Book Review Our Wild Farming Life: Adventures on a Scottish Highland Croft, Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer, Chelsea Green Publishers, February 2022. 212 pages plus 8 pages of color photos, $19.95.
This is the inspiring and uplifting tale of two determined, thoughtful women who took ownership and stewardship of a croft, a 150-acre parcel of Scottish land that most people would consider hopeless, and restored it to life as a small farm in harmony with nature. I loved this book partly for the details about their farming life, but even more, I appreciated their openness about the challenges and dilemmas they faced. Many of these will have been experienced by other farmers too. Their story has been featured on BBC2’s series This Farming Life. This is a passionate, honest, pragmatic account of careful decision-making combined with hard work and integration into the local community.
Lynn and Sandra met in 2012 while working as rangers for the National Trust. Soon the two realized how strongly they were drawn to each other. They shared a dream of growing their own food, heating their winters with firewood they gathered and cut, and learning from the land around them. Pragmatically, they acknowledged that bills would have to be paid, imagining operating a small campground. Full-time farming was not on their radar, despite their attention to planning.
Sandra and Lynn weren’t earning much money and didn’t have a lot of savings. Sandra was drawn to Scotland, and so they went camping in the Cairngorms National Park, three hours north of Edinburgh and Glasgow to look for land. The two “must-haves” on their list were: must be in Scotland; must have at least 5 acres of land. Even a house was not on that list: they were willing to live in a caravan (trailer) to start with. After a dinner of canned haggis, they found a spot with an incredible vista. Lynn said: “Imagine living here. Imagine if that was your view.” Neither knew that their future home was just two miles behind them!
Sandra got a ranger job in Scotland, to further their land search. Lynn found tree-planting work and lodging a few hours away, enabling them to spend weekends together. Every evening was spent working down lists of available property. Sandra found an enticing property – a small traditional farming homestead set in beautiful scenery. It was way over their budget, but they became obsessed with this impossible dream.
Several months later they had a weekend of land visits, and realized they would be driving “right past” their secret crush, Lynbreck Croft. They booked a viewing, and fell in love with the place. How could they ever raise the money? Moving there to live would involve leaving their jobs, nullifying any chance of a mortgage or bank loan. Lynn had some trepidation and fear about leaving friends, family, and career.
One close friend questioned them on how sure they were about what they were doing, and then offered to lend them the money to make up the shortfall. What good fortune! What a good friend! In March 2016, four years after they met each other, they were locating the key to their cabin under a rock and moving in.
Crofts are small Scottish farmsteads, usually mixed arable and grazing, providing a subsistence level of food, water and heating, in cooperation with the local crofting community. The 1886 Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act ensures security of tenure, provided crofters paid their rents and kept the land in working order. In 1976, the Act was reformed, allowing crofters to buy their land. Crofting law is complex, and usually banks will not provide mortgages or loans on crofts. It is a real challenge to make crofting profitable. It requires both traditional knowledge and a willingness to embrace modern technology.
The area had relatively recently become a National Park. (National Parks in the UK are individually run by government-funded bodies, but the land continues to be owned and farmed as before).
Two old buildings stood on the homestead when they moved in, and they opted to live in the 3-bedroom wooden cabin. The old croft house, dating from 1852, had been gutted for a renovation that never happened. Winters used to be more severe, with snow anytime from October to May, sometimes with drifts over 30 feet deep.
Sandra and Lynn developed a huge respect for the crofting community, and wondered how well they could carry the responsibility, and how welcome they would be in the local community, where residents are being squeezed out by vacationers. They never hid the fact that they are a couple, but never felt any discrimination or awkwardness. When their neighbors learned that they wanted to work the land, they welcomed them warmly.
In their early days they did feel a bit lost, as it dawned on them what a massive amount of work they had taken on. They started with the trees around the cabin, tending saplings, pulling competing grasses, installing tree guards. Their past work with trees gave them confidence and familiarity. Next they started their no-dig (no-till) permaculture kitchen garden, using the flat south-facing area in front of the cabin. They installed a rabbit-proof fence and made five raised beds, bringing in soil from many mole hills. A neighbor who saw their efforts donated a tractor bucket-load of manure.
They also made a start on felling and cutting firewood for the winter, and a daily rhythm developed. They needed outside jobs for money to live on. Lynn worked four days a week in Inverness, 50 minutes away. Sandra got a part-time job cutting riverside weeds to improve access for fishers. Most new farmers face similar issues: keeping a flow of money coming in, while building up the farm.
The authors chronicle their misfortunes candidly, such as the time they tried to sterilize their well and then spent several months using bottled water until the well recovered from their ministrations. They likewise do not pretend they can go it alone. Gratitude to neighbors lifts them up. They receive gifts of an old barrel, a tractor-bucket of peat fuel for their stove, and even a heifer.
The authors have the goal of working the land to provide food for themselves and the local community, while ensuring natural diversity thrives. They don’t seek to recreate past harsh conditions. They want a warm house, electricity, speedy internet, and a reliable car.
UK agriculture is heavily subsidized, and they decided to see what funding they were entitled to. For a coherent 5-year plan they could get a Young Farmer’s Start-Up Grant of €70,000, of which 90% would be paid upfront! They struggled with “Imposter Syndrome”: feelings of chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that persist despite proof of success. They struggled to define their plans precisely enough for this competitive grant. It became clear their margins would be very tight, and they would be working hard. They made the deadline, and then continued their day jobs and farming, not really expecting to get the grant. One year after they moved to Lynbreck, they received a letter saying the money was on its way!
Lynbreck is on the leeward edge of the Cairngorm Mountains, in mixed grassland, woodland, heather and bog. The three main fields are separated (or joined!) by a band of woodland. They hired an ecologist to make a baseline vegetation survey. She found 148 species of trees, shrubs, grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, mosses and wildflowers, and provided some recommendations on maintaining and improving diversity. She also shared insight into previous uses of the land.
Lynbreck includes 38 acres of bog to the south of the homestead: tussocks of purple moor-grass, pillows of sphagnum moss and bog pools. The largest vegetation area is dry heath, mostly heather-clad hills on the north with small clusters of trees. There is a row of eight grouse butts, stone-lined excavations made for hunters to lurk to shoot grouse. They also discovered prehistoric piles of rocks from field clearance. The landscape was once a mosaic of young trees, older trees and open spaces, not continuous forest as some imagine.
By their first autumn the new farmers had a good understanding of the land. They had observed that for trees to flourish they would need to fence out the foragers. They contacted various bodies for advice and funds for tree planting. They claimed “carbon funding” to bridge the gap. This is a way of trading future carbon sequestration to companies seeking ways to offset their carbon emissions, and make them carbon neutral. In other words, get paid to plant trees.
Despite their worries about repaying the funds if they hit a disaster, they installed a large deer fence and planted of 17,400 trees. Yes, just the two of them. Yes, while working outside jobs to provide money to live on. They had to clear 17,400 spots to plant in, in two months, an average of 290 spots each day, so the trees would get a good start. In mid-February were ready to take delivery of their tiny trees. They planted dawn to dusk at a rate of almost 580 trees a day. In snow, wind, rain, icy blasts, and also sunshine they persevered, eating their lunch of oatcakes and tea out in the future woodland. This huge task took them over the brink of exhaustion, and also gave them enormous satisfaction.
This story delves into many of the issues new farmers face: uncertainties, confusions, dilemmas; accepting government financing along with regulations and inspections. “Farming subsidies don’t exist to prop up a farmer, they exist to subsidize the true cost of producing food to make it cheaper for all of us.” The pressure to make the land as agriculturally productive as possible leads to spending large amounts of money on inputs. Without farm subsidies, no-one could afford to pay the actual cost of the food. Really, farming is being done at a loss by many farmers, trapped in a dependency on subsidies.
They sought more like-minded farmers. Initially they felt kinship with the Rewilding movement, but over time that kinship dwindled. Some Rewilding practitioners see the needs of nature opposed to the needs of people. Some of the wild animals they would like to reintroduce pose a very real threat to the needs of farmers to keep their livestock safe, and their habitats in balance. It is easy for farmers and rewilders to become entrenched in polarized views.
The Regenerative Agriculture movement was taking off with a passion. Lynn and Sandra watched videos by Richard Perkins, listened to Allan Savory on holistic management, and Christine Jones on soil biology. Integrating animals into farming is vital as part of biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture was the closest fit to what they were doing: farming in a way where the impact of livestock benefits the health of the soil and increases biodiversity and abundance of species above and below the ground. They observed the effects of their methods and made changes when a better idea emerged. Their confidence grew over time, but so did their task lists, and the challenges of time and money!
They were working 16-hour days, earning income four days a week each, expanding their farming business and putting food on their own table. Lynn’s stress levels spiraled. They were paralyzed with fear about giving up their paid jobs in case their dream collapsed, but they were sacrificing the simple pleasures of life that were the reasons they chose this path. They reduced their paid work and accepted tighter finances, regaining some time.
After getting hens early on, they next bought three young Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, a rare breed well-suited to the crofting life. Lynn and Sandra planned for them to root up a strip of land in small sections for short lengths of time, so the soil would get suitably worked to plant 320 trees next winter. Additionally, of course, the pigs would provide meat to eat and to sell.
The soil-prep aspect went well, but like many new farmers they made the mistake of overfeeding their animals “to be nice to them”, causing their meat to have excess fat. When it came time for the trip to the abattoir, each pig got personally thanked for their past work and their future.as nourishment. The authors did wrestle with guilt and re-examined their meat-selling plan. In spite of good intentions, there is no single food choice made by any living organism that does not impact some other form of life. Plants included.
Next they got six hardy Highland cattle (the short ones with big horns and long shaggy coats), filling an ecological niche: recycling plant material, dunging the soil, creating new habitats. And providing exceptionally high quality beef. The electric fencing and careful planning let the cattle be rotated around their land on a daily basis. This became a short chore, and the farmers were able to learn by observing the condition of the land how to tweak the size of the paddocks. They need no housing, and their lighter weight limits damage to the ground. Sandra studied the work of Temple Grandin on efficient humane livestock handling systems, and built a custom design in their barn, which worked very well.
One of their first calves died out in the field, and this caused anguish, even though they knew “where you have livestock, you have deadstock” (meaning, some deaths you can’t prevent). Over time, the herd got back to its routine, and the farmers back to theirs, with added appreciation of the “magnificent, living, breathing creatures that are strong and resilient and live each moment.”
The value of trees and hedges became obvious in winter, as the cattle shelter among the trees. In the heat of summer, they realized their cattle were stressed in a paddock without shade. After that they planned their cattle moves to provide access to trees all year.
After noticing the cattle browsing on reachable tree leaves and lichen, they decided to make “tree hay” for winter. Willow leaves are used by cattle for self-medication against worms. Lynn and Sandra got grants to plant an edible hedgerow and a stretch of native willows, and planted 5000 trees in their lower field, with necessary fencing. Their plan was to cut some branches every year and dry them for winter forage to supplement bought-in pasture hay. They also dried nettles and docks in bundles, adding to the feed diversity to keep their animals healthy.
Another period of anguish was coming to terms with the need to shoot deer and other wild animals threatening their food supply. Lynn bought a rifle and took lessons, but had a moral tussle when she found three deer inside their (incomplete) fencing. Her brain was saying shoot, but her trigger finger would not comply. She felt sick. She worried about not making a clean kill. She knew she needed to do it, and finally she was able to take a good shot. The dead deer rolled down into the gully, and she set out to find it, wondering if she would be filled with remorse when she saw it. She was not. She talked aloud, thanking the deer and promising to do her best to use its body. This calmed and reassured her, shifting the focus away from her own emotions. She felt pride rather than guilt, that night, after the successful butchering, with nothing going to waste. Rabbit stews followed. Then pork from pigs they had raised – another significant step in their role as stewards of the croft.
Vegetable production was challenging in the limited growing season at their exposed landholding, where growth was three weeks behind the less-elevated town five miles away. They planted a shelterbelt, and made cold frames. Every harvested crop was precious to them. They enlarged the garden with an area of berries undersown with medicinal herbs, and a potato patch to the north of the old house. The yield was so high they sold some alongside their eggs on their roadside stand.
The following year the potato sales covered the cost of all the vegetable seeds, making all their produce feel free. They were now growing 70% of their vegetables. Alongside the eggs and potatoes, they sold their first lot of pork. They wanted a diverse, multi-enterprise business to pay their bills, and a bit for rainy days, but they were not motivated to accumulate extra money. Earning money to live on, not living to earn money.
They had the dilemma of wanting to be home more, but worrying about walking away from a monthly salary. Then Lynn quit her job while Sandra was away visiting her parents. Sandra accepted the news gracefully, without argument. In 30 months they had transformed Lynbreck from a semi-derelict croft to a fully-functional farming business, thanks to immense amounts of hard work, and being careful with their spending.
They started an Egg Club, a subscription egg delivery service, asking a higher price than the supermarkets and other roadside vendors. Some of those vendors were not making any money, just breaking even by selling their hobby surplus at cost price. Another farm dilemma – how to set prices. They decided to only sell locally, telling the story of their farming and the individual animals to every customer. They were only just breaking even and covering the cost of their portion of food. Their time was not covered at all. Nor was depreciation of equipment, or investment in new tools.
The first time they sold pork, they briefly fell into the trap of focusing on the money. They kept back only a few packs of chops and sausages for themselves, before they realized their folly. They decided to be more efficient, not just take on more work. They tried value-added foods, particularly charcuterie. They were able to get a loan. (If the book seems a list of loans and grants, this is because they started with almost no money and no land, and that’s what you have to do.)
Sandra took a course, but suffered the horrible experience of blanking on what to do when faced with a half pig. Lynn, as assistant, could be no help, and felt sick. Happily, Sandra’s automatic pilot kicked in and she did an excellent butchery job. They started a Meat Club, like their Egg Club, delivering a monthly added-value meat parcel. Not every creation was a success, but 94% of the subscribers signed up for a second year. The butchery paid for itself and a little more.
They bought sheep, then regretted it and sold them after a year. Not everything works out. It’s important to be willing to reconsider your decisions. That’s not always easy: “Have we failed? Did we give up too easily?” But you’ll know the feeling of relief when you make the right choice.
Then life got difficult again. Their well was running out of water! A hot dry summer led to a use rate of 300 liters per day, partly thirsty livestock, partly fencing contractors power-washing their equipment, partly garden irrigation. They had not thought of well water as a finite commodity. To add embarrassment and stress, a BBC film crew was filming over their shoulders. Lynn had responded to a search for farmers to be filmed for a slice of life series This Farming Life, and forgot to mention it to Sandra before they were being asked if they’d be willing to be filmed for a trial run, next week.
Their daily chores increased to include carrying buckets of water from the River Spey, buying bottled water to drink, buying a bowser (mobile water tank) and a pump to extract water from a spring to water the cattle, and bathing in the loch each evening. “Water, in both scarcity and abundance, can be the limiting factor of life.” For longer-term solutions, they installed a new well by the spring, and added water-butts to collect rainwater. Parallel with the drying down of their well, their bank account experienced something similar.
While this was going on, they had a night in Glasgow for a BBC Thank You “wrap party”. A fun evening was followed by anticipation of a sleep-in next morning and a sumptuous breakfast. But they woke to a text from the farmer who was taking care of their animals, saying the cows had nudged open the valve on the bowser and lost all the water. So they grabbed some toast and drove home fast.
Their swift rise into public awareness led to involvement in policymaking bodies and political organizations, often receiving awards and accolades. Lynn spent whole days answering emails, showing important people around Lyncroft, or away from home altogether, giving presentations on their farming and crofting.
Meanwhile Sandra was holding down all the farm chores, and both of them were feeling increased stress and exhaustion. They were not living a more relaxed life. Life was moving ever faster. Self-doubt came back. They were responsible for too many spinning plates, which could all come crashing down. Plus, their expertize was not really in policymaking and lobbying. It was in reconnecting people with production of their food. They realized they needed to invest more time in their everyday lives, themselves and each other. They had very little time to observe the vast skyscape, experience the birdlife or enjoy watching wildlife. Lynn reported that when family visited, she’d be rushing around working. Sandra and Lynn’s relationship had become strained as their energy was drained by running the croft and explaining to other people what they were doing.
They didn’t blame anyone but themselves. Now was time to focus on making life personally sustainable. Lynn stepped back from the committees and meetings. They decided to group visitors into either monthly public tours (for a small fee) or private tours for a larger fee.
Lynn gave a talk at a rewilding conference with 500 participants. Someone booed loudly when she said “We have to accept that it’s OK to eat meat.” Lynn carried on with her talk, but was understandably shaken, even though sure of her ground. A survey by the Farm Advisory Service found that Lynbreck, in one year, had sequestered 12 times more CO2 than emitted. At the break the boo-er apologized and said she’d learned a lot by listening to the talk.
The farmers were now making an income from farming and were no longer working outside jobs. They prepared to run a residential course on How to Farm. Then the Covid pandemic hit. Their projected income nose-dived. All events involving people coming to Lynbreck were cancelled, and much money was refunded. Some people left their money with Lynn and Sandra for “next year”. Sales of meat and eggs covered most of their overheads. Produce sales hit the roof. They got a government Covid business support grant to cover lost earnings.
One day a few weeks in, while they sat in the sun drinking tea, they noticed the peace and quiet and realized they had nothing to do except run their farm and live their lives. They could relax into a slower pace of life with no external commitments except weekly deliveries. A useful change of pace, and time to spend together.
They had taken delivery of a Polycrub kit, a super strong hoophouse structure designed on Shetland to withstand 120mph winds. Now they had time to construct it and learn to grow in it. They also had time to do things slowly and enjoyably. Their lives felt more in harmony and balance and they made exciting new plans: fruit trees, hazels for nuts or coppicing, future courses.
After deciding to sell the breeding cows and instead buy in young stock to raise for meat each year, they faced a big decision: what to do with their first cow Ronnie, who was not becoming pregnant. No-one would by an unproductive cow. After some anguish about selling her for meat, they decided to keep her, to lead the new herd each year, and help things run smoothly. Once the decision came to them, they never had a moment’s doubt that it was right. Redefining Ronnie’s role put things in a new light.
Clearly at some point during the Covid pandemic, they wrote this book, and I hope it brings them a steady, if small, income stream. Authors don’t usually get rich writing books, I know.
After five years at Lynbreck they became more settled and felt they were putting down personal, social and environmental roots. It has felt relentless. It took them to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, but they couldn’t stop, because no one else was going to do it for them. The good times could be relentless too. The sunshine, the ripening produce, the satisfaction and contentment, being part of the web of life.
Read more at www.lynbreckcroft.co.uk