Jo, Lorna & Kat
“I was watching everyone else have all the fun,” Jo smirks as he bounds across one of his organic fields in the Scottish Highlands. After a career as an agricultural economist, Jo and his wife Lorna, a professional environmentalist, decided it was time put their theory and knowledge into action and buy a croft to farm.
Jo grew up in England and went to university for a degree in Economics. Upon graduation, he realized he didn’t actually want to get a job at a bank, and so moved to Scotland where he spent a few years “walking,” or what I know as hiking. It was there that he realized what he cared about most was the environment.
The realization lead him back to school. As part of his masters degree, he studied Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This is a model of agriculture that developed independently in both Germany and Japan during the post-WWII years. Farmers approached people who wanted or needed fresh food, discovered the community’s food needs, and then persuaded people to pledge their business. The community would either pay up front or in installments, but they had to commit to the whole season, giving the farmers enough stability to set up and run the whole cycle of cultivation. Jo wanted to know if the business model was economically viable, and if it, or something similar, could be implemented in Scotland. He wanted to observe any modern examples, and that brought him to the US in 2001. He spent a month each in Idaho, Vermont, and Ohio. Vermont had a well established CSA network, Idaho had none, and Ohio, where I grew up and was in 8th grade at the time, was somewhere in the middle. Jo left excited about the possibilities for Scotland.
"I was watching everyone else have all the fun."
After completing his degree, Jo worked for many different environmental organizations in Scotland, one being the Crofting Commission. There he suggested that to introduce CSA in the Highlands the term “Community” shouldn’t be used because community is generally very strongly tied to geography in Scotland. It might give the wrong impression because of clan history, and the recent movement in the last 25 years of communities pulling together to buy their local estates. Instead “Local” seemed to be a better choice because the community of consumers is really one of like-minded people, not just those who live close to each other. Introducing the concept with this wording helped farmers be receptive to CSA and was one of the ways Jo was able to help them thrive. Through his work, Jo tried to help these farming communities to succeed. You can see his commitment and enthusiasm when he talks about it, which his endless energy means he is capable of doing for as long as you want to listen. All of his jobs were essentially desk jobs though and eventually he wanted to get out onto the front lines.
Lorna had a similarly roundabout path. She grew up in Scotland and got her degree in accounting. But even before finishing the degree, she knew that it wasn’t going to be the right fit. She laughs at herself for even completing the degree in the first place. Immediately after graduating she went on to get a second degree in environmental management. A content look takes over her face when she discusses finding a calling for the environment. Lorna has worked for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) with a focus on waste prevention for many years, and she is still currently working there. But she, like Jo, was passionate about the prospect of working full time on their own farm.
For a long time Jo and Lorna looked for a croft to buy. The crofting system in Scotland is a mildly complicated framework of land division and rental that is over 100 years old. It consists of small farmable parcels of land called crofts, often containing a dwelling and access to communal grazing land, that are owned by the regional estate and rented out to the local farmers. A croft was their best option for acquiring farmland. It was an intense search. Showing his meticulous nature, Jo had a spreadsheet with 31 different criteria for the property, everything from acreage to elevation. Finally they found one that met all but one of these criteria. That croft was Ian Mhor, which Lorna and Jo bought in 2010 and where they now live with their sons Findley and Angus. Ian Mhor had passed through seven generations of the same family up until that point. It was the first sale of the croft since it was created by the crofting legislation in the 1870s. Before they purchased the property, it had been about 35 years since the croft was actually farmed. There was lots of work to be done, but also a clean slate for Jo and Lorna.
They have a total of 40 acres, twenty of which are broken into six actively rotated fields. Three fields are generally used for growing food for their pigs, either rye, barely, or turnips. In the other three fields they grow vegetables and fruits to sell. They germinate their crops in a poly tunnel where they are also able to grow different crops year-round thanks to its higher temperatures. The lower 20 acres of the croft have been planted with 22,000 trees to create a woodland, taking advantage of initiatives in the UK to repopulate lost tree environments.
Jo and Lorna are trying to implement as many sustainable practices as possible at Ian Mhor and in their business Knockfarrel Produce. They are dedicated and idealistic without being blind to the challenges and realities of running a successful small organic farm. I watched them separately each look out over their croft with the same look of pride, it is palpable how much they love farming.
The first thing you spot upon visiting the croft is their very own wind turbine. This helps to power their electric delivery van, which is used to go to farmers’ markets and deliver subscription veg boxes. The van is a few years old and if they could replace the battery with the newest model the mile range of one charge would double, allowing them to serve a wider community. These subscription veg boxes are a huge part of their income, and are inspired by the CSA model. Anyone within four different delivery areas can sign up to receive a box bi-weekly 10 months out of the year, and Jo delivers them right to their door. The box is filled with seasonal veggies and fruits, with the possibility of adding anything else the croft produces including pork products, eggs, and homemade jams, pestos, and chutneys made by Jo.
In order to forgo the use of chemical pesticides, a biodegradable plastic is laid out in rows in the field. Holes are created in the rows with a spike for each of the thousands of plants and the plastic keeps weeds from growing around the crops. For longer term crops such as strawberries, which will stay in the same field for several years, a heavier plastic sheet which they burn holes in, is laid out over the whole field. This has the same prohibitive effect on unwanted growth. To keep other pests off the crops, mainly birds, large expanses of mesh fabric are laid over some of the growing plants.
Careful planning is also a key part of responsible and sustainable farming. Crop rotation looks after soil health and also adds to the croft’s certified negative carbon footprint. Combined with other factors such as their woodlands, wind turbine, and hedgerows, the carbon footprint of Knockfarrel Produce is currently at a total of negative 110 tons annually. Jo and Lorna carefully plan production to match demand to limit agricultural waste, and any veg waste that does occur is consumed by the pigs or is composted.
The pigs, a hybrid they call Spotty Ginger, have become an integral part of the croft. Lorna loves them, and takes the lead on how they are raised. When she comes home from work in the evenings she is immediately out in the fields doing the evening feeding, beaming at each of her “piggies.” Both Lorna and Jo love being able to provide responsibly raised pork products to their community. Jo is known in the area for his traditional pork pies, as well as bacon and several kinds of sausages. But the pigs also impact the way croft is run as a whole. The herds are moved into fields that need to be cleared, where they promptly eat everything in sight. This saves Jo from needing to machine clear fields while also helping to turn up the earth, and providing the field with fertilizer in the form of manure.
The croft is also home to between 50 and 75 chickens depending on the time of year and a flock of ducks. Jo and Lorna’s oldest son Findley looks after the ducks, and the croft sells both the chicken and duck eggs.
In order to operate as they do, Jo and Lorna rely on volunteers who help out once a week on the croft. “Call me old fashioned, but I believe you should pay people for work,” Jo says begrudgingly. But until the time when they make enough money to be able to pay an employee, they rely on volunteers, adding a another layer to the idea of community supported agriculture.
Some volunteers give their time in exchange for the knowledge they learn from Jo about planting and growing, like retiree Trish who keeps a personal vegetable garden at home. Others love volunteering for the fresh produce they get to take home with them.
One volunteer who was there when I visited was Kat, a 30-something from York. She, like Jo and Lorna, also had a unique path to farming. She went to school in Liverpool to become a doctor and worked for two years in Manchester as a physician. During those two years, she realized that the only time she was happy was when she was outside biking to work. So she quit and moved to London to find something new. There she ended up working on an urban farm and she fell in love with farming. Her passion is for cattle and dairy products and that brought her to Scotland. When I met her, she was in the market for a croft of her own, where she wants to do woodland cattle grazing to sell milk and cheeses.
The method of grazing that Kat wants to implement, similar to Mob Grazing, keeps the cattle in relatively small field sections. They are then moved to new grazing sections anywhere from a couple times a day to every few days. This provides a whole host of benefits both to the cattle and to the environment. It gives the farmer specialized control of what and where the cattle are eating, ensuring that the cows don’t completely eat all the grass. This allows continued growth and mature root systems, which in turn helps prevent soil erosion. Mature grasses pack high nutrients, giving the cattle a better diet. The method also keeps plant diversity high, which positively impacts wildlife populations like insects and birds. Concentrated herd density with continuous field movement also provides more even manure distribution, reducing the need for other fertilizers. It takes a lot of involvement and planning on the part of the farmer, but can be a more sustainable way to raise cattle. Kat lights up when she talks about it, and like Jo, seems to have endless amounts of energy and passion for working responsibly with the land.
Being around these spirited farmers is truly heartening. Since my time in Scotland I’ve paid more attention to subscription produce programs. Thanks to the influence of the CSA model, they are becoming more common as people try to make better decisions on where their food comes from. Farming is a challenge, but so important. Luckily there are people like Jo, Lorna and Kat in the world, who are committed to giving surrounding communities access to sustainably farmed products.