Ever since we started travelling around Scotland, I was very curious to see how people live in tiny villages or on farms in the middle of nowhere. How is it when your life is far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, from work 9 to 5, with a completely different rhythm. The rhythm of nature. I also regret that I delayed my decision so long to stop buying vegetables and fruits in the supermarket and start buying local organic vegetables. But better late than never. Of course, in the off-season, in the winter I am a bit forced to buy vegetables in a supermarket, but I am very happy that I have the opportunity to buy fresh, local products from farmers who work with passion and commitment to provide the best quality and most nutritious fruit and vegetables. This is how I found Berwick Wood Produce farm – I was looking for a local vegetable supplier for whom growing vegetables is not only a way to earn money. Mhairi and her family have a woodland farm near Hatton of Fintray in Scotland. And I was looking for words to introduce them, but I think Mhairi on their Instagram page @berwickwoodproduce did it the best:
“I’m Mhairi and I am incredibly lucky to manage my family woodland farm near Hatton of Fintray. I do this with the help of my husband Aus and our quickly growing up offspring (when they are around). We have spent the last few years learning about small scale regenerative farming and how to make a living from local food. We are passionate about sustainability: ecologically, socially and economically. We want farms to be able to farm in ways that increase biodiversity and leave nutrients in the soil for the next generations. We believe local communities have the right to access good food and that skills in food production need not to be lost. Farmers should make a fair wage for their work and do so by selling locally. As I am a “veg snob” having lived nearly exclusively off my own veg for the last 10 years I started with a no till market garden which sells veg boxes, to food hubs and to small independent shops and cafes.With our wood being thinned we will be able to introduce livestock ready to add more regeneration to this land.“
To satisfy my curiosity a bit, and I hope yours as well, I asked Mhairi a few questions about what the running of the farm looks like, what her day looks like, and how organic vegetables from sustainable crops differ from those, we usually buy in the supermarket.
I hope this will encourage you to delve into this topic and look for a similar farm in your area. It would be great if we could support local farmers who love nature, while at the same time making our life and health better with nutritious and fresh vegetables and fruits.
So grab yourself a cup of tea and enjoy reading.
Hello Mhairi, could you tell me how your farming adventure started? Did you grow up on a farm?
I grew up in with small scale farming. My grandfather had a croft on the West coast of Scotland that looked onto Ben Nevis. He had a herd of Highland cows that can be seen in movies such as “The Highlander”, “Braveheart” and “Rob Roy”. My dad was an agricultural economist and later took over the croft from his dad. Though I always loved being on the land in 1998 I decided to come to Aberdeen and become an occupational therapist. I worked for both the NHS and in schools until a series of bone tumours meant I needed to stop working. To help out my family financially I started growing food again and reignited my love for working the land. Working outside and eating better food really helped my physical recovery and when the opportunity to grow on a larger scale arose I knew that is what I wanted to do.
Has farming been viewed as more of a business for you, or a lifestyle choice? Some combination of both?
Though I do need to make a livelihood, for me farming is very much a lifestyle. I am passionate about looking after the land for future generations and for wildlife. I wish to provide fresh nutritious food to my local community and to contribute to a better food system in this country.
What was the most challenging at the beginning? And what’s the most challenging right now?
The biggest challenges have been to get the infrastructure on the farm. The land was originally part of a large estate, then broken down into a smaller parcel of land which was planted into a woodland in 1990. It had no buildings, water, fencing, power or vehicular access so we had to start with all that while trying to get growing. It was also hard to find markets for the veg that we grew as most people and cafes/restaurants could not initially see the value of our veg over wholesale or supermarket. As more people tried local veg or have become interested in where their food comes from the demand for our produce is increasing and the challenge now is to grow enough to meet the best supply and demand. This means
that we are always trying to collect as much data about best varieties, dates for planting / harvesting and yields while keeping all the planting etc.. going.
What crops do you grow?
This year on the farm we are growing 45 different types of vegetables, 15 different types of herbs and hope to get a small crop from our apples trees and fruit bushes (they have only been in a few years). We also look after the woodland and this year we will thin out some of the sitka spruce and plant some willow, alder and hazel trees to increase diversity and make sure the trees left can grow better.
Which part of farming is the most satisfying for you?
There are lots of parts of the farm that I find satisfying but mostly I love to see the ecosystems on the farm. I love to see all the wildlife that is there from the toads and dragonflies on the pond to the buzzards and heron that fly over our heads. This week I have been watching the worms heat up, the beetles mate and the ladybirds on the young trees.
Could you describe how your typical day look like in a growing season?
In the growing season my typical day begins about 5am or at first light as the days get shorter. I start by watering the polytunnels and checking the market garden plot. It is then usually either a harvesting day or a planting/ seeding day. On a harvesting day we have a list of what is to be harvested and it is all done as early as possible as that is when the leaves
are most turgid and tasty. On seeding/planting days each bed that is to be planted is weeded and raked. Either plants that have already been sown into trays are then transplanted into the ground or seeds are sown directly into the ground using our push along seeder. Once the seeds/plants are in the ground they sometimes need protection such as fleeces or nets. We also spend time cleaning and organising tools and keeping records up to date. I try to finish work by 6pm though often have paperwork to do after my tea. I also try to find time everyday just to observe the environment both from an enjoyment point of view and also to take note of my surroundings.
So your day is full of different jobs that need to be done, do you have your favourite farm task?
I have 3 favourite tasks on the farm. Firstly I love planning the year ahead especially new things we might want to try to plant, creating new micro environments or learning new ways of doing things. Secondly I love my quiet time in the propagation area seeding trays of veg and finally I love harvesting (and eating!!) a really successful crop.
I guess farming is not only enjoyable and satisfying work, but you also need to deal with many factors that are beyond your control: weeds, insects, diseases, weather devastating to the crop you have cared for months. How do you deal with fail? What helps you to keep going even though sometimes it might look like everything is against you?
Fingers crossed we have never had a complete crop fail. Our most basic philosophy is good soil and strong plants do well. If a veg does not do as well as we hoped to take notes and see what we can change.
Sometimes a different way of planting, timings, variety can make a difference but occasionally we might decide not to do that type of veg anymore. Equally we take notes of what goes well.
Weeds can get me down sometimes but our no dig beds have helped to minimise them. Weeds are really helpful indicators of your soil so can be really useful for letting you know what is going on. To prevent disease we try to keep our soils well looked after and plants strong. As of yet we have not had any diseases. Pests are always seen as a challenge but recently I have changed the way I view “pests”. I am spending a lot of time learning about the lifecycles of these “pest” and viewing them more as food for the other things which are part of our farm ecosystem. Creating a balance of “pests” and “predators” leads to a much healthier system. We choose not to use any chemicals on our plants even ones that organic farms can use as we hope that this will give the best chance for our ecosystem to balance. On the whole this has worked though slugs and flea beetles can at times be an issue!! When things go wrong I find it best to let myself feel a bit sad then pick myself up, learn what you can and focus on the things that are going right.
From your perspective, what people should be aware of when they shop for vegetables?
When people are shopping for veg they should always be aware of what is in season. Using glass or tunnels it is possible to extend seasons slightly or grow things under cover that you could not grow outdoors but veg or fruit that is been grown out of season is always less tasty and nutritious. Different veg also has different shelf life time. Leaves need to be picked and cooled quickly and kept in the fridge where as onions, potatoes, swedes or other root crops can last longer just kept somewhere dry or darker. For this reason you are more likely to get a good swede in a supermarket then good kale or spinach. Veg that is a bit past its best can still be used in soups, stews or fermented or pickled rather then wasted.
What are the differences between vegetables from supermarket and the one grown on your farm? Many people thinks that veg is a veg and the only difference is that the one from supermarket are nicely washed and packed in foil, which for many people is much more convenient.
There are two main differences between our veg and that bought in a supermarket. The first is providence. With our veg you can know exactly where it came from right back to the seed, how it was grown and when it was harvested. Secondly there is growing practices. We spend a lot of time learning about the best ways to grow our veg, the most suitable varieties and how to create the right soils to optimise nutrition. A lot of supermarket veg is grown for high yield, speed and prices which means that growing best practices can not be observed.
And they are often sprayed with pesticides, and travel thousands of miles before they get to the shop. While you can buy fresh, healthy local vegetables, that may be a bit dirty from the soil, but so much healthier and nutritious. What can consumers do to support small farms more actively?
There are a lot of things that consumers can do which are free if price is an issue for them. They can share social media posts of small producers, they can support campaigns to keep food standard high or they can start to cook more seasonally. If they can buy more locally they can write reviews to promote small producers products that they have enjoyed. They can try occasionally buying from farmers markets or food hubs rather then from the supermarkets. They can engage with their small producers. Usually small producers are passionate about what they do and are happy to talk about what they do. Hopefully as restrictions ease farms will also be able to have open days again.
If you had one piece of advice for someone who would like to become a farmer, what would it be?
My one piece of advice for someone who would like to start a farm is to decide what farm you want to start. If you want to start a agri-ecological farm then join one of the small association which promote these such as The land workers alliance, the organic growers alliance, the nature friendly farming association or community supported agricultural. These associations all have mentorships, placements, peer to peer learning and loads of support and information for those interested in farming for a better planet/ food system.
Thank you Mhairi that you found some time to answer my questions. Even though season of harvesting and delivering veggies didn’t started yet, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do on the farm. That’s another thing that need to be mention – farmers work hard all year round 🙂
I hope you enjoyed reading this post and maybe it encouraged you to make some changes to your diet this Spring. Rather than buying fruit and vegetables at a supermarket, make a research to find a local farmer who grows delicious, healthy and organic vegetables. So you will be able to cook healthy and nutritious meals for yourself and your family.
In the meantime, you can take a look at a few recipes I made using vegetables from Berwick Wood Produce.