In this special episode, we hear about the project “Agroecology: Enabling the Transition”, which brings together farmers, crofters and growers across Scotland to exchange knowledge and experience. Through farm visits, conversations and shared meals, the project aims to create supportive spaces where participants feel comfortable to ask questions, voice opinions, and learn new things. Funded by the Knowledge Transfer Innovation Fund, the goal is to help embed and support the transition to agroecological practices in Scotland.
Katie Revell met with three members of the South-West Scotland group – farmers John Veitch and Heather Close, and facilitator Abi Mordin – to hear about their experiences with the project.
“Agroecology: Enabling the Transition” is a partnership between Landworkers’ Alliance, Pasture for Life, Soil Association Scotland, the Nature Friendly Farming Network, Propagate and Nourish Scotland.
This episode of Farmerama was made by Katie Revell. Thanks as always to the rest of the Farmerama team: Abby Rose, Olivia Oldham, Jo Barratt, Dora Taylor, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless and Eliza Jenkins. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt.
To learn more about the “Agroecology: Enabling the Transition” project, visit:
Find out more about Heather and Philip Close’s farm, Balsar Glen, here: https://www.balsarglen.com/
Join the Regenerative Farmers Network South West Scotland here: https://dgsustainablefoodpartnership.org/regenerative-farming-network
0:00 Let’s make no mistake, it has to pay the bills. We’re here to make a living, and if we can do that nicely and in harmony with what we have, then so much the better. No, that’s wrong. It’s not so much the better. It’s gonna have to be the way it is.
0:21 Welcome to this bonus episode of Farmerama, about a project called Agroecology: Enabling the Transition. Enabling the Transition is about bringing together farmers, crofters and growers who are at different stages in their careers, and different stages on their agroecological journeys, so they can share experiences and learn from each other. It’s supported by the Scottish Government’s Knowledge Transfer Innovation Fund.
0:51 So this project is a partnership across Scotland with Nature Friendly Farming Network, Pasture for Life, Landworkers’ Alliance, Soil Association Scotland and Nourish Scotland.
1:01 That’s Abi Mordin, and the other partner in the project is an organisation that she co-runs – a worker-led collective called Propagate.
01:17 Propagate specialises in sustainable, local and community food projects, based across Glasgow, Central and South-West Scotland, which is where we are just now.
1:19 Each of the six partner organisations is facilitating a regional peer learning group with a specific focus. For example, Nourish is running a biodiversity and profitability group in the Borders; Pasture for Life is running a group in the North-East, focused on grazing; and on the West Coast, the Landworkers’ Alliance group is looking at pasture poultry feed. In the South-West, Propagate is facilitating a group focused on soil health – and this is actually building on work that Abi’s been doing for a while.
1:48 My favourite project in South-West Scotland is organising and facilitating the Regenerative Farming Network, which is a network of about 160 farmers now, across Dumfries and Galloway and Ayrshire, who are interested in expanding their knowledge around agroecology, regenerative practice, soil health, that kind of thing.
2:09 The idea with Enabling the Transition is really to create spaces where people feel comfortable to ask questions and share opinions. The meetups include things like shared meals, informal conversations and farm visits.
2:22 Each organisation has organised at least three farm walks to go and see, you know, regenerative action in practice, or dig holes and count earthworms and look at infiltration rates, and that kind of thing.
2:32 We’ve each hosted a webinar. So ours was on soil health, where one of the group, Colin, took us deep below the surface of the soil on a voyage of discovery of tardigrades and nematodes and all sorts of exciting things like that. It was very good. Very good it was.
2:48 And then because we actually already were a group before the project started, and will continue to be after it’s finished, we already kind of knew each other quite well, I think. So we’ve got a WhatsApp group and a sort of weekly Zoom where we just check in with each other. So, yeah, the point is to, to support each other to kind of make changes to your farming practice to kind of, nudge us along the road to regenerative agriculture.
3:16 Two of the members of the South-West Scotland group, John and Heather, travelled from their farms to Dumfries to meet with me and Abi and have a chat about their farms, their aspirations and what they’ve gained from the peer learning project.
3:30 I’m John, John Veitch, I’m a tenant farmer from Gatehouse of Fleet. I’ve got cows and sheep. Only 20-odd cows now, which is partly the reason I got involved in this – because we were cutting numbers in response to exorbitant input prices. And I do quite like the idea of looking after the wider farm environment. And that’s where I’m coming from.
3:57 My great-grandfather moved to the rented farm in 1882, and I left school in 1985 when they couldn’t stand me any longer and kicked me out, or threatened to kick me out. So I’ve been at the job since ‘85, and I still know less about it today than I did when I left.
4:19 I’m Heather, Heather Close. I farm with my dad, Philip Close, near Turnberry in South Ayrshire, right on the coast. We have a suckler herd of cows – Aberdeen Angus and Hereford. We had 48 cows calf last year. Dad bought the farm about 20, 25 years ago and he’s been raising cows on there for about the last 15 to 20.
4:41 He started rotationally grazing about 2010, and outwintering about the same time. So he’s been doing it for quite a while. I joined him four years ago and we went on a holistic management course together, which was really, really good, really useful thing to do.
4:57 And from that course, I’ve kind of taken over the grazing management and we’ve been working together and leaving longer rest periods generally and managing the grazing better over the winter, because that’s our, kind of our pinch point – how many cattle we can carry over the winter.
5:15 And that’s actually why it’s really useful to talk to farmers in the South-West of the country, because most of the farmers I know are over in the East and they have different challenges from us, but rainfall isn’t generally one of them, unless they have really heavy short events. So it’s good to talk to people who have more knowledge and experience of similar kind of wet conditions – relentlessly wet conditions.
5:37 Yeah, that’s one of the regular topics of conversation on the WhatsApp group actually, isn’t it? Is like, “How much rainfall did you have this week?”
5:44 I thought we had a lot in South Ayrshire, but it’s quite regularly, these guys have 500 ml more than we do. So, another quarter on top of what we do each year. So I’ve got lots to learn from them. Other than that, I think we’re pretty well-placed. We grow grass brilliantly. We rarely have a heavy frost. But it’s the rain that’s just quite relentless.
6:03 And that, certainly for us, impacts how many cows we can carry over the winter at the moment. But we’re looking at different options with tree barns and stuff. But I would say that’s the limiting factor for us. I don’t know about you, John?
6:16 Certainly, one will be the weather. My limit might be the depth of soil because we’ve got the underlying rock. So you’ve not got a lot of topsoil to work in. In some cases, there’s only about 3 inches.
6:31 How did you get involved with the peer exchange project?
6:36 I think I discovered it through the Nature Friendly Farming websites, pretty much by accident. And it was really encouraging to realise it was more folk than me involved in it and interested in it, locally – rather than having to go into the East Coast or further afield. I just work myself. I’ve not got time to be trailing away to Dunbar or Cambridge or Saltburn, wherever it is, to attend a meeting.
7:03 How about yourself? How did you get involved?
7:04 I think Dad went along to one of the pre-COP events Abi organised and then, yeah, it sounded really interesting, so I signed up.
7:11 What was your experience, or your understanding, of agroecology, before you got involved with the projects?
7:21 To me, it’s regenerative-style agriculture, plus the connection with the community and the fair and just transition of land. So while I feel like I’m getting my head around the grazing and the animals a wee bit, and we have just started direct selling, like, the next step to understand is the connection with the community, to build that a bit more.
7:42 Well, I’m less aware of the social part, and this is the, this is the isolated bit of working yourself and being so far up your own arse… the rest has up to now been less of a concern. But if we’re to add value to the product, we’re going to have to see how it affects the community, who can afford to buy it, who can afford to engage with you. And if they want to come and see how it’s produced.
8:07 We started selling just really small-scale, so one animal the first year, two animals the second. But the best thing is selling your meat to the local community, because then you get the direct feedback. And everybody loves it. They love the taste. A lot of them have been around the farm and see how we do things. I think that’s something as farmers – I didn’t realise I’d been missing it until we brought that in. It is amazing.
8:2 Well, there you go. But that…
08:3 It closes the circle.
8:34 Aye. That’s something that I hadn’t fully appreciated. So I’m quite new to it, but it had been aware of wider farm environment issues and how that we shouldn’t have root everything out and make it all green, green grass.
8:45 There was value in the biodiversity that was existing, and we maybe don’t need to re-seed everything to the back teeth. Maybe the natural grasses have a place, and maybe with lower inputs, we can concentrate on the health of the soil and the invertebrates and everything that’s there, which might bring back the bird life – well, I say bring back; it’s it’s there if you know where to look.
9:11 But it is depleted.
9:12 Yes, it’s definitely depleted. We do live in a National Scenic Area, and it’s quite nice to see, you know, everything, the birds and everything that’s involved, the insects. There’s photos on my phone of even bloody grasshoppers and everything, that you don’t hear when you run about on the bike, and it’s not that they’re not there. It’s just we’ve forgotten what we’re looking for.
9:34 That’s one of the reasons I love this, this way of farming. But I just wanted to say that, John talking about that, that gives you a really good example of why the peer-to-peer learning is useful, because I’ve only been farming for four years. John – despite what he says – has a wealth of experience. So it’s, you pick up things as you go along. It is, it’s brilliant.
9:56 I’ve learned that much, I’ve forgotten how much I’ve learned.
09:48 You did an earthworm course, as well.
10:00 Yes. The Field Studies Council. That was just to understand a bit more about, about what was out there. I’d been looking at bits and pieces before, relating to the, the wider farm environment, but I was looking at various ways of picking up bits that, where there was gaps with things I don’t understand properly or whatever.
10:22 And one thing was the soil invertebrates. And I happened to spy a course on earthworms. And I thought, “Ha! Let’s just log into that”. But it was really quite interesting. I never went to college and I didn’t find studying particularly interesting, but the subject was interesting.
10:42 So am I right in thinking that you then shared that learning with the rest of the group?
10:46 I was widely encouraged that seeing as I had done it, it might be relevant to somebody else. If I was interested, somebody else might be interested. And well, we’ll just see how we were listening! So the worm casts that we see on top of the soil, bioturbating all the nutrient. I mean, the worms are vital to, when we’re not using artificial inputs and getting the, getting the dung and the leaf litter broken down to build the soil again and the health of the soil, the worms are vital. And then aerating and drainage. Everything.
11:19 But the worm casts that you see on our predominantly the anecic worms that burrow vertically. And then you had the endogeic worms living in the top sort of few inches, and the epigeic ones, surface dwellers in the broken branches and the leaf litter and everything. It was interesting. It was!
11:38 So John presented this back to us in one of our weekly Zoom calls. It was brilliant.
11:44 It’s wonderful to be out there in amongst all the wildlife and everything going on, but the reason that’s important for production is because fertilisers took the place of all of that, and we need that. That’s, that’s a really healthy, working, functional system.
11:57 The students at college, I don’t believe, are taught enough about this. And if we need that change to happen, it needs to start from the beginning. We do absorb it far better when we’re younger. And if it wasn’t focused on simply ph and N, P and K – there’s more to soil than that. There really is.
12:23 Again, I think, the wee bit I have picked up, particularly the ph is less important with the non-modern, highly-bred varieties to be used in conjunction with fertiliser, which is where we’re needing to look at the legumes to replace them. But these old grasses, these old fescues and stuff can be quite productive at lower phs. You know? And still be, still be grazable, still be valuable to the farm.
12:54 And to a lot of extent, the old seed bank is still there as well. So, you know, when you start putting these, like, different grazing systems in place and leaving longer rest periods, it allows more time for the, the sort of, you know, heritage seeds that are lying in the soil to make a comeback, basically. So, I’m sure, Heather, you’ve probably seen loads of new plants coming.
13:14 Yeah, we have loads. Dad started farming a small part of the farm and let out the fields to other farmers, and gradually he’s taken more and more on. So the fields that were let out, a lot of them had quite a lot of fertiliser applied. And dad used fertiliser himself, but he tailored off and he stopped in 2018. But the fields that have had a lot of fertiliser and have only recently been taken in-hand, they’re a lot less diverse.
13:36 It’s as though when the fields don’t have the, the artificial compounds that come down, they have to produce them themselves. So that’s where you get the different variety of species. Knapweed’s one of my favourites, but we get chickweed and all the different clovers and lots of dock and lots of plantain and lots of sorrel.
13:54 Then you get the dock and then you get the dock beetles who are the most beautiful beetle, iridescent green…
13:58 Shiny green things.
13:59 Yeah. And then the dock beetles eat the dock, and earlier in the season than we’d expect, they kind of dry it out and the cows will then eat the dock leaves, or the cows also eat the nettles once they start drying out, and we have cows eating rushes. I had a calf that loved rushes this year – pulling them out with absolute abandon. So, yeah, the diversity is amazing and yeah, everything has a function and they’re all working together and they’re all helping improve the system.
14:24 It’s not just good for the soil; the diversity of diet is better for the livestock as well. You know, so there, so you’ve got the rooting depth of the different plants and they’ve all got different actions and you’re saying that the clovers are nitrogen fixing and so forth, and all these things under the ground are working symbiotically. But then, you know, above ground, you’ve got this diversity of plant species that…
14:45 And they’re all bringing up different minerals.
14:46 Yeah, exactly, they’re all bringing up slightly different, different things that the animals want to eat ‘cause they know, instinctively, what’s good for them.
14:53 Has your understanding of soil health changed through being involved with the peer learning projects?
15:00 We’ve been using Soilmentor the last few months, nearly a year.
15:04 Just to explain, Soilmentor is an app for regenerative farmers that was developed by Vidacycle, a company that was actually co-founded by Abby Rose, who’s also part of Farmerama. The app helps farmers to observe, to track and to analyse a whole range of soil health indicators.
15:21 I have dug holes in the soil before and counted earthworms, but using that, I was counting slugs and I was looking in more detail what was actually in the soil. And that, it did help. I realised that we possibly have, I don’t know why, a few more slugs than we should do. They’re little slugs, but they are still slugs. So it’s seeing things a little bit differently and knowing some more questions to ask, possibly.
15:44 It’s about being in tune enough with the wider environment to understand what, what we need at that point at that time. And that might vary, farm to farm. So the more we knew about our own wee corner, we’ll be more resilient to tackle what’s coming. If regenerative agriculture was seen as a negative, or a hippie, dog-and-stick thing that was only a bit-part player and really useless and not worth considering… Well, they need to stop and think when things are changing.
16:18 So we do need some sort of holistic view and if we get that right, then everything will be easier, everything will be better. We hope. We hope everything will be better.
16:29 My dad’s like the least hippie person ever. He loves the soil and he loves the wildlife that comes with it, but he started purely from reducing his costs, reducing his exposure to external circumstances. He built one barn, soon realised it was quite small – he’d have to build another one. And it was like, “No, I need to find a different way to do this”, and he started outwintering and he absolutely loves it. He’s a complete soil geek now. Learnt so much from YouTube. So. It’s quite addictive, once you get started. There’s so much to learn, isn’t there?
17:00 There’s so much to learn.
17:10 But I do think it’s not a one-size-fits-all…
17:12 No, no, definitely.
17:14 And I think what suits you, even if you were three miles away from me, might not suit me.
17:18 Yeah. Every farm is different.
17:20 Every farm.
17:21 Every farmer.
17:22 And I think it might be every field…
17:24 Every field, yeah, definitely.
17:25 … Could take knowledge and learn, just to get the best out of it. There’s more involved in farming regeneratively and holistically than there is farming conventionally. It’s totally different.
17:37 There’s so much to get right when you’re not relying on that bag of fertiliser. There is so much to learn and then you get bogged down, so it’s quite good to have that contact, whether it’s the WhatsApp group or whether it’s the weekly Zoom or whatever. It’s the spontaneity.
17:52 You can be at your day-to-day, mundane stuff and all of a sudden just this random thought comes into your head, and you go “I can share that with somebody, or somebody’ll maybe know that” and it, that is incredibly valuable, and we probably underestimate how valuable that is on a personal level. That’s, that interaction that we’re not getting when we’re working alone.
18:19 Dad and I work together. So he or I will have a strange idea and we’ll talk it through and we go, “Oh, yeah, that’s fine. We’ll have a go at that”. But if you’re working on your own and you have these strange ideas, it’s difficult to have the confidence to go ahead and do them. And that’s why dad and I are lucky. And this, this peer group is also a different version of that.
18:38 If you, like, “Just had a strange thought. What about if I did this, this and this?”, and we can have a wee chat about it in the WhatsApp group, and you, you aren’t alone, and you’re not the only one with strange ideas.
18:47 Yeah. I think that’s, that’s the benefit of, kind of, you know, this whole group. Not just on WhatsApp, not just on Zoom, it’s, you know, we can get out and actually, you know, dig holes on each other’s fields and look at the plants and the grasses that are growing and give each other on-the-ground advice.
19:02 There’s no agenda, no one’s selling anything.
19:04 I was going to say – and non-judgmental.
19:07 We are what we are and that’s it. There’s still resistance. There’s still a wider resistance from, from more conventional farmers that this is, this is an airy-fairy thing that’s never going to take off.
19:21 I think people need to come at their own, or come to it, their own way.
19:25 Yes. I think you’re right. I think you can’t go to them and say, “look, you must do this”. You have to want it yourself. And whether you come at it from the fact that fertiliser’s too expensive and you don’t bloody want it, whether it comes that you’ve got no money and you, you physically can’t buy the stuff, you’ve just got to use what you’ve got… or where you come from matters not.
19:42 What is the hook? I constantly puzzle over this,like, what is, what is the hook to bring people in, to reel them in? Because when I went to the monitor farm walk, that first meeting, and I sort of said the word “regenerative” a few times, I just got a lot of eyebrow raising, eye rolling, kind of sideways smirking-at-your-pals kind of thing. And it’s like, it was really good to step outside of my agroecological bubble and like regenerative echo chamber. But it was, it was also quite hard work.
20:14 And, and it just really made me think, “How on earth do we make this more, maybe not mainstream, but just encourage more involvement?”. Like you were saying, John, it’s like everyone’s got to come to it in their own way. Is it just about reducing inputs? Is it the cost side of it, or is it something else? I don’t know, I’m still puzzling over that one.
20:32 Well, I think it’s everything, it’s everything. And until that light switches on, will policy force us down this route?
20:41 But I’m quite anti being forced to do anything. Folk have been trying to force me to do things for 50 years, and it’s not been happening, and it’s not going to happen now. There’s a cultural thing. There’s a wider thing in that, that farmers, maybe particularly in the UK, have been in a fortunate position – until quite recently, we were able to stand on our own two feet, independently.
21:05 Whereas maybe France’s social structure’s entirely different, so they were better integrated. But that has led us to an isolated point where we don’t know who we’re selling to, they don’t know who produces the damn food. And we’ve got to sort of come together, and maybe through that, maybe through consumers asking how their food’s produced, maybe, maybe some folk have to stop and go “Ah, you know what, maybe I need to do that”.
21:38 There’s definitely been some wobbles. It’s not easy taking that jump, which is why I say you have to want to do it, or you’re not gonna do it – ‘cause make no mistake, it is a jump. It’s a completely different way of thinking from how I learnt.
21:54 But I also find that being relatively new to farming, I find it really reassuring, ‘cause I don’t know everything. I’m never going to know everything. But if you make a mistake, nature will fix it for you. You’ll be able to tell there’s a problem, but she has a fix for it. In a few months, you’ll hardly be able to see it, and you can just go back and you do something different next time. I don’t feel like I need to know everything because if you look and if you observe there are like hints and tips everywhere, when things are right.
22:23 Healthier soil equals healthier plants equals healthy animals equals healthier humans.
It all links in.
22:29 Yep. Absolutely. What would you say then to other farmers who might be listening about getting involved with some kind of peer learning or support group like this?
22:40 Do it. There are loads of groups around the country. Farming this way is amazing. It’s the best thing.
22:49 Thank you so much to Heather, John and Abi for sharing their experiences, and to the wonderful Stove in Dumfries for providing a space to record. To learn more about the Agroecology: Enabling the Transition project, visit nourishscotland.org/agroecology-enabling-the-transition/ Or if you visit nourishscotland.org, you can find it under “projects”.
23:15 This episode was produced by me, Katie Revell. Thanks as ever to the rest of the Farmerama team: Abby Rose, Olivia Oldham, Jo Barratt, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Dora Taylor. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt.
23:31 If you’d like to support what we do, don’t forget to check out our Patreon at patreon.com/farmerama