My dream job in farming and food education
Brid McKibben - 15 May 2013
Finally, just as I broach my 50s, I’ve found my dream job! It indulges my interest and passion in good food, food education, rural crafts, sustainable communities, small scale farming and growing, and it gives me an opportunity to use my background in renewables. What can possibly cover all these things. . . and more? I’m the project officer for Crofting Connections – one of the most exciting projects in food and community in Scotland.
Crofting is an age old tradition of small scale farming in the Highlands and Islands, an area covering over half the land mass of Scotland. I didn’t know until recently that the word croft is actually an Old English word meaning ‘enclosed field’. Crofters developed skills to provide food, shelter, clothing and energy for their families and communities as they were forcibly moved to the most peripheral agricultural areas now covered by Argyll, Arran, Highland, Moray, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.
Crofting traditions took care of the soil by using the best land to grow crops in rotation, moving livestock around arable land to moor or hill grazings to sheilings in the summer, and by developing lazy-beds in poor soil and runrig systems to share out the best land fairly. In short every available piece of land was used to produce food while living in harmony with Nature – lessons not unfamiliar to the average Soil Association supporter.
It is these lessons that Crofting Connections promotes to help increase children’s and young people’s understanding of the connections between crofting, food, health and the environment. It also helps connect schools with their communities, sustains skills at risk of being lost, reinvigorates a pride in a heritage that the older generation of crofters had been made to feel embarrassed about, encourages new entrants to crofting and develops the relevant rural skills to help build local economies in a fragile area.
The faces of some of the children at an event for pupils and teachers in Orkney in March spoke volumes about their enjoyment of the topic. Orkney Island Council helped put this event on to bring schools together to share good practice and showcase the range of Crofting Connections activities in Orkney schools in the context of Bríd McKibben ‘is the project officer for Crofting Connections which has just entered its second phase. from P1 to middle secondary level.
The event kicked off with a lunch designed to show how both traditional and contemporary Orkney food can make up a healthy balanced diet. Food on offer included beremeal bannocks made with Orkney bere, oatcakes and artisan bread; Orkney beef and North Ronaldsay lamb; smoked and fresh salmon, smoked mackerel, crab claws and crab pâté; Orkney farmhouse butter, Orkney cheddar and farmhouse cheese, free-range eggs, Orkney ice-cream and meadowsweet honey from local producers; Orkney potato salad, coleslaw and local chutney. Phew – a staggering variety! Lunch guests were invited to try a brief, simple tasting exercise before they helped themselves from each table – teachers encouraged pupils to take moderately from each group to make a healthy balanced plate, within their own dietary requirements and preferences.
Beforehand the pupils studied the food on offer and each school gave a short presentation of a particular food type – for example Dounby Primary focussed on beremeal, North Ronaldsay on North Ronaldsay mutton, and Shapinsay on fishing. Studying this along with actually tasting the food and meeting the producers gives such a deep understanding of where food comes from. Adults and children alike learnt how flavours are influenced by soil, climate, crop varieties and animal breeds, and how food is shaped by regional recipes and traditions. Having Orkney’s food producers there gave an insight into the skills required by the food industry and the importance of food in the local economy.
Then came more fun ranging from activities based around Orkney soils, seafood and music through to milling and baking with traditional cereals, basket-making using Orkney oat straw, felting using North Ronaldsay wool and creating a crofting landscape mural. It’s amazing how the project draws a huge level of support from the community and partners; The Hutton Institute, Seafood in Schools, Historic Scotland, local fishmongers, bakers, millers, crofters, musicians and museum staff all took great pleasure in getting children and adults immersed in their topics.
This event is typical of Crofting Connections events all over the Highlands and Islands. Can you blame me for being just a little excited now?
Bríd McKibben ‘is the project officer for Crofting Connections which has just entered its second phase. Crofting Connections is a project run by Soil Association Scotland and the Scottish Crofters Federation. Phase 2 is funded by the Scottish Government, Heritage Lottery Fund and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. Office space in Inverness is provided as in-kind contribution by Scottish Natural Heritage, one of the funders of Phase 1.
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The Soil Association has teamed up with VisitScotland to offer you and a companion the chance to discover Scotland’s Natural Trail and win 3-night break to picturesque Perthshire. This wonderful prize includes: a stay in the 4-star Atholl Palace Lodges, which are idyllically situated amidst a 48-acre estate of gardens and woodland; a guided tour of Cluny House Gardens where you can spot red squirrels and see Britain’s widest conifer; a delicious lunch and tasting session at Cairn O’ Mohr Winery; and £100 towards travel. Enter here.