Author: Alex MacKenzie, Local Food Development Manager, Tagsa Uibhist
Report commissioned by The Pebble Trust
Growing a Sustainable Local Food Eco-System in Uist
Alex Mackenzie, Local Food Development Manager, Tagsa Uibhist
Chris MacLullich, Chief Executive, Tagsa Uibhist
Tagsa Uibhist was funded by The Pebble Trust in 2022 to undertake research with local producers, consumers, and experts to provide new insights to strengthen the local food economy with an emphasis on environmental and social sustainability, resilience, affordability and on broadening access to low-cost nutritious food.
The premise of this this research was that in the context of the climate emergency, the cost-of-living crisis, increasing levels of food poverty, and the many failings of industrial food production it is vital to build more resilient and sustainable local food systems. This is particularly true for island communities.
All four pillars of food security (availability, access, utilisation, and stability) have been impacted negatively in Uist in recent years. The precarious nature of our access to sufficient nutritious food is stark and demands that we look at solutions closer to home.
Low intensity, ‘high nature value’ (HNV) farming continues to be practiced in Uist by local crofters and horticulturalists. Nevertheless, these island communities rely heavily on long food supply chains. Despite producing substantial quantities of food, the islands face acute food insecurity more so than on the mainland. Local food production of meat and shellfish does contribute high value products to Scotland’s larder.
Uist’s linear geography, small population and dispersed communities present a challenge in establishing local food systems. This is added to by the lack of value chain development support for the local market, as well as the need for increased food processing, finishing, storage and market facilities on Uist.
A resilient local food system in Uist will simultaneously support the local community and culture as well as contribute to economic and environmental sustainability. Achieving this will require supporting islanders to make optimal use of their land, its assets, and its benefits to prioritise local production and consumption.
A clear finding from our research is that people in Uist are committed to a value system which includes reciprocal obligation; sharing produce and providing support in the work of growing food.
Our research affirmed that there is a strong and widespread aspiration among Uist producers to achieve a small-scale growing revolution to increase the quantity of affordable fresh local food available locally. We also found that there is demand from the local community and businesses for high quality and affordable local produce - vegetables, meat, and seafood.
In addition to the economic benefits of improving local food market linkages, access to nutritious food and a reduction in food poverty can be achieved by supporting people to grow and produce food for self-consumption and for sharing / bartering in their communities.
This can be achieved by engaging with local producers and investing in comprehensive value-chain development and market linkages for local produce. This means supporting the entire process from growing, to sale and consumption, and must include support with business planning, quality aggregation, storage, and marketing.
There is a need for increased access to growing spaces, providing start-up funding, agricultural and horticultural training building on the nationally accredited Crofting and Local Food Production courses which were written in Uist. There is a need for additional support for community-led initiatives at a micro-scale as well as small businesses.
Increasing the availability and affordability of high-quality local produce will aid the health and wellbeing of the local population and help build a resilience local food system for the future.
Small is beautiful:
Food growing initiatives and projects to be rooted into the community, evolving slowly, and led by community members will help build a resilient local food system. Many producers in Uist are not chasing endless growth but favour scaling deep based on the recognition that culture plays a powerful role particularly with respect to reciprocity. Rather than introducing top-down approaches, the development of local food in Uist must be rooted in people, relationships, communities, and culture, including small scale producers as well as larger businesses and making linkages between them.
Play to our strengths: Growing staple produce and introducing traditional/ indigenous varieties of crops and animal stock that have been developed to be resilient to local weather, such as the internationally recognised landrace Bere Barley which doesn’t require high inputs. Providing vegetable plants that would limit the time and energy spent on growing produce from seed and working in sympathy with the environment and community which is intrinsically interdependent, interconnected, and intergenerational.
Exchanging Knowledge: Establish community events to help promote a growing culture whilst utilising the many community and church hall kitchen facilities across the Islands for people to cook and eat together. Creating a network of ‘Taighean Ceilidh’ communal warm spaces for the sharing of food and knowledge.
Government Support: Government can rekindle communities towards a growing culture through holistic land management strategies and policies which support different land uses under the one banner. With the new Agriculture Bill in motion, there is an opportunity to support a connected approach to land management which blends regenerative farming, woodland and horticulture in the form of a crofting woodland garden grant.
Access to land: A progressive land management strategy is essential to unlock the potential Uist has to adapt and mitigate the future challenges which include crofting succession plans, climatic variations, economic shocks and transitioning to a Good Food Nation. A concerted effort is required to open up access to land for new entrants and look at a tapestry of land uses which complement and aid one another within the landscape which aligns to the environmental, social, and economic demands of the 21st century.
Working together: All the producers wanted to be part of a local food network to aggregate and market food locally. The benefit is to be more than the sum of its parts and to create a system of collaboration where everyone benefits. It is believed that the local market, or the community food system, is too small for each small business and producer to compete against one another. Instead, it is beneficial to form cooperatives to share resources, skills, and knowledge.
Uist Local Food Market: Secure funds and deliver a locally led Local Food Value Chain Development Project. This would support growers, provide infrastructure, and make market linkages with shops, restaurants and hotels as well as establish local fortnightly Local Food Markets. Contribute to the provenance of food, an increasing important influence for buying choices for locals and visitors alike.
Local Food Box Schemes: Preference for a local food delivery service distributing local produce to community hubs and townships. This could be coordinated with existing community transport links and food suppliers.
Meals on Wheels: Establish a delivery service using fresh and healthy local produce for people who may find it difficult to make their own meals. This has the benefit of increasing access to nutritious food whilst also supporting local businesses and producers.
Community Fridges: This is an approach that is becoming more widespread and could work well in Uist. Fridges would be set up in strategic locations and would be stocked by local businesses with goods that wouldn’t otherwise be sold in time, fresh produce from local gardeners, and food given by households.
Local Lamb and Mutton Production: There is demand for high quality meat from households and businesses. Crofters can be supported and incentivised to sell their stock locally.
Deer Management: There are strong calls from community members to significantly reduce the numbers of deer from Uist. This is due to destruction of gardens, crops, trees and the negative impact on biodiversity, the risk of Lyme Disease caused by ticks carried by deer and the opportunity costs of not managing the land to produce more food and to prioritise the environment. Venison from culled deer is sold locally by Stòras Uibhist at a reasonable price which benefits the community and there is income from visitors who come to shoot the deer for sport. Further discussion is needed on this.
Harness Local Government Procurement: Establish a project to assist local growers to access procurement opportunities from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the NHS, for example for school meals and hospital cafeterias, so that local potatoes, vegetables, meat, eggs, and fish can be purchased locally.
Build Capacity to Establish Food Cooperatives: A cooperative of crofters and growers would enable the aggregation of sufficient produce to allow collective bids for procurement, and to invest in storage and processing facilities. This is best achieved by building on smaller initiatives whilst providing training and support in the establishment of the cooperative, including the constitution, business planning, procurement bids and meeting all required standards.
We are delighted to release our new report - 'Small is Beautiful - Growing a Sustainable Local Food Eco-System in Uist'. This has followed several months of in-depth interviews with crofters, gardeners, businesses, families and individuals and we hope that it reflects the views and aspirations of all those who kindly gave up their time to speak with us. A special thank you goes to the following people who contributed to this report and who do amazing work in their communities and organisations.
In this study we set out to understand the intricacies of the local food economy in Uist, with the intention of mapping out local food producers and charting new local food value chains. Our plan was to create a ‘Uist Local Fruit and Vegetable Map’ which would provide consumers, crofters, small scale producers and businesses with up-to-date information about which crops are produced, where, and in what quantities. We also planned to systematically map market demands in Uist and thereby provide valuable information to producers and businesses to develop local food value chains. An important driver in the research was to help people in Uist to make informed decisions about reducing food miles and CO2 emissions.
We hoped that this research would provide a platform and connections which would be further developed to achieve a road map towards a Uist Sustainable Food Plan. This latter goal was swept up in our engagement with Nourish Scotland and by securing a Partnership Development Grant from Sustainable Food Places through the Third Sector Interface (Western Isles). With this funding, Tagsa Uibhist will lead the development of the Western Isles Food Partnership in Na h-Eileanan an Iar in the coming year, and hopefully beyond. The Pebble Trust’s support enabled Tagsa to play an active role in pursuing this agenda in Benbecula and Uist which, in turn, made it possible for us to take this work further, as part of the Sustainable Food Places network in Scotland and across the UK.
Tagsa Uibhist’s vision and mission is all about supporting health and wellbeing. We consider access to low cost, nutritious fresh food to be absolutely vital to achieving this. Our aim is to open up access to affordable and nutritious food by increasing the range and quantity produced and consumed locally. By encouraging and supporting households to grow more vegetables and fruit for their own consumption and supporting local producers to sell their food locally, the reliance on expensive food arriving on ferries will be reduced.
This is an auspicious time to be working to improve our food systems in Uist. At a local level, the Outer Hebrides Food and Drink Programme under the Islands Growth Deal offers an enormous opportunity to invest in local food value chain systems by engaging directly with local producers. The Scottish Government’s Good Food Nation Bill which aims to make positive changes to how we grow, produce, and consume food has just been passed. It is vital for communities, consumers, organisations, and businesses to continue to advocate so that this Bill has a meaningful impact. This means enshrining the Right to Food for all by reducing food insecurity, establishing an independent Food Commission, agreeing meaningful targets for changes to the food system, and establishing funded Food Plans at a national and local level through a participatory process.
5.1. Resetting our Broken Food System
We face multiple crises in Scotland and across the globe that cannot be ignored. At the root of these is our relationship to land and nature. No more is this felt so viscerally than within our broken food system. Recent environmental, economic, and political shocks have raised calls for building resilient food and land use systems, yet what this means in practice is fiercely contested. What is resoundingly clear is that human and planetary health are intimately linked. In order to salvage what we have left in the natural environment that sustains us, and to avoid further societal breakdown, we need to radically transform our food economy.
Sustainability, stewardship of land and regenerative agriculture practices are not new concepts. Indeed, here in Uist, as in rural communities the world over, agro-ecological knowledge and practices have sustained communities as they have adapted to environmental and economic challenges through the ages. These realities of interconnection, interdependence and value systems based on reciprocal obligation can provide a blueprint for a more resilient food system for our island communities.
A sustainable local food system has the potential to bring economic, commercial, social, and environmental benefits at all levels in the community. In our engagement with community members, there was a palpable and growing sense that this can be achieved, giving us access to high quality nutritious and affordable food, whilst also creating jobs, developing new skills, and building community.
Food is at the heart of the human story, and nothing could, or should be, more natural. Instead, the industrialised food business has become a monster of our own creation, destroying nature, damaging human health, and contributing enormously to the climate emergency. In short, our food system is not fit for purpose - extractive, resource intensive, soil depleting, greenhouse gas emitting, and environmentally destructive. Agriculture, fishing, and meat production is responsible for as much as 37% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of the world’s freshwater use and has driven 80% of the world’s biodiversity loss. Without a substantial transformation, emissions from food systems could make up to 70% of total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Added to this is the unacceptable treatment of animals in intensive meat, dairy, and egg production systems.
Most of our food comes from intensive farming methods that need huge quantities of fertiliser, herbicides, and pesticides. The ongoing damage to soil and biodiversity is now beyond nature’s capacity to regenerate. Scientists calculate that in the past 40 years, we have lost nearly a third of arable land to degradation and erosion and we may have as little as 60 harvests left before environmental collapse.
The global food industry is following the reckless path of the global financial sector in the years preceding the 2008 crash. The food companies that monopolise the entire supply chain believe that they are too big to fail. A once diverse and resilient food system has been supplanted by mono-cropping, genetically modified crops, factory farming and toxic feedlots that suck up billions of litres of water. With uniformity comes a loss of resilience and more vulnerability. A problem such as a drought, conflict, or spike in oil prices in one part of the system impacts the entire network, leading to rocketing food prices and shortages.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the 'breadbasket of Europe’ has brought into stark relief how vulnerable we are. In response nations have introduced new export restrictions, fuelling market shocks and speculative operations that benefit only Hedge Funds. The cost of delivering humanitarian aid to people experiencing extreme hunger in the East Africa more than doubled in this time of massive food insecurity, leading to delays and shortages that cost thousands of lives. Effectively, food shortages are increasingly used as a weapon of war. We are entering a perfect storm, with increasing reliance on fertilisers and pesticides, compounding climate stressors, reduced resilience in food production systems and poorer outcomes for food producers.
5.2. Impacts of Food Insecurity in UK & Scotland
The global food crisis is being acutely felt across the UK and Scotland. In 2022, UK food price inflation rose above 14%, the biggest increase on record. Our access to affordable and nutritious food has been reduced by the combination of extreme weather, higher costs for energy and other inputs, and farmers struggling to find workers. Some are reportedly choosing not to plant crops to save money, thereby reducing food availability and driving prices up. Fruit and vegetable suppliers have been counting their losses after record temperatures in July caused crops to fail. With flooding set to affect many parts of the UK in early 2023, farmers are likely to face more losses. While food systems are a growing contributor to climate change, at the same time, climate change is having devastating effects on food systems and is sending people into food poverty across the globe. Where we hoped to meet our sustainable development goal of eliminating hunger by 2030, the tide has turned, and food insecurity is now a critical issue for both developing and developed nations.
In the UK, almost 10 million adults are already experiencing food insecurity. Low-income families cannot afford sufficient food, with three quarters of those in the bottom 20% of incomes going without food or other basic essentials. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey in 2022 shows that families have changed how they shop, prepare and how often they eat food. One in three households have reduced the amount of money they spend on food for adults and one in five have skipped or reduced the size of their meals. For low-income households the impact is starker with almost one in three changing how they cook and almost one in four skipping or reducing the size of their meals. The cost-of-living crisis is leaving one in ten families cold and hungry, but this rises to one in five in low-income households.
5.3. Small Island Communities Vulnerable to Food Insecurity
Small island communities who rely so heavily on long food supply chains are especially vulnerable; the rising cost of food is being felt by households in Uist and is exacerbated by ferry problems and the rising cost of fuel. These islands which once contributed to feeding the nation during wartime, and which still export huge amounts of livestock, fish, and seafood, are now almost completely reliant on finished food products transported on a CalMac ferry.
Island systems are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate emergency, in particular, warmer, wetter, and windier weather, as well as rising sea levels. As the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a widespread deterioration in food security in the coming years, a revaluation of our food systems has never been more critical. Yet, the solutions for a resilient food system are often close to home and communities in the Outer Hebrides are well placed to draw upon human and natural resources to respond to the threat of deteriorating food security. The communities of Uist blessed with an abundant eco-system have the potential to combat climate change whilst safeguarding our food system.
Yet, a food growing culture which was more commonplace in previous generations is not as present now because ‘most able-bodied people are out working’. Most islanders work multiple paid and voluntary jobs, crofting and undertaking care duties within the community and across their family networks. It is an inherent part of island life which allows for a very connected community as residents perform a number of crucial functions for the community’s well-being. Work patterns, dietary habits and roles within the family have changed over the years. The busyness of life makes convenient, easily accessible food a priority and more appealing. Growing your own produce can involve a huge effort. However, the rising cost of living, Brexit, transport disruptions and inflation costs on goods and services being felt across all food sectors and within the community has upended the status quo. The precarious nature of our access to sufficient nutritious food is stark and demands that we look at solutions rooted in our island communities.
Our research findings are largely based on in-depth semi-structured interviews that were we held with over 60 individuals and groups. As the research progressed, we broadened the target group beyond small scale vegetable producers to include other food sector producers and retailers along with industry experts, academics, and third sector agencies.
These conversations captured facts, opinions, aspirations and involved probing on how to approach the challenge of boosting local food supplies in a lasting way. These interviews enabled us to retrieve memories and anecdotes, all grist to the mill in the effort to tackle the challenges and unlock latent opportunities here in Uist.
An extensive literature review was also conducted on local food value chain development, and the social, political, and environmental context. Whilst we conducted an online survey, richer content was obtained from conversations with producers at their homes, crofts, and businesses.
The task of improving food security means confronting problems whose solutions are contested, and which transcend disciplinary, divisional, and institutional boundaries. It is essential to identify the interlocking root causes of food system underperformance from a holistic perspective based on multi-disciplinary research. Our methodology therefore brought together different perspectives by involving a range of actors in identifying problems and solutions. Our approach is based on placing as much weight on the practical, social, cultural, and institutional aspects of local food production as scientific and scholarly concerns.
The Outer Hebrides, also referred to as the ‘Western Isles’ or ‘Na h-Eileann an Iar’ in Gaelic, form a 210km chain of islands, lying approximately 45km off the north-west coast of Scotland. There are 119 islands, of which over 70 are named and 14 are currently inhabited. Uist is the collective name commonly used for the islands that make up Uist including Berneray, North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. Despite all being linked by causeway each has their own story and character and form a vibrant part of the Gàidhealtachd.
The islands cover an area of approximately 70,000 hectares and have an intricate coastline over 1,100 km in length which makes up one-quarter of the Scottish Highland’s coastline. There are an extraordinarily range of habitats found here such as dune systems, machair, grasslands, maritime grasslands, salt marshes, mountains, moorland, and wetlands; falling into two broad categories of peat-covered some of which has been worked over generations so the structure and mineral content is changed inland and upland areas and the contrasting distinctive grass communities of the machair plains.
The relationship between human activities, flora and fauna is complex. The crofting methods used in Uist are non-intensive and overall have less impact on the environment and biodiversity compared to mainstream farming. Many of the island habitats are fragile and easily damaged; the ability of damaged vegetation to recover is extremely slow due to the harsh climate and physical conditions. The major influences on plant life are exposure to strong, often salt-laden winds, the rainfall, and poor drainage qualities of the underlying gneiss substrate. Crofting is the predominant form of land use and is the foundation of the way of life and culture with most crofters engaged in other occupations such as agri-tourism. There are some 6,000 crofts; and it is estimated that approximately two-thirds of the land in the Outer Hebrides is held in crofting tenure and therefore subject to crofting legislation. In South Uist over 95% of South Uist Estate landholding is under crofting tenure, including most of the 55,000 acres of hill land on the east side of the islands of South Uist & Benbecula.
There are many environmental benefits associated with this system of land tenure. Crofting practices have helped to maintain the abundant biodiversity which exists in the Outer Hebrides, being a very low input system, with little chemical use. Seaweed and dung, traditional and readily available fertilisers, remain in widespread use, especially in Uist. The main crofting product is raising store lambs that are then fattened for slaughter elsewhere in the UK, or Europe. Calf-rearing is carried out mainly in Uist and Barra, although the activity is less than in former years. Uist does not necessarily receive recognition for the production of calves and lambs (some 12,000 lambs P/A from Uist) because they are finished elsewhere, but a well renowned visiting mainland judge at the local agricultural show openly said they ‘would have to go back home and check their own stock’ because they were ‘blown away by the quality (in Uist)’.
Settlement is heavily associated with the coast than the inland areas and current population estimates for the Outer Hebrides are 26,720 with Uist currently standing at 4,683. The prevailing pattern is a dispersed population living in a predominately rural landscape with an ageing population as the average age throughout the Islands is estimated to be 50 years.
Life in Uist flows from its unique physical environment, crofting, and other industries, bringing up children and caring for the elderly, the relationship with the mainland and beyond, and from the Gaelic language and culture. Gaelic lies at the root of the strong cultural identity of the islands, and there is a distinct world view of community and people’s relationship to land and their surrounding environment. The conservation value of the islands has been enhanced by a history of sympathetic human management which has not only protected but enhanced many vulnerable habitats.
Uist’s linear geography, which extends 60 miles from Berneray to Eriskay, with a population of approximately 4,500 people, can make buying and delivering food difficult. The townships with shops are located in Eriskay, Lochboisdale, Daliburgh, Creagorry, Balivanich, Lochmaddy, Sollas, and Berneray with many households located many miles away from the nearest outlet. This in contrast to just two or three generations ago, preceding the islands being linked by causeways, there would be a merchant’s shop in every community.
Weather and Climate: Producers are acutely aware of the shifts in the weather patterns due to the changing climate and the difficulties the weather conditions can bring. Island people are resilient and resourceful and have adapted to these changes, reverting back in part to traditional methods or adopting new techniques and materials to weather the storms. Producers are in tune with the ebb and flow of the climatic conditions and have altered their stock to hardier varieties of crops or traditional/ indigenous breeds of animals which can winter outside.
Lack of Access to Land: Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world, with only 450 landowners owning half of the private land in the country. This prevents new land-based initiatives from starting up and stifles innovation and prevents people moving to these regions. Not surprisingly, 98% of Scotland's rural land (including the 96 inhabited islands), has only 17% of the population. 6.2 million hectares of land is farmed in Scotland (approximately 80% of the total land area). Of this area, 86% is classified as Less Favoured Area, that is land considered to be more difficult to farm because of climate and soil conditions (this includes crofts in Uist). 80% of Scottish cereal harvest is used for alcohol production or animal feed. Whilst this is profitable for landowners, breweries, distilleries and animal feed businesses, the diversion of cereals for these purposes prevents access to land for food production.
Vacant and Under-Utilised Land: Vacant or underutilised croft land is a missed opportunity particularly when there's a substantial part of the community willing and able to grow more food. There is a mismatch between who has control of land and who would want it even in an informal basis such as a sublet. Yet as highlighted by one interviewee - ‘People hang on to their crofts because it's what ties them to the land’. This is an emotive topic which has roots in the brutal clearance of people from their land by landowners to make way for more profitable sheep. Any reform of crofting tenure to address the lack of access to crofts for new entrants would require a grassroots approach. The people who have worked the land would need to be part of that journey. It is essential that a land management strategy is put in place to unlock the potential Uist has to adapt and mitigate the future challenges ahead which including crofting succession plans, climatic variations, economic shocks and enabling communities to transition to a good food nation.
Workforce: Business confidence in scaling up is weakened by workforce issues. There are recruitments gaps across every sector – health, social care, construction, hospitality, and every other strand, combined with an ageing population and inability to secure a new labour force due to lack of housing and limited access to land.
Regulation Challenges for Small Businesses: Small scale producers with the potential to supply the market may be put off by the need to meet food hygiene, environmental health, and accountancy regulations. This may require training, cost, and administration time which small-scale producers may not be able, or willing, to invest.
‘Ugly Vegetable’ Control: Retailers have strict, and often needless, standards on the appearance of vegetables. Fresh, nutritious home-grown produce with small defects is likely to be discarded unnecessarily by retailers.
Supermarket Competition: Matching the convenience, diversity and regularity of supermarkets is always going to be difficult for small-scale producers. Supermarket produce is not constricted to seasonality factors in the same way as local fruit and vegetable producers on the Islands are faced with due to a short growing season. Customers can buy avocadoes and mangos 12 months of the year in local supermarket. Creating a regular and consistent throughput of produce to a local market is challenging. To be able to compete with supermarkets, customers would need to opt for the quality, freshness, seasonality and provenance of local produce.
Economies of Scale: Local producers cannot easily compete with large mainland producers who drive down their unit costs through economies of scale – which has impacted the model of farming elsewhere, the drive for more volume at cheaper costs, leading to more monoculture which is now in trouble for its contribution to emissions and fall in diversity. However, crucially, the true cost of food is not reflected in the cost of imported goods. Pricing mechanisms to embed environmental externalities in the cost of food, for example the CO2 emissions emitted in transportation, the environmental damage caused by intensive farming methods and the enormous quantities of food waste. Producers are pressured to meet extortionate costs for imported goods and services. There has been a significant increase in the cost of seed, animal feed, fertiliser, plastic wrapping to name but a few items.
Pricing: Producers also reflected that if they were to sell local fruit and vegetables at a price that included all of the hidden costs of production, it may be unaffordable. On the other hand, some of the interviewees who grow vegetables are retired and do not wish to make money from sales of their produce but were wary of selling for a very low price in case this undermined local producers who were trying to make a living. These interviewees were more interested in sharing their produce than selling it. A challenge is deciding on a price point which is both competitive and sufficient to make the work and investment worthwhile for producers.
Lack of Processing, Finishing and Storage Facilities: Local producers in different food sectors, are stymied by the lack of aggregation, processing, finishing and storage facilities on Uist. This prevents much of the produce entering the local food system. Sheep farmers are enticed by receiving a higher or guaranteed price for their goods and for the ease and reliability of the supply chains and buyer relationships which are well established. Each food sector differs but never more is there a disconnect in terms of lamb reared on the Islands, receiving a standard price at market which is then sent to Dingwall, or to an overseas market. All of the crofters interviewed expressed that the value of this prime product is lost in the established supply chains. Many of the crofters we interviewed, whilst selling their sheep and cattle to the Mart, were concerned for the welfare of their animals, the cost of transport and providing an inferior produce because the meat would be stressed as there were no established routes to market locally. Getting a finished product to a local customer is thwarted by a number of factors including the accessibility of island abattoirs and processing facilities. Stock are sent away to be finished due to cost of animal feed as well as for slaughter partly because of the cost of importing feed.
Few Places to Sell Local Produce: Related to the above is the lack of a market for local produce, or even a procurement policy by supermarkets or the local authority to buy locally. NeighbourFood, an online collection service in Uist linking local producers with potential customers, is a promising model to strengthen local food chains. However, research found that the large food producers preferred their established routes to market and the operating hours and commission rates were a barrier for producers and customers alike. Potential to create a honey pot of staple produce and a refillery service for a cost benefit for customers and establishing a delivery service to circumvent local community transport costs. It is found through the research that convenience, affordability and good quality local produce are big drivers for customers.
Time Poverty: One of the symptomatic pressures of modern life - not having enough time - was a recurring theme in our interviews. Creating and maintaining a productive garden, raising animals, or selling produce, can demand a significant time commitment, especially if done alone. Many islanders work a number of jobs and have responsibilities for children and elderly relatives, so finding the time to grow is more challenging without teamwork and planning. The people we interviewed who were successfully growing fruit and vegetables at scale were either doing so as part of their role within a third sector project enabled through grant funding, retired people, full time crofters or people working part time who were growing to supplement their income.
Problems with Funding: Third Sector Organisations in receipt of funding for growing initiatives, and who sell fresh produce locally, for example in veg boxes, can increase the competition that small scale producers have to contend with. These community-based organisations are effectively subsidised and may be able to offer lower prices than small-scale producers who need to rely on sales for their time and inputs. The lack of coordinated grant funding to develop a local food system has also led to piecemeal and fragmented operations throughout the islands. These projects tend to be short term and not coordinated with other compatible projects. With many small grants, some from the Scottish Government and local government, and some from trusts and foundations, there have been a multitude of mini projects with an initial outlay of equipment such as polytunnels. In most of these projects, once funding dried up, or the driving force from a key individual left the operation, the project declined and stopped.
Build on Local Initiatives:
There was a strong view that top-down approaches to local economic development are likely to benefit a small number of individuals, at best. When well-intentioned agencies, without lived experience of island dynamics, aim to establish new businesses, the results are often disappointing and can be divisive. Approaches that do not involve community to find their own solutions can result in a lack of local ownership, motivation, and ultimately, accountability. Top-down approaches bulldoze through the principles of stewardship of land, sovereignty, and community regeneration. One producer recalled the work of E.F Schumacher Alastair McIntosh and affirmed that ‘small is beautiful’. By putting people first and taking time to develop initiatives that come from community members, a successful outcome is more likely to be achieved.
Location: Careful consideration needs to be given to where new local food initiatives are situated. This can make or break a new food project. The choice of location should be based on consultation with community members, producers and consumers, businesses, community organisations and local government. For example, a local market is more likely to succeed if it is situated where people already regularly go for other reasons, for example, near a supermarket, school or where people work. If the location is only accessible by vehicle, it is probable that people on low incomes, and those with no access to a vehicle, will not be able to go there. This would exclude people on lower incomes from the project.
Establishing a Local Fresh Food or Crofters Market: This is a well-known and popular way to stimulate local food production. The market can benefit people on low incomes by making fresh vegetables available at affordable prices and by encouraging community involvement food production. There is huge potential to establish such a market in Uist, opening one or two days per week and providing a space for local producers to bring their fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and shellfish. This should be located in a convenient central location and should have basic facilities. This would require start up investment and a period of producer mobilisation and marketing. This would be best achieved by employing a dedicated officer.
Benefit the Entire Community: Uist has all the raw ingredients and talent for producers scale the heights of the gourmet cuisine industry. Hebridean produce has countless accolades for its high quality. This fantastic opportunity needs to be balanced with consideration of the cost-of-living crisis. These premium products are often unaffordable for local consumers. Shifting to a system that serves all people, including those with limited means, means rebuilding and transforming the local food system. This will need a partnership between local producers and the local authority and national government to support and incentivise businesses and producers to supply affordable produce into local supply chains. During the Covid lockdown, the predominantly international shellfish market collapsed leading fishermen to sell ‘from the pier’. This was a win-win to an extent for the fishing community and local people enjoyed fresh prawns from the pier, although volume requires external markets.
Access to Land and Supporting Small Scale Producers: Improving access to land for new entrants who want to grow food is critical. Alongside this it is vital to build synergies in how land is used to align to the environmental, social, and economic demands of the 21st century. This will mean considering how people with a range of time commitments can profitably contribute to local food production and to maintain local value chains and market linkages for the local market.
Invest in Staff Capacity: Establishing a sustainable local food system demands coordination, communication, marketing, and mobilisation. Private businesses have the resources to fulfil these functions and it seems clear that the same time investment is needed to make the local system work. Costs can be dramatically reduced by ‘thinking smart’ about existing resources and the established outlets and finesse these to work for the community. Produce could be directed to the already existing independent shops and transportation could be arranged by coordinating with the many refrigerated vehicles that already transport goods around Uist. The smoked salmon sector has demonstrated how finished products can be very successful, delivering high quality produce, exporting tonnes from the islands, securing prized recognition for quality, and ensuring all the value stays in the community.
Local Lamb and Mutton Production: Crofters can be incentivised to sell their stock locally. Meat that has been packaged can yield three or four times the value of livestock being sold to agents transporting them to the mainland. Incentives could include arranging transport of stock to local abattoirs, storage facilities and setting up viable outlets through independent local shops, online ordering platform (e.g., NeighbourFood), meat box schemes and through public procurement contracts with the schools, care homes and hospitals.
Meals on Wheels: Readymade meals for people who may find it difficult to cook are already being sold by a local business in Benbecula. This popular delivery service offers elderly people a nutritious, convenient, and nutritious meal that can be heated up or frozen for use later. This project could be enhanced by using fresh and healthy local produce, thereby increasing access to nutritious food whilst also supporting local businesses and producers.
Vegetable Seedlings: Tagsa Uibhist’ Community Gardens provides seedlings throughout the year. These are established vegetable plants that have been grown and hardened off outside. Customers can trust that they are suitable for the conditions. This assists growers by reducing the time and energy spent growing from seed, especially for those with time in short supply.
Polytunnels: The lack of natural shelter for crops has always been a key challenge in Uist. Polycarbonate tunnels which were piloted in Shetland have unlocked the potential of growing more produce under cover and extending the growing season. Growing is still limited by the winter daylight hours but good crop selection and timing can allow crops to be harvested all year round. Polycarbonate materials are expensive to buy and setting up the necessary infrastructure to grow produce either commercially or for one’s own consumption is time consuming.
Seaweed and Manure: The crofters we interviewed highlighted these increasing costs and the importance of drawing on local solutions such as gathering seaweed and animal manure for fertiliser, choosing indigenous breeds of animal stock to winter outside and sourcing established vegetable plants locally.
Cross Generational Support: Uist has a high proportion of elderly people living alone who could be kept healthier with the support from younger generations. This could be through helping older people to maintain ‘kitchen gardens’ for example, or to hold social events where people can cook and eat together. The many benefits of producing your own food can be imparted in informal and social settings. An exchange of traditional knowledge is crucial to the wellbeing of young and old.
Sharing Knowledge: Food focused Community events can facilitate learning from experts within the community, whilst also encouraging a growing culture. Uist has many kitchen facilities in community and church halls that can be used. Older people can help educate younger generations on how to cook economical and nutritious meals from local produce and to use every part of the produce. This could help families save money, time, and energy which in a cost-of-living crisis is invaluable. Formal qualifications, whilst important, are not the only way to learn and share knowledge!
Power up a Gift Economy: Producers believe that there is huge potential to increase the amount of local food available to the local community. As noted above, a strong theme that emerged is that increasing access does not necessarily mean through sales. For many producers, sharing and bartering fresh produce is attractive and has merit. Frequent ferry disruption means that shelves are often empty in shops, particularly of fresh fruit and vegetables. Local producers were clear that this could be one of the responses to improve access affordable nutritious food. This would build more of a well-being community rather than tied to a purely economic paradigm, which is how this community operated previously.
Triggering a Cultural Shift: One interviewee reflected that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and gave the view that we have an opportunity to induce a cultural shift to prioritise local produce as an alternative to imported goods. This would mean optimising the Uist cultural trait of resourcefulness and innovation in the face of limited choices. The challenge is to fill the gaps in the supply chains and establish convenient and accessible routes to market. If there are defined routes to the market, producers will be able to plan for supplying these outlets and customise their practices accordingly to allow for a regular throughput of produce to satisfy demand.
Holistic Land Management Strategies - Agroecology:
Rekindling communities towards a growing culture can be facilitated by government through holistic land management strategies and policies which support different land uses. Agriculture subsidies are primarily directed towards active animal production, discounting woodland cover and land set aside for horticulture. With the new Agriculture Bill in motion, there is an opportunity to support a connected approach to land management which blends regenerative farming, woodland, and horticulture in the form of a crofting woodland garden grant. This would give credence and focus to agroecology but would also reward crofters who already practice this farming model. This should include silvopasture which supports food production with the benefits of low intensive grazing which is essential for biodiversity.
Better Deer Management: Improving land management practices would demand an increasing regulatory requirement on estates to ensure they are following high-quality land management practices that deliver positive outcomes for community members and which improve biodiversity. This means reducing the quantities of land given over to deer stalking. The South Uist Estate, a crofting estate with sporting aspects, is currently significantly over the agreed stocking target. Community members have made several representations to the Estate owners in Uist to express their concerns about the damage that deer routinely inflict on farms, vegetable gardens, trees, and other plants. There are enormous opportunity costs in not controlling the deer population more effectively. In 2022, for the first time a proper helicopter survey was done by the South Uist Estate. New culling targets have been set and good progress has been reported. The Estate is also providing finished venison for sale within the community either directly or through retail outlets and is also exporting venison. It seems that a better balance can be struck and that further discussions are needed.
Carbon Sequestration: If we are to achieve large-scale redevelopment of land in the Western Isles for the common good and in the timescales needed to respond to the climate emergency there is little option but to look at carbon sequestration through peatland, forestry, and healthy soils. However, the sale of carbon and biodiversity credits has stimulated several well-publicised acquisitions across Scotland, notably in rural and island areas which will further exacerbate the problem of land access for local communities. Carbon offsetting can take land out of food production on the suggestion of greater financial return, not applicable to the crofting counties yet. But there is a risk that prospective financial incentives calculated against crofting revenue could become persuasive.
Scottish Government Land and Food Policy: A positive and bold move forward which supports the Good Food Nations Bill which was recently enshrined in law to make good nutritious food accessible to all.
Government Funding & Support for Growers, and Community Food Hubs: Producers advocated for more funding support for people to set up as a grower, especially if they are going to be supplying food locally. Sharing the burden of start-up costs through collaborative working, financial assistance on equipment outlays, incentives for reducing your carbon emissions or more sustainable production would benefit producers here particularly as islanders are shouldering not only the burden of inflation but increased transportation costs.
Incentivising Local Food Sales: An exemption from VAT for local produce would encourage shops to sell more.
Like any good story, our research took many different twists and turns, unearthing a wealth of knowledge and untapped aspirations. Our discussions affirmed that a thriving local food system must be based on both environmental and social sustainability. We also heard that top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches are unlikely to succeed. Instead, the work of building a sustainable local food system demands a more intuitive and holistic outlook, embracing local realities and respecting the connective tissues of community life in Uist communities.
Rather than dropping in a generic business model idea, for example, simply building a row of commercial units to sell local food in a central location, our interviewees stressed that what is needed is a longer-term and more nuanced approach that prioritises greater collaboration, mutual support and learning.
This study involved gathering a diversity of voices within the community, from people engaged in food production in Uist. During this process several recurrent themes emerged which formed the basis of the community recommendations.
Community Focus: Growers have a passion to produce affordable high quality and nutritious food for the benefit of the local community. Many interviewees were less focused on creating ‘commercial businesses’ with monetised transactions and profit margins, than in playing a part in making vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat more widely available and accessible. People were interested in finding ways to share their surplus, for example by swapping and bartering, and were keen to support others to grow their own food. For many producers, scaling up and scaling out is not the goal. The intention is for self-sufficiency and if there is a glut in supply, this can be shared within the community. It is about creating a community transaction not a commercial transaction and is part of the cultural DNA of Uist.
Self Sufficiency: Most of the growers aspire to achieve self-sufficiency for themselves, family and wider community networks in fresh vegetables, for at least part of the year. For those with the means, using their own meat and eggs, and selling these to the wider community to replace imported products was seen as beneficial in many ways.
Simplicity: We heard that people prefer simple, uncomplicated ways to grow and access local food. There was an aversion to over-elaborate, excessively technical initiatives or grand schemes that would be expensive to establish. Producers advised that initiatives that are rooted into the community, evolving slowly would be more resilient.
Avoid Top-Down Approaches: Interviewees gave examples of top-down approaches to local food value chain development in Uist that did not succeed. One of the reasons cited for failure was top-down decision making that was not informed by local producers, lack of local ownership and importing ideas from elsewhere that had not emerged from the community themselves. These initiatives failed to gain traction or achieve longevity within the community, with efforts dissipating as community interest declined.
Incomplete Value Chains: An important limiting factor in previous projects was the failure to establish joined up value chains. For example, in one project, an external consultant advised against setting up a local food outlet for producers who already had goods to sell but did not give a viable alternative or make links with local shops. In these projects, for those interested in establishing small businesses, there was a lack of clear economic incentives for people to invest considerable amounts of their time.
Community Interdependence: There is an interdependence between each aspect of local community food production that is also related to wider community realities. Growing food requires time, infrastructure, expertise which may all benefit from grant funding. Growers need to have confidence that there will be a market and buyers want the assurance of supply and of quality for different crops at different times. Aggregation of produce may be needed to achieve an economy of scale and there may be a need for technical support with procurement, a need for transport and storage. In order to make all of this work as a whole, there is a need for a congruence of goals, the forging of connections and agreements.
Commitment: In the interviews, there was a palpable commitment to work together to meet the immediate and future challenges faced by islanders – for example, climate change, the cost-of-living crisis, and population decline. People want to see Uist flourish, and they see the development of a thriving local food system as a vital part of this which addresses the Islands needs and meets people where they are at in a small but beautiful way.
Biodiversity and Healthy Soils: Low intensity, ‘high nature value’ (HNV) is practiced across Uist. Stock rearing is largely in tune with the maintenance of the fragile ecosystem. When managed correctly, grazing animals can enhance biodiversity, particularly in the machair, encouraging flowers, pollinators, and bird life. Uist possesses excellent soil conditions for horticulture and stock rearing, with a blend of sandy machair soils and peat soils which are enhanced further through the use of seaweed, horse, and cattle manure. These low-cost natural fertilisers are generally organic if not certified as such.
Reducing Food Miles: The benefits of getting local produce into the local food chain is not missed by the producers stating that it creates a sustainable food system which reduces the food miles, the carbon cost and increases security of food supply.
Provenance: Knowing the provenance of food produce was expressed as being very important highlighting that local distinctiveness is a real selling point. Hotels and restaurants affirmed that having local produce can be a ‘unique selling point’ for both local people and tourists who are prepared to pay more for this. Local provenance is a good method of quality control due to the shorter supply chain and improved animal welfare.
Quality: Interviewees expressed that local produce tastes better than its supermarket equivalent and free from growth hormones, additives, and chemicals and whilst not always certified as such, is close to being organic.
Health Benefits: Notwithstanding the economic and environmental benefits, producers also advocated the therapeutic and health benefits of growing produce and getting these valued goods into the local food chains.
Economic Resilience: The prices Uist producers can claim depends on the market value determined on mainland Scotland, the UK and in Europe. As the local market makes up a small percentage of sales, a collapse in the external market could lead to huge losses. Increasing local sales has the advantage of protecting local consumers from food inflation. A local market could buffer the economic, environmental, and social shocks from external markets.
Supporting Vulnerable People: Food Bank usage has increased drastically in Uist, indicating that some households are struggling to nourish themselves. Increasing local food production can be a solution by directing these households through a low-cost local market, community fridges, the Food Bank or a Meals on Wheels project.
Islanders understand and appreciate the entire farm-to-fork process. They also have the lived experience of rearing, nurturing, cultivating, and sourcing the many inputs required to just get to the first stage in the chain, before food processing is even contemplated. They have a close connection to the land, sea, and all the island’s natural resources. This engenders a respect and a gratitude for the environment, which runs through the arteries of the community. Being a food producer proves to be a labour of love for some, a way of being, fulfilling a tradition or a lifestyle choice to be able to produce your own food and eat it. The true cost of food production is never reflected in the price of the goods in terms of the energy, time and care involved so it comes as no surprise that producers here see food waste as a crime. Enabling a resilient local food system in Uist can only be achieved through a process of discernment which works in sympathy with both the environment, culture, and community. This requires islanders to be the power brokers over their land, its assets, and its benefits and to give credence to a value system which was and is based on reciprocal obligation.
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