I was actually in my forties when I first started actively studying and looking to work with seed. I came to a point in my life when I thought I’m not on the right track here career wise and so I returned to my hobby, which was botany. I’d loved plants since I was a teenager and I had farmers and horticultural entrepreneurs in my family. So I made a switch in my career and I never looked back.
I started volunteering at a local genebank and this is where I first saw Avena srigosa – known as ‘slender oats’, ‘small oats’ or black oats’. These are the oats that I have since become so interested in and that are also the source of some amazing oat revival work going on in Wales with my colleague Katie Hastings. Avena srigosa is the skinny cousin of the porridge oats we’re all familiar with. In Europe it is a rare historical crop of the poorest soils with high lipid and other interesting biochemical contents.
The many varieties of oats and this agricultural biodiversity fascinated me and I really wanted to get more involved. So at this point I came to Birmingham University to study conservation of genetic resources and it was my research work with the University that brought me to Scotland for the first time.
In truth, when I first arrived on the Outer Hebrides I just couldn’t understand the cultivation. It was the opposite of the formal, ‘tidy’ agriculture I knew from Holland – it all appeared so open and untidy to me. It took some time to learn to appreciate the extensive High Nature Value cultivation that was actually taking place here; the grain mixtures, the weed diversity, halophytes on one end of a field and orchids on the other end.
And what’s more, it felt like no one was interested in what was going on here regarding the landraces. It was incredibly under-researched. So I started to contact the Scottish Crofters Federation and others to talk about the need to flag up how unique the island-wide local seed system as part of crofting agriculture was.
Through my research I wanted to show how extensive the cultivation of the landraces were on the crofts of the islands. Landraces are populations of varieties that have grown on a certain location over a long period of time so they have developed in a certain climate, under specific growing systems and with the local knowledge of the farmers. What I found in the research was that crofters on Uist were maintaining populations of three landraces that had been grown there for centuries. The knowledge associated with these varieties was extensive and unique to this landscape. I felt strongly that the crofters had a lot to share with regards to what is essentially the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. This isn’t about seed varieties sitting dormant in freezers in seed banks; this is about living diversity supporting the local economy of an entire island.
“You have hard times and you have good times. If you really love it you just carry on. It is something that is in your blood.” Ena MacDonald, We Feed the World.
Ena MacDonald was one of the very first contacts on Uist. She’s now handed the family croft on to her son Angus who will carry on the tradition there. Ena still remembers growing up here in the days of hunting, fishing and helping the community harvest every September until nightfall. She’s determined to see this crofting legacy continue. She’s become quite the advocate for crofters rights and has been chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, speaking out nationally. She has continued writing a splendid column about crofting life in the community paper Am Pàipear.
And crofting is hard. The landscape can be brutal, being so far north and with the ocean battering the islands. That means the plants growing here are also very hardy!
Another close ally within the crofting community was Neil MacPherson. Neil and Morag are third generation crofters who grow mainly bere barley for seed. Neil and I started to collaborate on the research around oats and we created demonstration beds with different varieties to show the difference and to document them, and the community would come to see and learn from this. I had an open day every Saturday.
It was at this time that the Secondary School on the island was starting a crofting course and so the students started to come to our demonstration plots too. I would teach them about the different varieties, and about sowing, weeds and so forth. The students would help me sow them and then I took plants of the varieties to the local agricultural shows. The oats would be displayed there with labels and I would explain why this was so unique on the island. This was cause for real pride and celebration.
One of the main challenges for the programme in Scotland was a lack of vegetable seed trainers; or at least to our knowledge at the time! Part of the aim of the programme was of course to begin to identify seed networks, and so things have changed now, as we discover more and more folk who are passionate about seed and very experienced, but those early trainings were delivered by the then programme manager and former curator of the Heritage Seed Library, Neil Munro, who would travel up from the Midlands.
I’m very pleased to say that now we have a number of very skilled trainers working as part of the network in Scotland, not least our new colleague Ritchie Walsh.
The crofters come from a very strong food and seed self-sufficiency history with traditional ways of seed sharing and an in depth knowledge around seed. It became clear to me that they could offer great insight for anyone looking to increase their knowledge of seed saving and cultivation, or to increase the growing of these heritage grain landraces.
A group interested in landraces and the local Uist varieties emerged following an article about the programme in The Crofter (the magazine of the Scottish Crofting Federation which is widely circulated in the highlands and the crofting communities). And in November 2018 we took them over to Uist for what was essentially a crash course. In hindsight, the timing was crazy! The weather was terrible, ferries were cancelled, but we made it in the end and the group really bonded over those two days. They stayed in touch, offering peer learning and support to one another, and even returned to Uist the following year.
It was soon after this learning exchange to Uist that I started liaising with the James Hutton Institute and we began offering joint seed training events around heritage grain and intercropping organised with the Soil Association Scotland. One of these was on Lismore with one of the crofters, and interest in the programme really started to snowball from here. More and more people were coming to the trainings, interested in bere barley, and engaging with the programme, which was very exciting.
During the summer of 2019 I met a group of bere barley geneticists from the James Hutton Intitute at the Agriculture Scotland day. They were very supportive of what we were doing and kindly agreed to make some of the bere to the Highland crofters grain group that was informally emerging at the time. The contact with Joanne Russell also resulted in her giving a tak at our recent Uncommon Grains event (a longer version of her talk will appear shortly on the YouTube channel of the Botanical Society of Scotland.)
This was a real gift because there’s often a bottleneck when looking to grow a variety that isn’t widely grown, because the seed banks will only give a small number of seeds, which then have to be grown out and bulked up over a period of years. Here the crofters were already given a good starter pack of the bere barley and this gave a real head start for the group. I’m delighted to say that they’re all growing, saving and sharing the beer barely now. Plus there’s a lot of knowledge exchange and peer to peer support going on across the group.
The Highland Crofters Grain Group is largely made up of first generation grain growers, and they’re now connected with allies from the wider Highland and even UK-wide grain network. These include Adam Veitch, the baker-crofter-engineer who is working on heritage agricultural machinery designs and growing different cereal varieties on his croft as part of a local grain economy development; The Shieling Project as model for demonstrating self-sufficient crofting linked with outdoor-education; and The Coigach -Assynt Living Landscape project working on a demonstration croft.
In October 2020 – between lockdowns – we organised a small event in Lismore with the core Grain group. There were just a few crofters, all of whom are incredibly committed to this. It was a mini ‘Field School’ if you like. We looked at grain heads together for health, looking at the field and the weed pressure and disease and pests. It’s really good to do this observation in the field and to consider things like seed density, how was the harvest, what about disease pressure etc. There’s a lot to learn.
The group has also developed a keen interest in machinery and have started talking about a visit to Barony Mill on Orkney this year. Most of them have started purchasing machinery and are looking forward to the results of the machinery research by Adam.
What’s really exciting for me is that the group has effectively started functioning as a wee incubator for grain growing in the Highlands around the three axes of grain growing: seed sourcing; knowledge of growing; and technical tools.
I hope and trust that the Highland grain network will continue to evolve and deepen, with this rich knowledge exchange continuing and growing. That it will keep its crofting signature and contribute to crofting development as a unique Highland ‘way of life’ (work and seed and knowledge sharing ethos).
I’d love to see some sort of cooperative around seed developing Scotland-wide, with commercial viability, creating employment and income by selling Scottish grown open pollinated seed varieties. That would be exciting. It isn’t without its challenges but I think there’s an opportunity here nonetheless. And it’s possible with the helping hand that the programme offers because it provides a learning treasure trove around seed. People need to know “How did other people start?”, and through the programme there are plenty of models to learn from. Everyone in the network is willing to share information and support one another, which is incredible. Peer learning is very powerful and the programme really creates the perfect container for this.
Thank you Maria for your part in this vital work.
Read more about the grains network and revival from the Scottish Highlands to the Welsh lowlands
Find out more about the Seed Sovereignty Programme in Scotland with coordinator Richie Walsh.