Growing lemons on Lewis: new opportunities for crofters in the Outer Hebrides

A Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group of crofters on the Isle of Lewis has been exploring opportunities for the island to become self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. With new advances in polytunnel technology, people are now successfully growing produce such as grapes, lemons and olives on the island.

RISS communications officer Rhiannon Bull visited one of the RISS group members, Karen Macleod, who is in her first year of experimenting with growing fruit and vegetables in a polytunnel.

The visit was part of a wider trip looking at the challenges faced by crofters in Lewis and Harris, organised by SAC Consulting, part of Scotland's Rural College (SRUC), and Jane Craigie Marketing, and we were proud to see one of the RISS groups showcased.

Using Polycrubs to grow new produce on Lewis

Karen Macleod crofts with her husband John to the east of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. With the help of Rob Black of SAC Consulting, the RISS group facilitator, she secured a 60% Crofting Agricultural Grants Scheme (CAGS) grant towards the cost of putting up an £8,000 Polycrub, which is now allowing her to grow enough organic fruit and vegetables to feed her family for six months of the year.

The Polycrub is a relatively new type of heavy-duty polytunnel which has been designed to endure harsh climates and high-speed winds – perfect for the wild weather of the Outer Hebrides. The frame is built from recycled farm pipe from the salmon industry and set into concrete, which is covered with durable sheeting that can withstand 100mph winds.

It was great to see Karen making the most of this new technology in conjunction with the island’s natural resources. She makes her own compost, collects rainwater, and gathers seaweed from the nearby coast to use as a mulch on her raised beds.

As well as being highly nutrient-dense, she tells us that the texture of the dried seaweed, along with some crushed seashells, helps to keep the slugs away from her plants.

It’s her first year growing in the Polycrub, but Karen’s already growing an incredible range of produce, including tomatoes, grapes, lemons, pears, olives, salad leaves, and soft fruits, as well as vegetables including cabbages, broccoli, peas, potatoes, beetroot and leeks.

There are now 30 Polycrubs on Lewis, which have allowed crofters to diversity what they can grow on the island.

RISS ambitions

The RISS project came about because crofters have to provide a business plan to be eligible for a CAGS grant, and growers interested in installing Polycrubs on the islands were interested in investigating where they could sell produce.

Seeing this new technology as an opportunity to reduce food miles, shorten supply chains, and make the most of local produce, the RISS group formed to explore the challenges and opportunities for producing more fruit and vegetables on Lewis and Harris.

Facilitator Rob Black told us: “The whole thing was borne out of an interest in the supply chain, but it’s developed into something bigger – a local rural economy in food and drink. It’s not just fruit and vegetables, it applies to everything that can be reared on a croft. It’s moved to a wider project looking at whether the island could be self-sufficient. This has been pioneering the way.

“It has been a resounding success, even if it hadn’t happened the way we thought it would! And without RISS, this would never have happened. It’s given us time to help people with their ideas and link them together.”

Karen is still in an early, experimental phase with her business plan, but the RISS team are excited to see where she takes her growing. Already, her creativity was evident as she showed us the drinks and fermented products she’s been creating with the fruit she’s grown.

She’s now secured funding for a second tunnel, which will increase how much she’s able to grow. It’s hoped that others will be able to follow her lead and come up with their own value-added products, and that the connections established through the group with allow producers to collaborate to meet the demand in local food and drink.

Beyond the crofting community

As well as the producers themselves, local restaurants and cafes have also been involved in the RISS group.

Rob Black says that, “Restaurants and cafes involved in the group said they would love to buy local, but that there isn’t enough being produced. This gives an opportunity for crofters on the island, particularly with new technology like the Polycrub.

“We need to find out exactly what demand there is, and then see how we can meet that demand, to find out whether it’s possible for the island to be self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables of certain types.”

Have an idea for a RISS group?

Join us online on May 20, 9.30 - 11.30am, to hear about how the farmer-led Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) can help you get together with the right people and develop business ideas in response to Covid-19 and climate change. 

> Learn more about the webinar

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