Veggie tales and the battle of weeds.

The past few weeks of glorious weather has meant the vegetable garden has finally had some TLC. It was seriously neglected over the summer as the Crofter had quite a lot to do while I was often out of commission or in a reduced role (forget any ‘pregnancy glow’, and less so when exhaustion/sickness has hit).

The little and often concept of tackling weeds was turfed out the window when sickness hit early on. That has resorted to a full scale weed war last week when I finally got a burst of energy and the ability to bend over without heartburn (the following day was an entirely different matter on looking like I must have run a marathon). Now, to an keen gardener, it will look appalling (all the photos are after I had worked, should have done a before!). But, given the neglect, I’m impressed how well a lot of the veg has done. I realise to all locals reading this, we had snow last week and have now had hard frost on multiple occasions. But to think back that soon after the seedlings were put out, we hit a drought (well, no rain and having to use something called a water can around here isn’t common). It then continued at temperatures which were more attuned to the ‘mad dogs and English men’ scenario.

Our gardening knowledge has increased over the years. But why things did so well given the neglect is unknown considering the competition with the weeds (and why did the parsnip not even make a half hearted attempt to show up?). As the frost is becoming more consistent, several things now need uplifted. No, it does not fill me nostalgia for being thankful for the harvest, more of a ‘oh look, more stones to be picked out’. Always an eye for future work. However, as I worked on the raised beds today, I discovered the heartburn was back, and with vengeance. Maybe I should think about sorting the croft’s paperwork for a bit…

Stanley the snowflake

Yep, since that ‘Beast from the East’, I’ve been waiting to name our snowflakes. So, Stanley finally arrived on Saturday. Nae bad for October but hey, not much effort in terms of snow cover, it didn’t even provide the grass with a blanket. Never mind, just turn to the media and we find Belinda the blizzard has buried us until Easter. I really should quit my sarcasm…

Due to the cow’s jail break last week and their show of determination for getting closer to the byre, having seen the forecast for rain/sleet, we decided that Friday would be their moving in date. With Stanley arriving Saturday (and more importantly, the rain fall) it was just right. Leave them out too long and the ground gets poached very quickly, very seriously (and they won’t want that in the spring when the grass should start growing again). I’m no animal psychologist, but our cows don’t show any partiality for mud baths. With the past month having a bit of a lull in the daily activity required on the croft, it is back on the increase with the byre needing checked, hay provided and water troughs needing checking. The added issue this year is now having a very able bodied toddler who is currently mastering climbing but needs sent on a health and safety course!

Just another Crofter’s tale…

Today the Crofter and I were down in Forfar to give a talk on ‘A Smallholder’s Tale’ at the annual Scottish Smallholding Festival in Forfar. When we had agreed to it, it had been highly unlikely that the Crofter would have been home for it so I took the decision that as much as I don’t see myself as a public speak, it would hopefully give encouragement to particularly women or those who have no background in agriculture.

The journey down did not start off well. After the Mini Crofter having to have his weekly bath early, he promptly went head first into the filing cabinet; resulting in a table tennis ball bump on the forehead, a nose bleed and a split lip. The Crofter was trying to sort out all the damsons which I had picked the day before tackling the basket of local pears we had received that needed pickling. Damson jelly in a sieve is one thing, when our toddler decides to try and lick the bowl adding red (blood coloured) juice to hands and head in addition to his injuries, you really are thankful for the flurry of snow that you can now take him out in to try and clean him up again. But that wasn’t all that hadn’t been going swimmingly. We had been unable to send the presentation by email so we had no one of knowing that it definitely worked. The travel down involved a diversion due to an accident. And, on the way in this morning we hit ice twice. Always good to put yourself in these stress situations just to make sure you still have a bit of nerve.

However, we made it without coming off the road. Our picture presentation worked, people turned up to listen, and we finally got to buy some of Dalmore Croft’s pressed apple juice (really, if you live Edinburgh/Fife go have a look, search it on Facebook/internet).

Reward after the talk: a dish that seemed more attuned to an exotic food restaurant, not a mobile food hut parked at a mart. Here’s to the crab!

Never put off till tomorrow…

I had never realised our cows knew this saying. Until they decided that today was the day to change fields, not tomorrow, as the Crofter and I had planned. But today. And not just any time of day, when the neighbours are out and about do the cows go have a jolly.

They have been down on one of the neighbour’s newly seeded grass for the past two weeks with tomorrow being their moving day to the byre for winter. Having satisfied themselves with the lovely green, green grass, I have no idea why they decided the road verge and old turf mounds looked so appealing. Well, one of them appears to have de-electrified the electric fencing and the herd got moving.

Our phone rang and when the Crofter answered it he was also stood at the window which allowed him full view of the now moving parade. Talk about an emergency drill call. This was every man, woman and child to the welly boot room. Pants that it can talk ages to dress a toddler, and when he’s already soaked his only boiler suit, what option have we got? Ha, whatever comes to hand; yep, a posh looking rain coat and muddy shoes.

The seriousness suddenly escalated when I was trying to make up two buckets of food and I looked out the shed door to see five of them heading up the immediate neighbour’s driveway. Well, light exercise is recommended for pregnant women, so off I quickly jogged with my shepherd’s crook and two buckets. The idea of cows spotting your neighbour’s car as a scratching post or attempting to chew the artificial flowers in a flowerpot is not high on my agenda.

Thankfully in this situation the neighbour’s daughters took to the Mini Crofter, the neighbour helped to drive them with the Crofter and I led them with the bucket. It was done in two groups but I guess that would imply an improvement in the efficiency from the cows; it took three trips to get them down. Maybe next time they could do it in a one-er. Or else, never underestimate the power of the bucket with a hungry cow.

Fry me a liver

I have no idea what the rest of the words to ‘Cry Me a River’ are, but know that the first line can easily be adapted.

Yes, this post is to explain another of the photos in the ‘Spirit of Crofting’ video. Correct, the picture of me gralloching a deer (also known as gutting). And hence why I haven’t put up the same photo. I may be a theatre nurse that can handle blood and guts but I am aware it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor will you see the picture of us trying to get it into the back of the pick up, or of it hung in the shed, skinned with me about to start the beginners guide to butchery.

Now I do realise, there are a lot of people who do not agree with eating meat and many more who are happy to eat meat but don’t like the field to fork concept (of having to catch/kill/prepare your own). I’m not posting this to get hate mail. I would rather eat local food (ie, cow, sheep, deer) and particularly food that I know has had a good life and has been humanly dispatched.

Why the significance? It was the first deer I ever got. We had done target practice to ensure we were familiar with the range, and I had even got someone to come out and go over several safety points as I was not particularly comfortable or familiar with the matter.

When we bought the croft there was an area of old woodland in the middle. No new trees had been able to grow for years as deer had free access to come and nibble out all the new growth. We put in fencing (some stock and some deer) and planted about 5,000 new trees. Not just quick growing, native types, but slow ones such as oak too. And with this, came the responsibility of pest control. So don’t be thinking the incident was a sport. Plus, the meat off that deer helped feed us for many months to follow (he wasn’t just a wee thing as it took two of us to drag him back to the pick-up). Understanding anatomy is helpful when dealing with innards. I did have the voice of a particular surgeon though, who always used to mutter ‘you’re on the wrong plane’ to his juniors, while doing it.

It was after this event that I did some analysing. And decided that if it were to happen while on my own, I would need to make a few adaptions. I didn’t want to think I was dependent on the Crofter being home to deal with pests (I wouldn’t want to shoot one and leave the food to waste). So, I asked for some ratchet straps (to get it onto the pick-up as I could make a ramp to slide it up) and a chain winch (to hang it in the shed). What more could a girl ask for.

And no, I’m pretty sure we did not fry the liver…

Whay-hey, New Holland.

A ‘picture’s worth a thousand words’? Hmm, sometimes. But not always. Multiple photos were put in the video for the Scottish Crofting Federation (which you can see on the Birchwood Croft Facebook page). Oww, lovely, I hear some say. Aye, well, may I give a bit more detail on these two.

OK, a tractor (with loader) and a baler. The tractor had been bought at Dingwall Mart’s Implement Sale (yes, women buy implements, even if auctioneers keep saying ‘boys, boys, boys’ at the mart). Because what else do you go and buy when you realise you are pregnant? Yep, not just a tractor (we had one) but one with a front loader. Because up until then we used a bale spike on the back of our dexta and we lifted the ring feeder up to put the hay in. Correct, no ‘heavy’ lifting while pregnant yet the job was mine while the Crofter went to work and we knew that going into winter I would need something.

In the mean time, that same summer, we had a dry week which was nearly perfect for making hay. As expected, the Crofter was at work and I was working full time. So, grass got cut before work, it got turned several days on the trot after work (yes, I understand the longer it takes to bale, the less nutritious it is but I didn’t have the freedom to turn it during the day so you just work with what you’ve got). And once it seemed dry enough, I started baling.

From baling, my prize was getting the above photo worth of bales in. Not much but, having never worked a baler (I became very good with replacing broken shear bolts) I was shattered (and chuffed to be honest). If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving may not be for you, but hay baling could be an option. The rest of the field just had to wait until more hands (ie, The Crofter) arrived. Even superhero’s need sleep!

If Hank Williams (Hey, Good Lookin’) had been a crofter…

Say, hey, New Holland

Whatcha got broken?

How about baling up some hay for me?

Whay-hay, sweet meadow

Don’t you think maybe

It’s time we got you a brand new hay row turner?

I’ve got a four day outlook and a sunny forecast.

And I know a spot right here on the croft

There’s an empty lean to and the cows will want food.

So if you wanna start working, that’ll be fine with me…

Not the end of the story…

The recent Spirit of Crofting event has opened up several conversations and questions from people that I feel that I now need to explain. The information supplied by the Scottish Crofting Federation for public view, what the panel had, what was put and said in newspapers, and a few more beside.

Question one, yes, I did apply for the award. That was after I was adamant I would never do such a thing and if someone thought I was worthy of it, they could nominate. Fast forward to getting told by said someone that they had printed off the form to nominate me but had run in to a problem so I’d just have to get on with it. Aye right, not!!! Fast forward to the Royal Highland Show’s Women in Agriculture Breakfast and after hearing three women speak, I decided I would just have to take a massive plunge and put the application in. Why? Does agriculture get promoted among young people, and particularly women? What encouragement do people get who want to get into it but have no background (typical ‘livestock keepers’ are often from ‘farming stock’)? If I have managed to break a few rules (I hadn’t realised hay making was often seen as a blokes thing), what’s stopping others?

One of the requirements for the application was either three photos of yourself on the croft or a 2 min video. Finding three photos to really show what you do in crofting is nye impossible. Besides, if you do a video slideshow, then you can put music with it which always sounds better then the usual gale force 3 affecting the sound on a video. Now, I can’t put video’s on this site but I will post it on the Birchwood Croft’s Facebook page. But it’s then that I discovered a new problem. Normally a picture is worth a thousand words. Until you croft. Then, you need a thousand words to explain the photo. So a few of the individual photos will be explained in due time (yes, it all looks fine and dandy until you hear what either happened before, during or after!).

Rock and Roll

Friends arrived this week all the way from Switzerland. When asked what they would like to do while visiting the Highlands they responded with: “Pick up stones, as we’ve read your blog and want to help”! Err, that’s great but not really the response we were looking for (so no pressure on all future guests arriving, other than you will now be compared in how many wheelbarrow trips you have successfully moved rather than have you seen Loch Ness or visited Tomatin distillery!).

I can say though, that I really appreciate the help. Spending even just 10 minutes a day picking up stones is not my favourite task. Doing it with one other person helps to pass the time (and maybe overdo it a wee bit but we’ll ignore that). Having three other pairs of hands made a huge difference. OK, it will not be getting reseeded before winter for the cows and sheep but the area isn’t far off needing to get levelled ready for spring planting. And never fear, the bigger stones have been left for the digger and trailer…

And the winner is…

So Friday night was the awards dinner for the Spirit of Crofting held by the Scottish Crofting Federation. Best Newcomer Crofter and Young Crofter of the Year were awarded. Being a nominee meant going and needing to get dressed up. No excuses for getting cold feet, even if I couldn’t wear my insulated wellies.

Now, the Young Crofter of the Year award was the David and Goliath of the ‘young’ crofters (yes, we are classified as young if we are under 41). The shortlist was between Donald Macsween and myself. Having seen Donald on TV (yes, he’s got his own programme of ‘Air an Lot’ on BBC Alba), his mass following on Twitter, and a blog that points out he is from a crofting family who have been on the land for 200 years you would think, aye right. Why? In comparison, up until I met my husband, I had never heard of crofting. The one we ended up with had not been worked in donkey years and there was absolutely nothing other than spreading rushes and some old trees. Hence it felt like a David and Goliath competition. Like biblical David, I even have a sling, in fact, three. Although mine are for carrying a Mini Crofter, not for throwing stones at giants. And so too ends the comparison. Because in this event, the giant got the trophy. So huge congratulations to Donald.

Now, I have since been given commiserations by friends; I have been told I was ‘robbed’, why was it down to a panel of judges with no public vote, what system was used? But, that’s not the point. In every award you have a winner and therefore, a loser. I was fortunate to be shortlisted and become the runner up. It will hopefully provide inspiration to others to enter agriculture (because, as you saw I had no background in it). Being a theatre nurse may help with gralloching a deer but doesn’t help with learning to be a jack of all trades. I am also a woman in agriculture, something that is not always promoted among women and one of the reasons I wanted to help show others, it is possible.

So to end, what caused me to be the most gutted? Donald Macsween having no signed copy of Air an Lot!!! Thought the man had friends in high places? Surely the BBC can get archive copies? Anyone got friends in BBC archives? For all those trying to promote learning Gaelic, here’s a chance!

And my advice from the night? You can ceilidh dance all you want when you’re 6 months pregnant. You’ll just feel like you’ve competed in Olympic gymnastics for the next two days!

Cheese to please.

Sometimes life can be hard going (more for some than others). Having friends about can really make a difference. And some go over the odds so are given special titles; such as The Green Fairies. Well, of these Green Fairies (there are two), one happens to have a gluten and lactose intolerance. This can make adaptations to cooking a bit more experimental. Such as cheese making. Yes, that’s right, I quite like making cheese and having made a soft cheese (goes really well with smoked salmon), I started to wonder if it was possible to do a lactose free cheese (don’t like leaving anyone out).

Yes, I know you can buy them in the shop. The challenge was making it at home. It is very useful having someone you can get to taste test your experiments. And with that I discovered it is possible. There has been no failures yet with the lactose free cheese (more than I can say about the regular cheese).

So, with the Green Fairies pulling out the stops to help me get to the Spirit of Crofting Awards dinner, the least I can do is prepare some lactose free pot cheese to be had by one special lady. It wouldn’t make up for the lack of sleep as she works late on Thursday to ensure an early start Friday, but cheese will have to be the substitute. So let’s raise a toast (of cheese) to the Green Fairies.