information about other places trying silvopasture, and certainly not in an affordable way (until recently there has been no funding available for silvopasture on small scale) so I’ve had to learn most things myself, by trial and error.

What about the challenges in producing and selling food for local markets, including setting up The Green Bowl?

We still have a lot to learn about horticultural growing for sale, such as planning crops and predicting harvests, and we’re still learning which products are in the most demand. We have had some challenges with our meat supply, learning to accommodate long lead times for getting new meat (especially with cows – there is almost a month lead time between deciding we need more meat and actually having anything to sell) and working out which cuts we need to provide (mince vs diced vs sausages vs roasts etc). We really struggled to find butchers who could butcher our carcases for us so we have started doing our own butchery, which is also helping us tailor our product selection for our regular customers.

Starting up the food hub went very smoothly, but now we are getting to the scale where we will need to rethink our administration and delivery logistics. More fresh produce is outgrowing the size of our delivery vehicle and the way we pack our orders. We run a very low-cost, low-overhead model to keep costs down for our customers, so the challenge will be upscaling to meet demand efficiently without becoming uneconomic.

We have tried delivering further afield but found that the value of orders did not cover our delivery costs. We would like to expand our delivery range, but need to find a way to do this viably – either with a bigger market or demand or with a more efficient delivery method. Ideally, other local food hubs would start up in surrounding areas and we could coordinate with them to distribute one another’s produce.

Top tips?

  • Plant some trees, but decide where they work for you and your land. Don’t just plant a whole woodland because that’s what the grants make easy
  • Try new things…and old things! Can you grow your own winter fodder? Can you grow vegetables or fruit that your family or wider community could use?
  • Make the most of everything. Can that sheep be used for meat, wool… and milk? Can that shelterbelt also produce fruit, nuts and timber, as well as shelter?
  • Try to sell locally
  • Work with your neighbours (crofting and non-crofting)
  • Share resources, ideas and energy. Do things together for economies of scale and do things differently to not duplicate unnecessarily or compete on products
  • Can crofters work together to improve your use of Common Grazings? Can you fence some areas off for targeted grazing, plant woodland, use a section for hay or crops, or set aside an area for your community to use for local growing?
  • Learn more about the wildlife on your croftland – and not just the obvious eagles and oystercatchers, but eyebrights and eggar moths, butterworts and damselflies. Become aware of the beats of the bird breeding season, when the migrants arrive and depart. Where do they nest, where do they feed? And if you are managing hay meadows, start to identify the main grasses and tall herbs – the grasses aren’t really that difficult, once you start to look at them properly – and of course, grass is the heart of any livestock farming system.

What support do you need from Scottish government to continue crofting in a nature-friendly way?

Support for positive agri-environment management needs to, first of all, find out how crofters in different areas manage their land and what biodiversity resources such management can benefit, and then tailor the incentive schemes to fit them/us, rather than producing cookie-cutter schemes that are too complicated to work on the small-scale systems characteristic of most crofting models, plus they are too expensive to access.

Regulations and policies need to protect crofts from land speculation and alternative uses, such as tourism. Agricultural ground needs to be preserved as that and needs to be affordable for those who wish to use them for active land management. They also need to address the lack of affordable housing in rural areas (currently over-run by tourism – second homes, holidays lets and AirBnBs).

If there is nowhere for people to live, there won’t be any crofters, which means there won’t be any local food and there won’t be anybody to manage these huge areas of incredibly valuable habitat and biodiversity.

Regulations and bureaucratic systems need to cater for small producers in rural areas and need to be adjusted to support circular economies. It shouldn’t be onerous for a small producer to sell eggs through a local shop (currently it is). It should be possible to recycle biological waste (kitchen scraps, animal byproducts) into a useful product (e.g. animal food, energy and/or compost) at a community level (currently it is not, other than small scale garden composting).

What would your message be to the public to encourage support of climate- and nature-friendly food production?

Don’t just ask farmers to “farm with nature”. Think about how you can “eat with nature”. Support local. Support seasonal. Be aware of how your eating habits and preferences fit in with what our land can produce.

Where would you like to see crofting in 20 years’ time?

Vibrant, demographically healthy communities with active common grazings and communities working together to manage them. Crofts with a diversity of food production enterprises (not just diversified to tourism) – livestock, poultry, fruit, veg etc. A high proportion of croft produce being sold (or processed) locally. Less reliance on outside inputs (animal feed, fuel, chemical inputs). Recovery of some of the flagship species which have declined in recent decades, such as corn buntings, lapwing, curlew, corncrake, redshank, hen harrier etc. More native woodlands on common grazings, available for seasonal grazing of livestock.

Helen’s case study featured in Rethink Farming – A Practical Guide for Farming, Nature & Climate.