All posts by gs

Transition Turriefield

Transition Turriefield was set up in 2011 as a community run growing project, to provide locally produced fruit and vegetables in Shetland. It was established to demonstrate a reduced fossil fuel approach to food production within the isles, to reduce Shetland’s food related carbon footprint, increase Shetland’s food security and ultimately to change the way Shetland thinks about importing food.

Subsistence days …..

Before the era of cheap oil and global food transportation, all Shetland crofts had a yard to grow crops. It was the only way to have fresh vegetables. The most common produce grown, along with the cereals bere and oats, was Shetland kale, neeps and potatoes [see note below]. Produce was used as winter livestock feed, as well as supplementing the crofter’s diet of lamb and fish. These crops were hardy and coped well with the Shetland conditions.

Nowadays yards can be seen all over Shetland, lying empty and unused. Tastes have changed and, along with the rest of the western world, Shetland residents expect more variety and an ‘out of season availability’ of produce that their grandparents could never have imagined. Regular ferry sailings and flights have made food available from all over the world, twelve months of the year, weather permitting.

Encouraging island residents to consider reducing CO2 emissions, personal carbon footprints and make positive food buying choices is an uphill struggle. It is hampered by a belief by many that the alternative means a return to the kale and neep eating of the pre-1960s.

Transition Turriefield has been determined to show local food production can provide better choice, fresher produce, reduce carbon footprints and be available even when bad weather prevents supplies arriving. From the beginning the project has focused on demonstrating that a wide range of produce can be grown in Shetland at market garden scale.

Now small-scale ecological engineering

Based on a small croft on the far west mainland, the challenges for economically sustainable food production are huge. The land is designated by the EU as a ‘severely disadvantaged Less Favoured Area’, of poor land quality and suitable only for rough grazing. The season is short, weather unpredictable and the climate extreme. None of which encourages bountiful crops.

There is no doubt that kale and neeps are the easiest and most productive crops to grow. However, using innovation, along with experimentation to create micro-climates, and combining old fashioned farming methods with modern technology, more exotic produce has been made available to the community instead.

Of the 21 hectares of land belonging to the croft, approximately 1.3 hectares are suitable for vegetable production. Just under 1 hectare is currently in production and includes 500 square metres of  polytunnel space and 110 of raised beds as well as outside field space. The main growing area is at the lowest point of the croft. Soil here is either deep and peaty (drained bog) with clay patches, or shallow and stoney, with clay and low in organic matter.

Soil nutrient analysis shows a pH of 6.3 with low phosphorus. Structurally the soil is compacted below the surface and low in oxygen due to the water content. Field drains and ditches have been put in and this has made a difference to the moisture content of the soil during the drier part of the season. As the land is worked season by season, effort is made to build soil and raise the growing area, improve structure, texture and nutrient content.

Muck, seaweed, ash, compost, turf

Beds have been cleared using pigs and hand tools rather than machinery. Muck, seaweed, ash from peat and wood, compost, and loam from composted turf, are added each season in various combinations and quantities depending on type of crop to be grown in each bed. Digging is kept to a minimum and is limited to using forks to aerate topsoil and improve drainage where necessary. When beds are empty they are covered with black agricultural plastic, weighed down with old tyres, to reduce weeds, and lessen nutrient leaching from increasing rainfall. Use of the plastic is new as of January 2017 and has allowed an earlier and more rapid start to our sowing/planting season. Biodegradable, corn-starch based weed suppressant has also been used on experimental beds this season and has reduced weeding markedly.

Using horse powered land-working equipment to reduce labour has been experimented with as part of the commitment to tackling climate change and reducing fossil fuel use. Strong horse working skills are required and it has taken time to learn methods and teach the horse too, but it does show potential. Unfortunately, the land has become markedly wetter over the last five years and is remaining so for longer periods. As yet it is unclear whether horse drawn equipment will be viable on the land without major soil improvements in the long term.

And perseverance pays

Even with poor growing conditions Transition Turriefield perseveres with organic practice as an essential part of reducing fossil fuel use and protecting the environment. The project is not registered as organic due to the expense of ongoing registration and the impact of maintaining wider crofting practices in a rural and remote area.

Access to organic animal feed for example, is not economically viable and accessing organic compost for seed sowing is an ongoing battle. Compromises too, have had to be made with fossil fuel reduction, for example where plastics are used for polytunnel covers and weed suppressants. Maintaining best practice, financial viability and sustainability will always be an ongoing balancing act.

Crops are grown outside where possible, keeping the limited undercover space for the produce that really needs warmth and protection. During the short summer season aubergines, tomatoes, chillies, peppers, sweetcorn, pumpkins, courgettes, cucumbers and even melons can be grown undercover. By experimenting with sowing times and cultivars and using heat and light to start seeds off early, growing conditions can be manipulated to recreate suitable conditions and a long enough season.

Maize (sweetcorn) and pumpkin as a mixed crop (left), parsnip (top right) and chillies, courgettes and tomato (Transition Turriefield)

Timing is crucial

To achieve maximum production from the short summer season a strict sowing programme is used starting in January. Crops are sown in modules timetabled to enable plants to be ready to ‘hit the ground running’, once conditions are suitable for planting out either in the tunnels or outside. Celery and celeriac for example, are sown in the second week in February under lights and on heated mats at 18-20C, potted up, grown on and hardened off to allow planting out in the field by the 3rd week in May. Harvest begins in late September.

Without additional heat and light, conditions would not be suitable for germination until April and the plants would not mature to a reasonable size before the growing conditions became unsuitable. A similar system and timing is used for aubergines, planted in tunnels and ready for harvest from mid-July onwards.

Raised beds are used for some crops and are proving useful for manipulating conditions to increase productivity. Both garlic and parsnips have benefitted from the warmer, better drained soil in the beds. Mini tunnels are used to improve crop performance when needed. Garlic appreciates the extra heat to produce good sized bulbs unattainable in open ground. Experimenting with black plastic as an aid to warming raised beds from March onwards has enabled earlier sowings of parsnip and beetroot, with crops producing excellent sized roots. Sowing in the field cannot usually take place until end of May due to low soil temperature and waterlogging.

The future

Produce is sold through a veg box scheme, to rural community shops, a wholefood retailer in the main town of Lerwick and local hotels. The veg box scheme operates using a Community Supported Agriculture model. Box customers commit to financial support of the project for a season as well as contributing voluntary hours to vegetable production. This has been a successful method of encouraging community participation in local food production and raising awareness food related CO2 emissions. Additional income is generated through training courses and workshops sharing the learning and supporting others to grow their own. The project works with both children and adults; schools, community groups and the local authority to raise awareness of climate change and encourage carbon footprint reduction.

The largest limiting factor for the project is the ability to grow enough produce on the site—to generate enough income to pay sufficient staff—to grow enough produce, and so on. These particular issues are no different to other, similar, small growing projects throughout the country. Though small the project already cultivates and brings to market a huge variety and quantity (10 tonne+) of crops each season. With further investment, soil improvement, increase protected growing and further experimentation, there is the potential to double the quantity of fresh produce for the Shetland community.

Author and Contact

Transition Turriefield is run by Penny Armstrong and Alan Robertson.

Address: Transition Turriefield, Sandness, Shetland ZE2 9PL. Tel: 01595 870272. Web: www.turriefieldveg.co.uk. Facebook:  www.facebook.com/turriefield.

Note on crops for our overseas readers: bere is a landrace of barley, kale is a leaf vegetable member of the brassica family, and neeps is turnip or swede.

Paterson’s Curse

We’d taken a stem back from the field to examine it. It looked close to Viper’s bugloss Echium vulgare, similar flowers and habit (images below), another species of Echium probably. It was growing profusely among what first looked like a field of oat, in Victoria, Australia. Then our  host, Mrs McPherson, who knew the plant well said ‘Paterson’s Curse‘ and it turned out to be one of the most noxious weeds.

Viper’s bugloss near the pond at the Institute’s Balruddery Farm, where it grows as a winter annual, germinating one year, overwintering and flowering the next.

The borage family, to which Viper’s Bugloss belongs, is hardly a weedy problem in the UK. In his book on arable weeds in Britain, written well before the intensification of agriculture after the 1950s, HC Long [1] lists viper’s bugloss, corn gromwell Lithospermum arvense, bugloss Anchusa arvensis and field forget-me-not Myosotis arvensis among the borage family weeds of the 1920s, but none were harmful. Today, only field forget-me-not is common in the arable seedbank [2] but is still not among the top ten troublesome cornfield weeds.

But in Australia …..

In pasture and arable

Paterson’s Curse Echium plantagineum  remains a major invasive species and noxious weed of arable land in southern Australia, notably Victoria and New South Wales. It was not always there. It is from Mediterranean Europe and north Africa, but sometimes cultivated elsewhere as a garden plant for its blue flowers, for which it was taken to Australia.  Then it spread uncontrollably [3].

Here it is in the photographs below, growing in what is most likely a field of ryegrass, along with probably oats that self-seeded after a previous crop. Paterson’s Curse is the blue-purple haze, growing in irregular lines and patches.

The plant is taken very seriously in south Australia as a weed of pasture and arable land. It competes for light, water and nutrient with crops and pasture plants, but is also a poison to some farm animals.  It is a ‘declared plant’ listed in the Biosecurity and Agriculture Management Act 2007, and it is an offence to spread or transport it. Full descriptions are given, by national and state agriculture departments [3], including various means of biological control using invertebrates (e.g. insects).

It’s not all bad, however. Another of its common names, Salvation Jane, hints that it can assist in times of hardship, forming a constituent of pasture or hay that some stock animals can feed on, especially in dry seasons.

In flooded river red gum forest

The plant was also seen growing under the trees in a River Red Gum forest by the Murray River [4]. It was profuse, lining dirt tracks, but also spreading out underneath the shrub layer. There were other weeds with it, notably some of the composite, legume and nightshade families.

Paterson’s Curse lining tracks through river red gum and (lower) a flowering branch and two other understorey plants.

Away from the tracks and under the denser canopies, it was less common, but still the occasional plant was flowering and seeding.

Two years earlier, in the same month, there was no Paterson’s Curse to be seen here. Which raises questions as to how it became so abundant in 2017. Was it in the seedbank but did not germinate two years ago? If the seed was newly arrived in the area, how did it get there in such numbers?

There were extensive floods recently, and it may be that the seed was brought down the river or else the floodwater covered nearby agricultural fields and picked up seed as it receded, depositing seeds in the forest near the river. There are many potential means by which the plants could have spread.

Paterson’s Curse is a classic and costly example of a plant species that is barely an inconvenience in its native home, but finds spectacular opportunity in new territory. A bit like the rabbit and the fox. It’s no wonder Australia is cautious about its biological quarantine.

Do we have weeds as bad as this?

Britain certainly had its share of damaging weeds. Long [1] refers to the Corn Production Acts of the 1920s in which injurious weeds were named, and instructions given that they should be controlled, and if they were not, the landowner could be fined. He cites the counties of Surrey, Kent and Lancashire as having ‘shown very great energy in the matter’ of enforcing the Acts and bringing prosecutions.

The named weeds were ragwort, spear  thistle, creeping thistle, curled dock and broad-leaved dock.  Thirty years later the same weeds were still causing trouble and were named in the 1950s weed acts.

That was before chemical pesticides were routinely used and today the only one of them still spreading out of control is ragwort [5]. But interestingly, ragwort is spreading not in managed agricultural land but along main roads, motorways and roundabouts, and also into rough pasture and along some minor roads leading into wild land. The 1950s weed act still applies, so complaints can still be made about landowners encouraging ragwort to persist and spread  [5].

Today, in Britain, and ragwort excepted, most botanical invasions are outside tilled agriculture and by perennial plants such as rhododendron and himalayan balsam (but that’s another story).

Sources, links

[1] Long, HC. 1929. Weeds of arable land. London: HMSO. Ed: Long wrote his book on arable weeds well before chemical control became the norm after the 1960s in the UK. His account is an essential guide to weeds and their management, mostly by cultivation and choice of crop, in the period before intensification of arable land between 1950 and 1990.

[2] The seeds dropped by plants and buried in the soil form what is called a seedbank. Depending on the species, the seeds can survive for many years and then germinate when they are brought to the surface and conditions are right for them. The seedbank is important for survival is vegetation that suffers periodic destruction – such as burnt grassland or forest and land disturbed for agriculture. If no opportunities arise for germination, the seeds eventually die and the plant can be locally extinct. Most of the borage plant family in Britain can form a seedbank, but conditions in tilled fields have not been favourable to them and with few exceptions, they are rare in farmland.

[3] History, invasiveness, effects as a weed and poison, control and some stunning photographs of Paterson’s Curse’s ability to spread and cover, are available at the following web links: Agriculture Victoria; New South Wales NSW WeedWiseGovt of Austalia Dept Primary Industries and Regional Developmen.

[4] Barmah National Park protects a river red gum forest Eucalyptus camaldulensis by the Murray River in Victoria, Australia. Information at Parks Victoria.

[5] More on Ragwort Senecio jacobaea at The lone ragwort: late bee-haven.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

[article in progress  ….

The Mill at Atholl

The historic watermill at Blair Atholl. Absence of corn growing in the surrounding area today. Extensive field systems and enclosed land in the mid 1700s. Andrew Wights 1780s descriptions of innovation, enterprise and crop diversification. Part of a Living Field series on old corn mills.

The watermill at Atholl [1] offers a welcoming break to journeys along the A9 road, offering – in addition to the working mill – coffee and freshly baked bread from a variety of grains. In 2017, the mill and its bakers gained some deserved exposure on a BBC2 television programme, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, presented by Nadiya Hussain [1].

The remaining corn mills in the north of Britain tell much about the phasing in and out of local corn production over the last few centuries. The Living Field’s interest in this case lies in the mill’s history and location, being a substantial building but presently in an area that has no local corn production. In this, it differs from Barony Mills in Orkney which lies within an area of barley cultivation that still supplies the mill [2].

The images above show the water wheel fed by a lode that runs from the river Tilt to the north, the main grinding wheel (covered, top l), hoppers feeding the wheel and an old mill wheel. The watermill’s web site [1] and the explanation boards in the mill itself describe the history of the building and workings of the machinery.

The Atholl watermill was a substantial investment, but what strikes today is the absence of corn-growing (arable) land in the area. When visited in 2017, very few fields were cultivated.

What do the historical maps tell us?

The information inside the mill states that it was present at the time of Timothy Pont’s map of the 1590s [3]. It is there on his map, just south of ‘Blair Castel’. But Roy’s Military Survey [4] of the mid-1700s gives the best indication of the possible extent of cropped land in the area. Features on the Roy map (copied below) include ‘Blair Kirk’ (church) which still stands at what is now known as Old Blair and ‘Tilt Bridge’ on the road that ran north of the Garry; then areas of enclosed land or parkland, bounded by tree lines; and the Mill, shown within the white circle in the upper map, with its lode clearly leaving the River Tilt to the north and flowing past the mill to enter the River Garry upstream of where the Tilt joins it.

The Roy Map shows what appear be clusters of field systems on both sides of the Garry, depicted by short parallel lines suggesting rigs, some indicated by white arrows on the upper map. The lower map has been displaced to show more field systems around Aldclune.

Later, on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 1843-1882, the village of ‘Blair Athole’ has started to take shape, the corn mill is marked being fed by a Mill Lead originating at a sluice off the River Tilt. Later still, the Land Utilisation Survey 1931-1935 shows arable land remaining, consistent with the location of many of the field systems on Roy’s map.

Therefore crops, and they must have included corn, whether oat or barley, were grown in the region and presumably fed the mill, but more information on what was grown was reported by Andrew Wight, travelling 30 years or so after Roy.

Andrew Wight’s survey of 1784

Mr Wight’s surveys of agriculture in Scotland in the 1770s and 1780s again provide rare and sometimes surprising insights. He meets and reports on mainly the improvers, the landowners and their major tenants, less so the householder and small grower. Yet he was there at a crucial time in the development of food production and able to present a unique and consistent account throughout mainland Scotland.

Part way through his fourth survey [6], he spent the night in Dalwhinnie, then on travelling south towards lowland Perthshire, he stopped at Dalnacardoch, commenting that the innkeeper was a ‘spirited and enterprising’ farmer. There he reports a “clover field, dressed to perfection; an extraordinary sight in this barren country” and also “turnips in drills in perfect good order, pease broadcast, bear and oats with grass-seeds”, and notes ‘great crops of potato are raised here’. [Ed: bere is a landrace of barley.]

On ‘Athol House’ (near the mill) he concentrates on the animals, various breeds and hybrids of cattle, and also sheep; but on the tilled land, he writes the “Duke’s farm is about 700 acres arable; of which not more than 120 are in tillage, the rest being hay or pasture.” The rotation is “turnip broadcast, barley, oats and turnip again”. So corn crops – barley and oats – occupied 2/3 of the 120 acres, equivalent to 80 acres or 32 hectares (abbreviated to ha, 1 acre = 0.405 ha). It is uncertain what this land yielded at that time, but assuming it was 1 t/ha or one-fifth of todays typical spring cereal harvest, then that’s 30 tonnes of corn annually. By itself it does not seem enough for such a big mill.

Again, it is unclear whether tenants and crofters are included in the stated area, but they were probably not. For example, later he mentions tenants, including the innkeeper and farmer at ‘Blair of Athol’ who grew corn for his own local consumption. The extent of other corn land cultivated by small tenants, for example, on the field systems shown in the maps above, is not mentioned.

Mr Wight continues in his appreciation of the standards as he moves south, finding after Killicrankie and towards Faskally, an enchantment of orderly farmland. On the road south to Dunkeld, he writes ‘hills on every side, some covered with flocks, some with trees and small plantations, mixed with spots of corn scattered here and there; and beautiful haughs variegated with flax, corn and grass.’

Driving along the A9 road today, the land flanking the Garry seems impoverished and the climate inhospitable for crops, but Wight presents an entirely different view: innovation, improvement, and diversity of plant and animal husbandry. As in many upland areas, the land reverted to poor pasture, in some instances as recently as the 1980s. Why? Higher costs of growing crops, low profit margins, easier alternatives based on better transport connections and ready imports of cereal carbs.

Sources, links

[1] Blair Atholl Watermill and tearoom. Location shown on map, right. http://blairathollwatermill.co.uk (check web site for opening). The mill and its bakers were featured in 2017 on BBC2’s Nadiya’s British Food Adventure.

[2] Living Field articles on water-driven corn mills: 1) Shetland’s horizontal water mills and 2) Landrace 1 – bere (Barony Mills, Orkney).

[3] Pont maps of Scotland ca. 1583-1614, by Timothy Pont http://maps.nls.uk/pont/index.html

[4] Roy Military Survey of Scotland 1747-1755 http://maps.nls.uk/roy/ The web site of the National Library of Scotland (NLS) allows educational and not-for-profit use: acknowledgement given on the map legend.

[5] Land Utilisation Survey Scotland 1931-1935. “The first systematic and comprehensive depiction of the land cover and use in Scotland under the supervision of L. Dudley Stamp” http://maps.nls.uk/series/land-utilisation-survey/ See also
https://digimap.edina.ac.uk/webhelp/environment/data_information/dudleystamp.htm

[6] Wight, Andrew. 1784. Present state of husbandry in Scotland Volume IV, part I. Edinburgh: William Creech. The sights noted above, between Dalwinnie and Dunkeld, are described at pages154-165. [Available online, search for author and title.] Other reports of Mr Wight’s journeys are given on this site at Great quantities of Aquavitae and Great quantities of Aquavitae II.

 

 

Can we grow more vegetables?

Vegetables and fruit in Scotland mapped. Regions of historically strategic land and soil. The Iron Age, then the Romans, Picts and 1700s Improvers. Imports vs local production. Opportunities.

As background to the recent Vegetable Summit, held in Edinburgh, London and Cardiff, Nourish Scotland [1] asked the James Hutton Institute if it was possible to define the places where vegetables are grown in the region. The resulting map, prepared by Nora Quesada, is shown below.

Click on the map to open a larger version in a separate tab

Each coloured dot on the map indicates a field of fruit or vegetables. (The dots are much larger than individual fields.) It is clear from the distribution of dots that relatively little land exists in Scotland on which vegetables and fruit are grown. Even in places where the coloured dots are concentrated, the land area covered by fruit and vegetables is generally less than a few percent. Most of the other cultivated land is under cereals, wheat and barley.

Why do we want to know where vegetables are grown? Questions around  diet, health and food poverty at this time of agricultural plenty were  raised in a recent issue of Nourish Scotland’s magazine, January 2017, with the title ‘What would Boyd Orr do?’ [2].

John Boyd Orr was a pioneer of research into nutrition in Scotland many decades ago.  His work became known throughout the world. The article asked what he would do today faced with the situation that, while vegetables are essential for a healthy human diet, most are imported and fail to reach the people that need them.

It is important to know therefore whether more land than shown on the maps can be converted to growing vegetables? For example, how much land would be needed to provide an optimum (rather than minimum) diet for the whole country from local produce; and can the cities be supplied with fruit and veg by the land surrounding them?

To answer such questions, it is necessary, first, to know what is grown and where. That is the purpose of the present mapping.

How is it done?

The EU’s Integrated Administration and Control Systems (IACS), which is used to manage farm subsidies, collects data on the crops grown on each field. The Scottish Government provided that information to the James Hutton Institute. Each field in IACS is geo-referenced and can be located on a base map that is of high enough resolution to show the outlines of the fields. The IACS reference then allows the fields on the base map to be linked to specific crops in specific years. This is how the maps shown in this article were constructed [3].

The IACS system does not account for vegetables from gardens and allotments and inner city and rural small scale production. There is much activity at these small scales, which we’ll look at in future posts.

Here we  consider two examples of areas where vegetables are now produced: Strathmore and Angus and then Moray, Cromarty and Tarbat. Commercial growing needs good soil and a not-too-extreme climate, and given the difficulty of finding this combination in Scotland, it becomes apparent that today’s vegetable-producing regions have had strategic importance for hundreds and even thousands of years.

Strathmore and Angus

The  main area for production of vegetables lies in Strathmore (map below), which stretches over a generally lowland region, from east of Perth and then in a north-east direction to the coast north of Angus. Angus itself is a major source of fruit and many types of vegetable. Across the Tay, parts of Fife are similarly productive.

The crops occupying the greatest surface area are still the cereals – barley and wheat – but they are not shown on the map. In addition to potato and a wide range of vegetables, this area is the centre of fruit growing in Scotland – strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants.

Increasingly in recent decades many vegetables are sown in the field then covered with a protective fleece to encourage early growth and   to distance them from pests. Similarly, most soft fruit growing today is under the protection of polytunnels, where again the environment is less severe in winter and pests can be regulated.

Strathmore, Angus and Fife showing approx. locations of fields growing vegetables in one year.

The fertile soils and maritime climate here were of strategic importance to the iron age communities who built their many hill forts along the Sidlaw Hills that form a barrier between Strathmore and the estuary and coast to the south. The famous Dunsinane, or Dunsinnan as it is referred to on old local maps, is one of them [4]. One of the photographs shown below was taken from Dunsinnan, north across Strathmore.

Later the Romans invaded, moving north from the region of Hadrian’s Wall, not finding much of a welcome it seems, and erecting forts and watchtowers along the Gask Ridge and in a line just within but near the northern extremity of the cloud of coloured dots in the image above [5].

The Romans’ massive Legionary Fortress at Inchtuthil, within the northern boundary of the strath (see map above), was built and deserted in the 1st Century AD, and was probably sited to guard the passes north along what is today’s A9. The fortress and marching soldiers would have needed constant supplies of food, and probably achieved this by access to the rich land of Strathmore.

From Dunsinnan Hill north across Strathmore (top), the Isla in flood at the the last sunset of the year (lower r) and winter sky above polytunnel frames (www.livingfield.co.uk)

The image at the top of the three above was taken from Dunsinnan early in year, looking across Strathmore. The nearest fields are still in stubble after last year’s harvest; the intermediate ones, showing rich brown soil, have been ploughed; and the green ones just beneath the low cloud were sown the previous autumn with winter cereals or oilseeds. The Roman line stretched this side of the hills.

Centuries later, the Picts made this productive region integral to their southern kingdom in the 7th and 8th centuries. Many symbol stones and ‘pit- ‘ place names survive here from that time [6]. Some of the crops grown here today would not be known then – potato, for example, was yet to cross the Atlantic, and the other ‘root’ crops – turnip and swede – were probably unknown.

Yet Strathmore, Angus and Fife would have offered enough agricultural land to feed this civilisation with its basic grain and protein. You can see it was a prize that other peoples would want to take for their own – the Scots moving across from Ireland would have found little land of comparable quality on the west coast.

The Black Isle, Moray, Tarbat, Cromarty

A hundred miles directly north of Inchtuthil Fortress, across today’s passes of Drumochter and Slochd, the land falls to the coast and becomes productive again. The area (map below) grows fewer types of vegetable today than Strathmore, but grain and tuber yields remain high.

The coloured dots show that seed and ware potato were the commonest vegetables in this region, but interestingly carrot is also prevalent. Go back to the 1780s and the farmer/traveller Andrew Wight had this to relate when riding along the northern side of the Cromarty Firth [7]:

“….. that Robert Hall, the farm manager of Fowlis  ‘introduced a crop, rare in Scotland and an absolute novelty in the north, which is carrot. ….. The farm-horses are fed on carrots instead of corn; and they are always in good condition.”
Andrew Wight visited the area as part of his survey of the Improvements in the late 1700s, but the rich coastal land here has a historical legacy stretching back centuries.

The map above shows the area around the Cromarty and Moray Firths, the Moray coast stretching to the right and the Black Isle left of centre.

The northern Picts established their ‘elite’ farm and monastery at Portmahomack on the northern tip of the Tarbat peninsula. Their massive carved stones, at Nigg, Cadboll and Shandwick, were major contributions to European art. They arose within a civilisation based on the stability afforded by this good agricultural land [6].

As for Strathmore, the rich soil around the Dornoch and Cromarty Firths must have been eyed by the Scots from the west and the Norse from the east. Pictish civilisation, with its distinctive art and craft, did not survive.

Lines in the earth, Tarbat, including rapeseed drilled directly into cereal stubble (top left), then clockwise, the Storehouse of Foulis built in the 1700s; the Picts’ Shandwick Stone; site of the Tarbat Discovery Centre; and coastal grazing looking from Tarbat across the Dornoch Firth (www.livingfield.co.uk)

Opportunities

The maps derived from IACS data show the extent of vegetable growing today. Vegetables and fruit could be grown over a much wider area and a much higher density if the demand was there.

For example, the pulses – beans and peas – plants that fix their own nitrogen and so save on mineral fertiliser, have been reduced to a minor crop. The IACS map shows concentrations of peas and beans in the Borders, but overall  the pulses cover less than 5% of the arable land. This is low by global standards. Countries that have transformed their agriculture in recent years now assign a quarter of their land to nitrogen-fixing crops.

Developments towards greater veg and fruit production and nitrogen fixing pulses will not be just though existing growers expanding their production. There are many local initiatives, some in areas considered inhospitable for vegetables. There is great scope therefore for increasing production but the demand for quality local produce has to be there from consumers.

Future posts on this web site will look at the value of fruit and veg to health, the degree to which Scotland depends (and it depends a lot) on imports for its fruit and veg, the new vegetable products that are appearing on the market (including beer and bread from beans), the increasing local initiatives in veg production and the possibilities for growing much more fruit and veg and making it available to those who need it.

For more on vegetables on the Living Field web site…

Next up –Veg at Bangkok markets, Thailand and Minerals and vitamins from vegetables and fruit. 

For the Living Field’s experiences with veg growing, see Vegetables in the Living Field Garden. For some health benefits, see Cornbread, peas and back molasses and 2 veg to pellagra. For random posts on pulses (peas and beans), see Feel the pulsePeanuts to pellagra and Scofu: the quest for an indigenous Scottish tofu.

From Dunsinnan, across Strathmore, early in the year 2017

Sources, links

[1] Nourish Scotland: The Vegetable Summit was held on 24 October 2017. For background see Peas Please – the Veg Project.

[2] What would Boyd Orr do? Nourish Scotland Magazine, Issue 6, January 2017. The link is to a pdf file. The article by Pete Ritchie explains John Boyd Orr’s contribution and his continuing relevance today. Other articles cover diet, food poverty, vegetables  and right to food.

[3] IACS and map construction. Information of the Integrated Administration and Control System IACS scheme can be found at the web pages of the European Commission and the Scottish Government. Examples of a major exercise in mapping based on IACS data are given in a CAP Greening Review carried out by the James Hutton Institute for Scottish Government, published 2017: for links to the multi-part documentation, see CAP Greening Review on the SG web site; the section on mapping is Part 3 – Maps by David Miller, Doug Wardell-Johnson and Keith Matthews. Maps of vegetable growing produced in the present article were prepared by Nora Quesada.

[4] Dunsinnan hill fort. The Canmore site gives a detailed description.  A string of Iron Age ‘forts’ along the Sidlaw Hills south of Strathmore and just north of the flat, reclaimed coastal plain of the Carse of Gowrie, can be seen on the OS map of the area. Search for hill ‘forts’ by name. (Ps. Shakespeare promoted a different pronunciation – Dunsinane.)

[5] The exhibition Roman Empire – Power and People in 2015 at the McManus in Dundee was an invaluable introduction to life at the northern limits of the Roman Empire. The LF article Feeding the Romans gives some background on the land use around the line of fortifications along Strathmore. For comprehensive coverage of this northern Roman frontier: Woolliscroft, DJ, Hoffmann, B 2006. Rome’s first frontier – the Flavian occupation of Northern Scotland. The History Press (reprinted 2011).

[6]  Carver, Martin (2016) Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts. Edinburgh University Press. (2nd edition). Excavations of the farm and monastery are described. The Picts, flourishing between the 600s and 900s were part of a wider European culture . In their travels, they most likely imported various plants for use as food and medicinals, yet very little other than remnants of grain have survived. Maps in the book show the location of pit- place names.

[7] For Andrew Wight’s note on the innovative growing of carrots  by the Cromarty Firth in  the 1780s, see Great Quantities of Aquavitae II on this web site.

Contact

Text and background: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Mapping: nora.quesadapizarro@hutton.ac.uk

[Updated 2 December 2017  with revised main map.]

Oilseed rape in flowering broccoli

The wild cabbage Brassica oleracea is the origin of most of our brassica crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, swedes and sprouts. The wild form is perennial, living and flowering year after year on sea cliffs and coastal scree [1].

Many of the cultivated forms, growing in the rich soil of fields, also have this tendency to last more than one season. If they get the chance they will flower and if neglected some of them will recover after the winter and grow again.

This desire for  life among such short-season plants, grown for their leaves or compact floral heads, can sometimes be seen in late summer and early autumn, after a brassica crop has been harvested and before it is destroyed and the soil ploughed. The cabbages are not the only ones to flower illicitly – weeds of a similar type will also take the chance.

lf_5_plnt_crpwd_brocclsrmll17_gs_1100The photographs above show a field of broccoli in east Perthshire, flowering in mid-September after most heads had been harvested. The cultivated plants have the same pale yellow flower colour as their wild relative. In this field, some rows took to flowering more than others, perhaps indicating the planting of different varieties.

Among the pale yellow appear plants of a taller, rangier stature and with flowers of a much stronger yellow (examples circled in the top image). These are ‘volunteer’ oilseed rape [2], surviving as seeds buried in the soil from a previous crop and emerging and growing  when conditions allow.  Oilseed rape Brassica napus is half-cabbage, originated from a combination of the genomes of Brassica oleracea and Brassica rapa, the turnip.

These volunteers are hard to control in crops of cabbage and turnip. Any seedlings emerging in a corn crop are likely to die, but in cabbage or turnip and sometimes in potato, they can flower and re-seed. Volunteers of oilseed rape and also the main cereals, are now all common in the buried seedbank.

lf_5_plnt_crpwd_brocclmll17_gs_1100

The photographs above show, top, buds and open flowers of broccoli. The flowering branches usually arise as a side head after the main, central broccoli head has been harvested. Each floral sub-branch of the side head extends quickly resulting in the floral ‘bunches’ shown lower left. The large grey-green leaves are of the broccoli; the leaves of flowering oilseed rape are a similar shade but tend to be much smaller.

Such a mass of flowers within the cultivated parts of fields has become rare at this time of year. Flowering broccoli offers a few weeks of food for insects and other small life forms that make up the cropland food web. Bumble bees were foraging (lower right), as they have been doing among the flowering cabbages in the Living Field garden.

The remains of this vegetable crop will soon be dispensed with and the soil ploughed. Seeds on some of the oilseed rape might mature and drop to the soil and join the buried, living population of volunteer weeds. They will germinate, emerge and re-seed at the next opportunity, maybe seven or more years hence, depending on what is grown in between.

Waste and plenty ….. for the past few weeks, this field has held a mass of edible food in the form of broccoli side shoots, compact enough to cut easily before they elongated to flower. Though edible and nutritious, such small broccoli heads are probably not saleable to the buyers that want standard uniformity to a schedule. Yet in this instance, the wasted food quickly became useful to the late summer food web.

Sources, links

[1] The 5000 Years page on Crop-weeds gives background to wild cabbage and its relatives that form the Brassica complex in studies of weediness, geneflow and persistence.

[2] Seedbank studies at the Institute stretch back to the 1980s, started by Harry Lawson and Gladys Wright. At that time, few oilseed rape were found as buried weed seeds in cropped fields. In the last 15 years, they have risen to become among the most common four or five broadleaf (i.e. not grass) seedbank species.

Other pages and posts on Brassica crops and weeds on this site:

Growing cabbages and their relatives in the Living Field Garden: Vegetables and The Garden’s vegetable bounty.

Brassica root sections: The Beauty of Roots exhibition, Sectioned.

Swede and turnip in Burns’ time: SoScotchBonnet.

Contact for this page: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

 

 

 

Labours of the Months

A note to the Living Field’s exploration of The Year. The Labours in Medieval art and craft. Labours in the remaining Easby church murals, Yorkshire, ca 1250. Adam and Eve in the tradition: delving and spanning. The reformer John Ball. Modern Labours and the Crow. 

The ‘Labours of the months’ was an artistic theme that recurred in cathedrals and churches across Europe in the middle ages, typically 1200-1400 AD or 800-600 years ago [1]. The Labours, depicting rural activities through the year, were sometimes paired with the signs of the zodiac. They were crafted in stone, wood and stained glass and occasionally in wall paintings (murals). The great cathedrals of France and Italy display many fine examples.

The Labours  had a role in reinforcing power and privilege. In the Très Riches Heures for example [2] the paintings show well turned out peasants about their seasonal activities, but overlooked and dominated by great palaces and castles. And not all the Labours were about the agricultural year: hunting with hawk and dog would also have been the preserve of the wealthy.

So now to Yorkshire …

The Easby Murals

In the church of St Agatha at Easby [3] Yorkshire, four of what are thought to have been 12  murals remain of these Labours of the Months, dated to around 1250 along with several murals depicting scenes from the Bible. There are apparently very few other wall paintings of ‘The Labours’ from medieval Britain, and none to compare with these. 
lf_ntsmgs_stgthmrls1_gs_1100

These murals were originally painted on dry plaster, but found covered with lime wash, presumably to prevent them being seen and defaced during Henry VIII’s purges of the monasteries in the mid-1500s. They were uncovered in Victorian times and restored again in 1994 [4]. The remaining 8 have not survived.

A notice in the church states that two of the remaining Labours are from spring, sowing and pruning, and the others, digging and hunting, from winter. Those of sowing and pruning are the best preserved.

The church at that time was next to a monastery, Easby Abbey, now a well kept ruin [5], and the resemblance of monks’ hair styles (tonsures) in the labourers depicted suggests that the painter’s models were working canons from the Abbey rather than common people.

lf_ntsmgs_stgth_mrls2_gs_1100

Yet the presence of this ‘Labours’, so close to central Christian themes, and in a humble church, shows the importance of the year’s cycle to the people and the beliefs at that time. As in the great cathedrals, hunting on horseback with a hawk features in one of the four (lower right in the images above). The hawk itself looks more like a crow and not too different from the crow observing the sower.

Who was then the gentleman …?

Another of the murals, not part of the ‘Labours’, but one of a set on early Christian themes, shows Adam digging and Eve sat on a rock or tree stump spinning, symbolic mundane tasks that they would have to do for eternity after their ejection from the Garden in the book of Genesis.

lf_ntsmgs_stgth_dgspn_gs_750These symbols of husbandry and craft have resonated throughout recent history, not least when the preacher for social justice and equality, John Ball [6] wrote in the 1300s not long after the Easby murals were painted:

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman.”

He was querying why privilege and power should still so dominate and make miserable the lives of working people in what was purportedly a Christian country. That power was uncomfortable with the idea of social justice and John Ball came to a violent end, being cut into pieces and displayed in different parts of the country.

John Ball’s memory has also been kept in writings and songs, notably that by Sydney Carter [6].

In the mural at St Agatha’s, Adam is fully clothed, and Eve not quite, but in the folk tradition they can be without. In the song “Old Adam” – which has a delving and spanning refrain –  is the line “he never paid his tailor’s bills because he wore no clothes” [7].

Modern labours

The Labours of the months was given a new treatment by the writer and artist Clare Leighton in her ‘The Farmers Year’ published in the 1930s [8]. She begins with the Labours of Lambing, Lopping and Threshing, then in the month of April, Sowing; and the time of the engraving is more than 500 years after Easby, yet the farmer is broadcasting by hand, carrying the grain in a basket slung in front of him.

Her sower strikes a similar pose to that in the Easby murals, but with right arm back after flinging the seed. Her sower is more rugged, of the earth, not with smock and tonsure but with weathered face and trousers tied below the knee and having a wife waiting for him at the farm.

lf_ntsmgs_stgth_clswng_750

Though she admits most sowing and other field work was then done with machinery, Clare Leighton chooses to engrave this sower, and writes ” ….. but here and there a farmer remains who still feels some warmth come up to him from the earth as he strides his fields, and to whom the land is a matter of emotion as well of economics.”

The crow?

The presence of the crow, following the Easby sower, recurs throughout the tradition. Crows observe the human condition, taking advantage where they can. In traditional song, two crows find a ready meal in a new-slain knight, deserted by his dog, his hawk and his lady. The crows are thinking aloud about which of them will feast on the eyes.

Of contemporary artists, Alan Stones has a special eye for crows and ravens [9]. In his lithograph – Brother Sun – a crow observes a man, a shepherd, coiling barbed wire. Another crow flies away low over the field. In a charcoal drawing, two crows peck before a gnarled hawthorn tree. His series ‘Divided self’ show crow-type birds standing on sheep and the series ‘Raven’ brings out the unearthly power of the great black birds.

The murals at St Agatha’s, Easby, are part of a European heritage and a continuing tradition [including colouring-in if that’s your fancy 10].

Contact / author: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk, visited St Agatha’s on 9 July 2017.

Sources, references, links

[1] Labours of the months: for general background and examples, see the Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labours_of_the_Months; and The Paradoxplace web site shows Labours and Zodiac in stained glass at Chartres, France c1217

[2] The illuminated manuscript, Très Riches Heures can be viewed at Public Domain Review: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/labors-of-the-months-from-the-tres-riches-heures/.

[3] Easy Parish Church – a brief guide. Bargate Publications, Richmond, North Yorkshire, www.bargatepublications.co.uk. A notice on one of the walls states that the murals were originally painted on dry plaster and pre-date the Florentine Giotto (c. 1267-1337) and the Sienese Duccio (active 1278-1319). The church contains a replica of the Easby Cross, of sculpted stone, now in the V&A London. The photographer and historian Stiffleaf has a bank of images at http://www.ipernity.com/tag/stiffleaf/keyword/28360/@/page:69:18

[4] The Easby Church guide states: ‘…. they were uncovered during the Victorian restoration and restored again in 1994 by Perry Lithgow (a company specialising in architectural restoration) assisted by a grant from English Heritage.’ More photographs of the murals can be viewed at Wasleys.org.uk.

[5] Easby Abbey was founded in the 1150s for the Premonstratensian Order, itself founded in about 1121 in Prémontré, in France. The Abbey was destroyed in the 1540s in Henry VIII campaigns. Information at English Heritage http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/easby-abbey/

[6] John Ball: the Wikipedia entry gives general background. Sydney Carter wrote the song ‘John Ball’ for the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Perceptive commentary at ‘Songs that grow like trees: an appreciation of Sydney Carter (1915-2004)’ on the web site Early Music Muse – musings on medieval, renaissance and traditional music by Ian Pittaway. Chris Wood sings ‘John Ball’ on his album Trespasser:  ChrisWoodMusic.

[7]  The traditional song “Old Adam” is performed (2016) by Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party on the CD album Old Adam, 2016, Soundpost Records, www.fayhield.com.

[8] Clare Leighton, 1898-1989, writer, artist and engraver. For examples of works, see clairleighton.com. Source: Leighton, C. 1933. The Farmer’s Year – a calendar of English husbandry. Little Toller Books, Dorset.

[9] Alan Stones at www.alanstones.co.uk.  ‘Brother Sun’ and other early lithographs can be viewed at Lithographs – Farming (1984-1992); crows and ravens at Lithographs (1996-1999).

[10] Institute for Medieval Studies University of Leeds
Downloadable page for colouring, Labours of the Months, January to March https://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/download/2753/labours_of_the_months

lf_ntsmgs_lbrsyr_stgth_gs_1100

[Edited 17 September 2017]

The Garden’s vegetable bounty

A vegetable bounty this year – leaves, flowers and ‘roots’ of all shapes and sizes have appeared in the Living Field Garden. Gladys and Jackie have nurtured a fine array of eatables, which many long term Garden observers say is the best yet, and that’s from a year which has not been ideal for crops.

Here are just some of my favourites (writes Geoff).

This red cabbage (sometimes called blue) matured late and kept well, outside in the shade, for at least a month after being cut. Half was pickled, and sat on a shelf with the others. The rest was eaten as a raw or cooked vegetable.

The cabbage shown above was cut in half with a big kitchen knife and photographed. It is shown as a ‘reverse image’ to bring out the structure of the folded leaves.

The cauliflower, below, was football sized and too large to show its halves side by side. One half went the same day as it was cut, eaten as cauliflower cheese – a strong brassica taste with a milder cheddar-type cheese sauce, in this case Mull (but Anster is also good for this), sprinkled with grated parmesan, and then paprika to give it spice and colour.

The other half was cut into small pieces and pickled with wine vinegar, onion seed and peppercorns, to be eaten over the winter. It is now waiting in a jar.

lf_ntsmgs_vgbnt_clflwr_gs_800

 

The carrots (below) grew into complex shapes this year. They are not deformed, just natural.  Some of this year’s carrots looked like an octopus, orange tentacles clasping the main body. Others reclined languorously on the table top, waiting to be peeled and cut. Still others were more or less straight with lumps in strange places.

But  there’s no reprieve whatever the form. Roasted or boiled with herbs, very tasty, real carrot, soon eaten.

lf_ntsmgs_vgbnt_crrt_gs_800

 

The onions looked a bit ragged on harvest, but were unblemished inside their protective leaves. The smell when cut is definitive, to be savoured and remembered. The layers of leaves, filled with winter storage, are distinct, all white near the centre but with red outers towards the edge of the bulb.

The onions that came to our kitchen from the garden this year were all pickled with seeds and spices in wine vinegar. They are also waiting in a jar, next to the cauliflower.

 

lf_ntsmgs_vgbnt_rdnn_gs_800

 

The beet went the same way as the cauliflower – one half pickled, this time in red wine vinegar, the other half eaten. But the revelation for me – not a great fan of beet – was the chunks of it, coated in oil (try cold pressed rapeseed) then roasted in foil and eaten with Maris Piper. What a taste – fresh cooked beet like this is up there among the great vegetables of all time. Thanks to those pioneers of crop selection who managed to get these red chunks out of wild sea beet.

[more vegetables cut in half to follow, as they are harvested later in the year … ]

You can see more of Gladys and Jackie’s efforts on display at Open Farm Sunday 2017 and at Vegetables on the Garden pages.

Bere battered fish

Grannie Kate’s back with a new use of bere meal ….. she writes …

“Fed up of ‘days old’ fish from the supermarket? Try stopping a local fish van to see the beautiful produce on sale!

lf_ntsmgs_brbttr_gk_750

This was what I did last Friday morning at 9.50 a.m. precisely and bought some haddock (landed that morning) from a mobile fish merchant from Anstruther.

The van horn was tooted loudly in the Main Street and behold people silently appeared to purchase from a wide selection of sea food displayed in the back of the refrigerated van. The old word ‘fishmonger’ seems to be out of fashion these days, ‘fish merchant’ now the preferred description

Home made fish and chips then, for tea, using my mother’s recipe for coating the fish before frying in oil. Haddock (and other white fish) tend to break up in the frying pan if they are fried without coating them first.

Fresh haddock from the sea and …… earthy bere meal from Barony Mills!

What to do

  1. Place a large tablespoon of bere barley on a plate and then (if preferred) mix with white flour, e.g. another large tablespoon or less depending on your taste.
  2. Grind sea salt and black pepper into the flour to season it.
  3. Crack a fresh free range egg into a small jug and whisk it until the yolk is well mixed with the white.
  4. Wash the fish ( this is important especially if the fish is not as fresh as you would wish and actually smells; remember, fresh fish does NOT smell!). Cut the fish in half lengthways to give 2 portions. Then cut again diagonally across the portion to give two or three smaller pieces or goujons. You now have about 6 goujons of fresh haddock.
  5. Dip each goujon into the egg, shake off the excess egg wash then place onto your flour, rolling it around until it is covered. Repeat for all the haddock pieces.
  6. Add some light cooking oil into a frying pan and heat – to test the temperature is right add a little bit of flour to the oil and it should start to bubble up immediately.
  7. Add all your goujons to the oil, fry for about two or three minutes on one side, then two or three minutes on the other on a medium heat.
  8. Lift out with a fish slice onto some kitchen towel and blot lightly to remove excess oil.

The goujons should be light brown with a thin crispy coating of bere meal on the outside.

Serve with fresh garden peas and homemade chips. Add salt and vinegar or wedge of lemon and perhaps some tartare sauce!

Delicious………!
Links

The bere meal was sourced from Barony Mills in Orkney. For more on Orkney bere, see: Bere line rhymes with hairline and Landrace 1 Bere.

And for other bere recipes on this site – Bere bannocks and Bere shortbread and Seeded oatcakes with bere meal …..