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How crofting supports the environment and brings communities together

How crofting supports the environment and brings communities together

We need a more sustainable food system. One of the ways in which we can help to make this happen is by supporting a wholesale transition to agroecology – a nature-focused type of farming that works with ecological principles to produce results. The ‘Ten Years for Agroecology’ report shows that by doing this across Europe, we can provide a healthy diet for a growing population, reduce the continent’s global carbon footprint and more.

Agroecology can be a powerful force for good, and this is true at every scale, whether you’re running a hundred acre farm or a small patch of land. Crofter Helen O’Keefe is proof of this: she’s one of the key growers in a sustainable crofting community based in Scotland, and everything she produces is grown with the environment in mind, with positive effects on the local landscape, nature and community. We caught up with her to find out more.

What is ‘crofting’?

The strict definition of crofting is that it is land management that takes part on an area of ground legally defined as a croft. Certain pieces of land, mainly in the north and west of Scotland, were recognised as ‘crofts’ in 1886, and there is now a whole raft of laws written around them.

That’s the dry definition though. The reality is far more interesting! ‘Crofting’ means using your croft – usually for agricultural production, but also possibly for woodland, education, or tourism – but it’s also so much more than that: it’s a historical practice that’s really embedded in the landscape, cultures and communities that take part in it. There is a huge variation between crofts - crofts are normally tenanted (but can be owned), and they generally come with a small piece of ‘inbye’ land for your exclusive use, and a share in a larger ‘Common Grazings’ (with the Grazings being shared by all the crofters in a township). However some crofts are very large (over 100 acres!), and increasingly commonly these days, they may not have any Common Grazings at all.

That being said, crofts are always part of a township or a community. In a ‘crofting community’, growing food and managing animals is an essential part of who you are and what you do. You become a ‘crofter’ (you don’t just ‘own’ a croft). It’s a conscious decision to live and work more closely with the land, and your neighbours. 

Crofting is generally on poorer quality agricultural ground, as mentioned, in the north and west of Scotland and on the Islands. It is much more difficult to grow things in these areas as the animals have to be much hardier and many crops won’t grow well at all. Because of this, and the small size of most crofts, not many people can earn a living from their croft – usually it is a second (or third!) job. However, the sum of all the small crofts forms a vital contribution to the rural economy and community resilience.

How did you start your crofting journey?

I grew up on a hobby farm in Australia. My family had a small orchard and some sheep and chickens, so I grew up on land that echoed crofting, even though I didn’t know what it was back then! The idea of producing my own food in a commercial sense, though, only really occurred to me when I moved to a crofting community in the Scottish Highlands. Unlike in Australia (which leans heavily on industrial practices for food production), I could see that growing and selling your own food locally was practical and achievable here. Inspired by this realisation, I began searching for my own croft and found the perfect set-up in Elphin: three crofts and a tearoom, which I knew would be a great source of supplementary income (as crofting is rarely a full-time job) and a great outlet for croft produce. I managed to buy the place (with the help of my mother), and here we are! 

How does your croft support the local environment?

I came into crofting with an ecology-first approach: prioritising getting to know the local area and wildlife before I really did anything, to ensure that whatever I did do was done with the environment in mind. Fortunately, my partner is an ecologist, so he was able to provide some very helpful guidance!

I also make a point to work around nature as much as possible. For instance, I’ve decided not to drain my fields, as there are some boggy bits within them that support a rich range of plant and animal species . Allowing a variety of areas – habitats - to thrive, especially those that support a lot of biodiversity, is a great way to make sure that you’re accommodating local wildlife (which, of course, supports the wider environment in turn).

In addition, crofting as a practice is mostly really low-intensity, which means there’s loads of space for biodiversity. Wildlife often thrives in crofting communities due to the ‘patchwork effect’ they create, as they’re essentially lots of little farms working side-by-side. Everybody’s growing and producing their own thing, and the result of that is that there’s loads of types of habitat for all sorts of creatures to enjoy!

I also lean on the support of trees quite a lot. I’m a big believer in agroforestry principles, and am currently working on making my croft as robust and sustainable as possible by planting a lot of native species, which can be used for shelter, food, habitats, improved soil health and more. Again, my tree-planting decisions have been heavily informed by local ecology and nature, and my croft features a lot of birch, rowan and willow, because they’re the main trees that grow in this part of the world. I’ve also planted some hazel, oak, alder and wild cherry, along with a small fruit orchard that I’m trialling.

Of course, I also do my best to avoid things like pesticides and herbicides. Nature-friendly experimentation is a big part of that. For example, I’m currently playing around with different grazing practices in my field, with an aim to improve it without having to reseed or spray it. Conventional “improvement” methods, like draining, ploughing and reseeding, often result in shallower rooted grasses and carbon loss. I’m excited to see the results of my trials over the next few years!

What are the benefits of crofting with a community?

There are lots of benefits to crofting - for the environment, biodiversity, community and more. In terms of agroecology, crofting with neighbours is great, as you can share resources which, in turn, can help you to explore nature-friendly alternatives to traditional farming practices (e.g. pesticide use). For example, I want to trial growing some grain so I need to turn the pasture over – instead of using a plough, I’m going to borrow my neighbours pigs.  Thanks to them, this trial has a better chance of success! 

In a crofting community, there’s a lot of extra manpower as well… and not just from the other crofters. Almost everybody in our community gets direct benefits from the crofts here as they’re the source of a lot of local fruit, vegetables and meat consumed in the area, and our Common Grazings are the backdrop to people’s lives. People know exactly where their food is coming from and there’s a real teamwork atmosphere as a result. We’re hoping to help with more opportunities for non-crofters to grow food here, finding some spare croftland to grow tatties, or maybe in the future we could put some polytunnels on the Common Grazings for communal use.

Why should people become more invested in growing their own food?

There are several reasons in my view - the main one being that we should look at food as more than just stuff we put in our mouths to sustain our bodies. It is a social thing, and a cultural thing… and an enjoyment thing too, of course! There are so many precious components to food that we should honour, as it enriches our lives in so many ways.

What’s more, I think if you grow your own food, you get a much better appreciation for what it is that you’re eating. Just to realise how hard it is to grow things, and learning about seasonality, and seeing the difference in quality between homegrown and commercial produce (because it really does taste amazing when you grow it yourself!). I think one of the biggest reasons we’re currently experiencing so many problems within the food and farming industries, particularly with importing food and industrialising agriculture, is because people aren’t in touch with where their food comes from. So even if it’s just vegetables, growing your own food gives you a better sense of connection with your land and gratitude for what it can do.

I read a while ago that if more people grew vegetables in their backyard, we’d be able to fulfil the whole of the UK’s vegetable requirements. Imagine that! There’d be much less pressure on the farming industry, and we’d be a lot more self-reliant and sustainable as a society when it comes to food production. I’d love to see that happen.

How can people get into crofting?

Despite usually being tenanted, crofts are often bought and sold on the open market, although you will still need to have your application approved by the Crofting Commission if it is a tenancy. If you don’t see any crofts advertised, you could register with the SCF Croft Register of Interest: a database which is used to pair interested crofters with crofts that become available. Crofting can be very hard to get into (as not a lot of people want to give up their crofts), but there’s more information on the buying process on the Crofting Commission’s website. There are some great resources on the Scottish Crofting Federation’s website, as well, including training opportunities for those who are eager to get hands-on with their own croft (and it’s worth mentioning that you’re more likely to get your application to buy a croft tenancy approved if you’ve had some crofting, or general agricultural, training). 

I’d also recommend making some crofting friends! If you’re already in a crofting community, or close to one, get to know your local crofters. Drop in for a cup of tea, stop by the fank for a blether when they’re clipping, and ask if you can lend a hand. Most crofters will be very appreciative of the extra pair of hands, and this is a brilliant way to build connections in the crofting community while learning some crofting skills and building your understanding of the land and your community. 

If you’re not ready for your own croft, and don’t have the time or ability to help out, then you can still support your local crofters by buying local produce from them. From fresh eggs to home grown veg to high quality meat,…..more crofters are making the effort to sell their produce locally and by supporting them, you are supporting this environmentally friendly, sustainable form of agriculture, as well as supporting local businesses in your community.

What do you think the future looks like for crofting?

Crofting has huge potential for long-term nature-friendly food production and sustaining rural communities. It gets people onto the land, produces a variety of food and makes local, fresh produce available in remote areas that otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. Crofting offers a really rich life (even if it’s definitely not material riches!!), and I’m excited to see where the road leads for crofting.

That being said, I don’t think crofting as a practice is in a fixed state. I believe that it will adapt alongside changes to society and the food industry – however, I’m hopeful that we can steer it in a good direction. I’d like to see crofting create real jobs and support local food economies, producing a viable industry while benefiting natural ecosystems and biodiversity. If we can ensure this happens, then crofting will chart a path that benefits everyone: not only the crofter themselves, but the community they work in, the environment they’re a part of and the wider global environment. It’s a great time to get involved.