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Crofting Agriculture
Chapter VI. Planning for the Spring Work


These tiny hand-turned patches of peaty soil among the rocks are growing a crop of the bristle-pointed oat, Avena strigosa, which is a different species from that commonly grown in British agriculture. Townships like this one are the last places where Avena strigosa is now grown. Crofting on this level cannot provide an agricultural livelihood in this age. Fishing and possibly some weaving or knitting must provide the supplementary income to buy the things needed from the outside world. Apart from the introduction of the potato in 1753, this type of husbandry shows no agricultural advance on that of a thousand years ago. The application of lime and phosphates and putting up fences would allow of a more varied husbandry, which would result in a more varied diet which adds to the interest of living. In suggesting possible improvements in husbandry, one does not wish to question the content or disturb the life which may be happy here.

32. Choosing our Crops

As winter draws on, seed catalogues begin to appear. These are good reading for the dark nights if we are working out the possible cropping of our ground at the same time. Otherwise they are rather dull. In this and the few following sections I shall talk about growing root crops and green forage for the cows in winter. It seems to me that our hopes of prospering in the crofting life do not lie in keeping a few more sheep and putting a heavier drain on our inbye land by letting the ewes and lambs graze it late into the spring, but in excluding the sheep from the parks after February—even if it means keeping fewer—and putting our energies into growing a good crop of cow feed.

I have already dealt with growing good grass, which we should look upon as our main arable crop and the maintenance ration of our cattle stock. You may ask why I have not said something about the oat crop. Well, I will say something, though it will be rather revolutionary, and will apply to those areas where threshing of the corn does not take place. Oats were a necessary crop in the West Highlands while the people were dependent on threshing and grinding their own oats for meal, but we know now that very little meal is milled in the West from oats grown on this side of the country. The oat crop is purely stock feed and in most districts the sheaves are fed to the cattle unthreshed. The loss of food value is very great, for many oats are shed, and many more pass right through the cattle without being digested. Waste in the oat crop can be avoided only by threshing and crushing the grain.

There is this point too : in our windy, rainy climate an oat crop has to be thin and short—and practically unprofitable—if it is to stand up until harvest time. This usually means a rather dirty crop as well and one which is misery to cut, tie and stook. A really good and thick crop of oats commonly goes down, and there is another spell of misery in cutting and tying. I need not dwell on the hazards of harvesting a corn crop in the West for we are too acutely conscious of them. No, I am coming more and more to the conclusion that if we can get our arable inbye land into good heart we should not bother overmuch about corn, but should concentrate on growing a June crop of hay which will keep the cattle quieter in the byre than sheaves, and a selection of juicy root and green crops which will last through till the end of April. There will then be no more cases of cows getting stomach-fast in the spring through having to subsist on poor hay and straw with only a few potatoes for juiciness.

I said a selection of roots : there is no need to stick to green turnips, which are not much good after the new year, or to swedes which are rather a chancy crop. There are carrots, mangolds, curly kale, blue cabbage, savoys and drumhead cabbage, all of which are excellent cow feed, and are in effect dilute concentrates.

Whether we can do much planning of spring crops depends on our system of tenure. If we have fenced crofts we can please ourselves, but if the crofts are open and there is a local custom which allows the sheep to graze over them in winter, it is not possible to grow winter crops and follow a rotation. Any progress in husbandry is halted. The style of running the township and the enclosure of crofts is a subject which crofters will have to discuss in detail some day, for archaic systems need adaptation in order to meet new situations. There is nothing derogatory in the notion of change if it is well considered.

33. Turnips, Swedes and Curly Kale

I have visited many crofts on which turnips are not being grown at all. "Why?" I would ask. "Too much trouble altogether for the crop we get off," "Lose them every time from finger and toe," "Too much of a chance," are examples of the answers I have been given. They are sound enough reasons as far as they go, but perhaps they do not indicate much effort to get on top of the problem. The root of the matter is that we cannot expect turnips or any other green crop to grow on land that is worked out and deficient in lime and phosphates. Once more I am back on this old trouble, harping again on the need for using some of the shell-sand which we have on numerous beaches on the Outer Isles and between Cantyre and Gape Wrath.

As far as turnips are concerned, the most readily available form of phosphate would be the best, and that is the triple superphosphate which can now be had in limited quantities. A dressing of 1 to 2 cwt. to the acre just before sowing would make all the difference to the crop. Not only would it help the size of the roots, but it would make them healthier to withstand finger-and-toe. This disease is most obvious in lime-deficient soils, but some strains of turnips are more resistant than others. The Bruce purple-top, for example, is highly resistant in a very lime-deficient soil. This variety deserves to be better known in the West. There is also the Wallace green-top turnip, and a highly resistant swede is the Danish variety known as Wilhelmsburger. Turnips, of course, need muck and plenty of it, though the West-coast practice of sowing them on newly turned lea is a good one if the ploughing has been a first-class job. Otherwise the hoeing will beat you.

Swedes are even more dependent on phosphates for satisfactory growth than turnips. Where the land is in good heart, swedes should be preferred to turnips on a West Highland croft. They grow a bigger crop, contain more nutrients, are sweeter and last longer into the spring than turnips. Also, a swede is a grand thing on your own table, boiled and mashed, and with butter, pepper and salt. But they will not put up with such late sowing as turnips.

Preparing a tilth for the root crop, carting out the manure and sowing the seed make for concentrated work just at the time one has to be at the peats. My own practice has been to spread the work of the root crop throughout the months of April and May in order that I should have time for other things. This has been made possible by using several kinds of plants. First, curly kale ; I sow the seeds in September in a bit of shelter from the wind and transplant in early April on to well-mucked, well-firmed ground. This heavy-yielding green crop stands up to autumn and winter gales where flat-leaved kales would be withered. A crop of leaves is ready to break off for use from August on to November. The stems and crowns of the plants should be left intact. They will sprout again in spring and give a wealth of green food in April and May when we are so short of grass. It is not much good sowing the curly kale in spring for a crop that year. The stalk is too spindly, the crop not big enough, and it does not sprout so strongly again in spring. And let me repeat, if you want bulk in the crop you must do it well and have the soil well balanced.

34. Carrots

Continuing the idea I have put forward of spreading the work of the root sowing time which so often coincides with that other necessary job of cutting peats, I suggest that carrots should have a place in the root break wherever they can be grown without the probability of their being attacked by the fly. The advantages of growing some carrots as stock feed in a crofting husbandry are as follows:

1. They are sown earlier than other root vegetables, that is, at the end of March or during the first week in April; but if one does get a bit behindhand, they can still be sown up to the end of April. I usually sow my carrot seed between 1st and 10th April.

2. The ground, though it must be deeply worked and in first-class heart, is very easily prepared for carrots, because there should be no manuring with farmyard manure for this crop. Suppose you have a bit of ground that was heavily manured for potatoes: if it is not too stony it will do well for carrots in the following year. Digging the potato crop will have in effect given the soil an autumn digging and the potatoes should have helped to clean it. In March, then, all that that ground needs is digging over and harrowing down to a fine tilth. It should then be firmed by rolling or treading along the rows where the seed is to be sown. I sow my carrots in drills 15 inches apart, making the drills with a bit of stick drawn along a line. The seed should be sown thinly with the thumb and forefinger, then the drill is lightly covered with the back of the hand or a bit of slate and well trodden with your right foot as you go along the row. About 5 lb. of seed to the acre are required.

Field carrots are usually of the white variety and can be heavy yielders, but I never grow that kind as half the beauty of the crop would seem to be lost. I prefer James's Intermediate, and I can think of no part of the West Highlands where another variety would be preferable to this excellent kind. There is also no difficulty in getting seed.

3. Carrots give you a bonus or dividend during their growing period. Singling begins during the second week in June, at which time plants should be thinned to 1 inch apart. If carrot fly is in the neighbourhood the ground should be well firmed round the remaining plants after singling. Incidentally, the fly is less troublesome in windy situations than in sheltered glens. A second singling can be made from July on into August. This time the carrots are of nice size and most acceptable on one's own table, or they can be sold very readily at a good price—say 2d. to 3d. per lb. The final singling should leave the plants 2 to 3 inches apart. The crop should be carefully cleaned while the tops make it still possible.

4. I have found carrots growing under island conditions to give me a heavier weight of roots per acre than either turnips or swedes. After all, the rows are much nearer together and so are the plants. Last year's crop yielded at the rate of 30 tons to the acre, and I think this year's will be almost as good. This is about twice the yield of field carrots grown on a commercial scale.


If they can be adequately fenced, crofts like these can be among the most desirable on the West Coast. These pockets of soil among the rocks can be raised to a very high level of fertility, and the nearness to the sea makes for earliness and a plentiful supply of seaware—and in this place, shell sand. Two acres here could grow as much as four in many a croft farther inland. The crofts must be fenced, however, if they are to be worked on a rotation which will enable winter feeding crops to be grown. This ground would grow early potatoes.

5. Carrots contain 13 per cent. of dry matter compared with 10.5 per cent. in turnips and 11.5 per cent. in swedes. Therefore, even rather a lesser crop of carrots than of turnips, weight for weight, will still give as much value in feeding power. The carrot contains a valuable substance called carotene which is a constituent of young grass and the forerunner of Vitamin A. Carotene in the cow's body helps to maintain the yellow colour of the butter-fat.

6. Carrots keep well. In our West Highland climate I leave my crop in the ground all the winter, digging it as I need it for both ourselves and the cattle. There is no better root feed for cows in those hard days of March and April and the cows are particularly fond of '' carrots.

35. Mangolds

There is too much of a tendency for people to think inflexibly of north and south in relation to where crops can be grown. In many ways it would be more sensible to think in terms of east and west : for example, good wheat has been grown in Orkney this year, but none has been or would be grown in Mull, nearly 300 miles farther south ; similarly, given equal fertility of the soil, a field of rotation grass in Mull would be easier established and would give a bigger crop than in East Anglia 300 miles south again.

The mangold has been considered in that rule of thumb fashion—that it does well in England on good land and is not suited to northern upland conditions. But let us think what the mangold is, what its limitations are and what our West Highland climate has to offer. The mangold is descended from the wild sea-beet, a plant of the seashore. Our crofts are nearly all near the sea and many of them almost at sea level, and little troubled by frost. In England mangolds have to be lifted early to prevent frost catching them while still on the ground or newly pulled. We have the advantage then, on this point. I have left some of my mangolds out as an experiment and find that while still growing in winter time, they will stand 10 F. of frost.

These valuable roots grow to much larger size than turnips or swedes and contain a higher percentage of dry matter—12.5 per cent., of which a goodly portion is sugar. They are not ripe before the New Year and should not be fed until then. In our West Highland climate the crop need not be lifted before the end of November or early December anyway. Mangolds are a long-keeping root, so (always assuming you have enough of them) they can be fed to the cows as late as May. Being almost devoid of carotene, the butter of cows fed on them is very white, but if you have grown carrots as well, a mixture of the two roots makes excellent cow feed.

Mangolds cannot stand starvation. If they are to be a profitable crop they must be well done, and for that reason I recommend them only to those crofters who have ground of fair depth in good heart and who can give a good dressing of seaweed or dung. That is another point; as the plant is descended from the sea-beet, it responds excellently to seaweed and it likes a fair amount of salt. My own practice is to make a compost of seaweed and farmyard manure.

Heavy crops repay good care : the manure should be spread in early March and ploughed in. Sowing should take place at the end of April or in the first week of May. Mangold seed is like beet seed, and if you have no seed drill, the seeds should be sown by hand in shallow drills on the flat, about an inch between each seed. Because I have no horse labour, I make my rows only 2 feet apart or even 21 inches. The seed has a hard outer coat, so it helps germination to soak it in water twenty-four hours before sowing.

The young plants when established withstand drought very much better than turnips and they do not suffer from diseases such as finger-and-toe. The plants should be singled to 10 inches and the ground kept very clean.

A very light sprinkling of nitro-chalk along the rows would be a helpful top dressing at this time. Too heavy manuring with nitrogen will make the plants bolt, and that means lower yield and poorer keeping quality.

Mangolds need care at lifting : a good inch of top should be left on them and the roots should not be tailed at all or they will bleed and that will hasten decay. Do not follow the lazy man's way with turnips, of loading them into the cart with a fork. Make the clamp frost-proof. The tops can be fed to the cows.

I have now tried four varieties of mangolds— mammoth longs, red intermediates, and yellow and orange globes, and have found by far the best variety for our climate is the red intermediate. This yielded at the rate of 45 tons per acre in 1942 (the pity was I had only a quarter acre !) and will give me about 35 tons per acre this year.

To sum up this plan for the root break: you can arrange for the root sowings to be spread over six weeks in the spring with the consequent singlings spread out as well. You get a variety of crops which can be fed from September to the middle of May and will keep an autumn-calved cow in milk throughout the winter season.

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