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How are the knowledge and information needs of crofters being addressed?

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For a number of years I have been interested in crofting and I recently had the chance to conduct some research on access to knowledge and information by crofters on Lewis, Skye and Harris.  In case you are not familiar with crofting, it is (loosely) a form of small-scale farming system common in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It is of great importance for remote rural Scotland both historically and currently in terms of land use and ownership, as well for maintaining cultural heritage and traditions. Crofting usually occurs on land which is of relatively poor agricultural quality, and is often a supplementary activity (many crofters obtain less than 20% of their income from their crofts). However, crofters and their families represent a tenth of the Highlands and Islands population, and crofting has a key role in ensuring the sustainable development of Scotland’s rural areas. Providing information to crofters is therefore important and I explored this as part of a project called PRO AKIS.

Information and advice to crofters is presently provided by a range of sources including the Scottish Crofting Federation, other rural and farming consultancies such as SAC consultants, and more general business and veterinary advice and commercial feedstuff and machinery companies. In addition great value is placed on local advice from neighbours and other crofters which is often considered to be one of the more easily accessible information sources. Advice is provided on a number of topics including on livestock and crops; running your own business; diversification activities such as renewable energy and tourism ventures; grant applications and legislation.

I found that crofters face a variety of challenges to obtaining and using information. This is partly due to the fact that crofters are a very varied group, and so challenge a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the provision of advice and advisory services. Some run extremely small operations while others have developed substantial holdings by acquiring crofts and amalgamating them. Commercial extension services – that seek to generate income by appealing to farmers’ profit motives – are failing to reach some smaller operations who regard such fees as expenses rather than investments. Other problems include lack of capital funds, lack of profits, remote locations of crofts/nearest advisory service.

In addition there are issues with small-scale crofts and part-time crofters that by themselves are barely self-sufficient or even make a loss. The majority of advisory organisations are geared towards (and have prices that reflect) providing services to profit-making farms and this often makes it difficult for crofters to be able to afford these services. As a result, some crofters that I spoke to do not use these advisory channels at all, but rather opt to procure advice more informally from friends, relatives, and the internet.

However the biggest challenge I found facing crofters relates to legislative and bureaucratic procedures: advisory services spend a lot of their time assisting with this rather than providing practical advice. This is still a useful form of support and the role of the advisory services in this matter arguably deserves more recognition and credit. However many of my interviewees highlighted that the training that is currently available is too basic and that they would appreciate more ongoing training on bureaucratic procedures.

My research has suggested some ideas about how to deal with these challenges. Firstly demonstration helps.  The Scottish Monitor farm scheme has set up crofts and farms in which new technologies and procedures are trialled in an attempt to improve profitability and productivity and increase the knowledge transfer between participating farmers. Some are even purposefully set up on poor quality land to highlight what can be achieved on even in challenging conditions such as is common for crofters. However much of the work of the Monitor Farm Scheme is carried out on farms rather than crofts and there needs to be a greater focus on what can be achieved on much smaller crofts (which often have a much smaller revenue to draw on than farms).

Secondly, different types of information can be provided at events or locations that crofters are already likely to attend, and via training courses (e.g. the Scottish Crofting Federation’s ‘Introduction to Crofting’ course). A major success of such efforts is introducing the new crofters to the key crofting organisation contacts.  Thirdly and most importantly, when advisory organisations travel to local villages to give advice this acts as an advisory clinic but also a social gathering. Such services are well-received because they do not entail extra time or travel commitments, but they are also popular because they connect people with local advice. Many of my interviewees really valued being able to exchange and obtain information with other more experienced local crofters.

I think these three approaches – demonstration, providing multiple types of information at single events, and emphasising local provision of information – are a good basis for improving future information provision to crofters.  I would be interested to know what any readers think: do you agree that these are the main challenges faced by crofters in terms of obtaining advice? What methods and approaches would you suggest to continue to provide advice to crofters in the future?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/segs/researching-information-needs-of-crofters on 26/06/22 12:35:25 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.