Foraging in Finland

So… just as our latest project got to a critical point (more on that in a future post), I dropped everything to go a remote area of Finland for four days. 

Why on earth?! I asked myself the same question but, in short, it was too fantastic an opportunity to turn down and I had made the commitment back in March when I signed up to Forth Valley and Lomond Leader Wild Wonder’s Foraging Course. Since March I have been meeting with a diverse group of incredibly interesting (and rather lovely) folk once a month to learn about sustainable foraging in Scotland. 

 It’s been a revelation to learn about the wonderful wild foods that are growing in our woodlands, hedgerows, hills and coastal areas and experience the incredible flavours and health benefits they bestow. As if that wasn’t enough, at every meeting up, each participant brings along a food or drinks contribution towards lunch. I’ve been struggling to expand my vocabulary to describe new and delicious tastes. In Spring, fermented wild garlic was to die for, crunchy succulent Sea kale early summer felt like a healthy treat – so much more exciting that the kale from our field – which is also pretty good! Finally, the blaeberry cream cheese tart is something that will be an annual mid-summer commitment from now on.  

The course has been led by Mark Williams (gallowaywildfoods.com). A guy who knows a hell of a lot, has even more patience and knows how to share his knowledge. However, it was fair to say that everyone was excited about going to Finland, including Mark, particularly because it offered the possibility of finding mushrooms that he’d not come across before.  

The Event was part of a wider “Wild Wonders” project, with partners in Latvia, Lithuania and Finland. Our Scottish group travelled to Illomansti, in North Karelia, a remote region close to the Russian border, heavily forested and sparsely populated. The reason for our visit was to attend the Wild Food Festival in lllomansi to help us prepare for the first Scottish Wild Food Festival this September 14th. However, that was on the Saturday and we arrived Wednesday evening in time to be treated to a welcoming buffet in a huge “wood cabin” restaurant and the warmth and hospitality of the people of Karelia.

This welcome continued for the next four days wherever we went and will be a lasting memory of Finland. It went hand in hand with The Finn’s respect and knowledge of their “wild food”, so much so that it is enshrined in law that it is everyman’s right to gather it, regardless of the landowner. In good years Finnish Households pick 50 million kilos of wild berries in addition to another 20 million which are picked on a commercial basis. 

 The next few days proved to be a blur of activity, working together to prepare a 3 course foraged meal.. and then sit down together to share it, an icy swim in a lake and the sound of chainsaws in the morning as the international Bear Carving Championships got underway in the car park to our hotel!

What had the biggest impact? Its hard to say, the openness of the forests and the joy of walking through them perhaps, or how they were carpeted with berries packed with wonderful health-giving properties. So many types of berry; blaeberry, lingonberry, cloudberry, crowberry to name a few. The bog whortleberry got my vote for most delicious straight from the bush.

I fell in love with the silver birch and the tall shimmering aspen and have returned with a commitment to plant even more trees at Achray Farm and to off set the carbon footprint of my flight to Finland by planting more elsewhere.

At the Wild Food Festival, l I talked to a stall holder representing a charity supporting families. She was a dietitian and part of her role involved encouraging families to forage and rediscover the health benefits of berries and mushrooms. How fantastic is that?

One government research and development organisation, LUKE (Natural Resources Institute Finland) gave a fascinating presentation regarding the social and economic significance of wild forest products. Amongst other things they have mapped the areas that are concentrated with wild foods such as the Finnish blueberry and produced an app to assist people to find them.  They are also committed to supporting private forest owners (of which there are many in Finland – 600,000 owning 14 million hectares of forest) to improve the economic benefits of sustainable forest foods with harvests such as mushrooms, herbs and sap. As much as half of this produce goes for export. In addition, Resin production from spruce can be harvested for wound infection treatment for use in pharmaceuticals. 

For me, perhaps one of the most pertinent take home messages from the trip came from a couple of small farms we visited. They have diversified what they do in order to retain a strong commitment to looking after the biodiversity of the place they live. It was a joy to find small Finnish sheep in the forest, delightfully friendly and who accompanied us on the remainder of our walk. This was part of the commitment to Agroforestry that both farms we visited had taken. Agroforestry is happening over here – the Woodland Trust in Glen Finglas for example, but there could be so much more.  Finally, and unexpectedly, the trip renewed my batteries at a point when unexpected life events, the complexity of regulations and making them work for small-scale sustainable farming, were at risk of defeating me. Having come to farming late in life and continuing to feel an amateur I was able to add two more strong female role models working in sustainable agriculture to the small but growing number of Scottish ones I know.

Transformation of The Old Farmhouse

We never really own a property, especially an old one. We are just the latest custodians in a long line of influencers and makers able put our mark on a house, flat or farm.

Availability for Farm Stay Accommodation

The Old Farmhouse is now listed on AirBnB, please get in touch with us if any dates are not listed.

History

In the UK we have a lot of valuable history archives available including photography, old mapping and census details. From these we know the buildings here have undergone continual evolution as the needs of the land and community have changed.  Our oldest photographic record doesn’t even show the current “Old Farmhouse” dated late 1800s.

Of course the most immediate story is that of the past residents and locals. In living memory the farm was managed without a running water supply. Electricity came in the 1970s and mains water only in the late 1990s. We still don’t have hardwired broadband of course!

Images below show the layout before the farmhouse was established (taken from South at Creag Dubh) and from the North West field (before the late C20 extension).

Best Laid Plans

With planning consent granted in February 2018 work began on the Farmhouse, starting with biomass heating (inadvertently cutting our remaining LPG gas supply in the process) and then reconfiguring the southern extensions. 20 years ago these were corrugated lean-tos and latterly a western porch, utility space and bathroom to the east.  In order to make the Old Farmhouse entrance distinct it all had to move. First the “pork shed” and store were demolished to expose the Eastern gable again and then new lintols, floor and insulation went in to meet modern building standards. Discovering a brick wall enabled a feature to be made in the kitchen and where possible the existing fittings were retained throughout.

The Old Farmhouse

The slideshows and image comparisons below show where most of the work was targeted in the Southern reconfiguration.

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Squeezing in the upstairs bathroom was a challenge, but with some ingenuity and a skilled workforce at hand we moved doors, electrics and radiators, routed drainage and water and brought in new light.

Other rooms mostly just required a lot of paint.

The Team

Finally, a mention to all who have helped us; Jim on overall build, T on additional woodwork, Gus on electrics, Jamie on stone and slateworks, Stephen on lintols and stone, JTM (Jon, Nick, Welsh and many more) on plumbing, Kevin on tiling, Energy Source Dave and Mike for renewables and Charlie for manual labour.

Architecture was master-planned by Alasdair at Studio Baird with building control through Claire at T Square with Jamie at J O Design for structural engineering.

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The Farmhouse will evolve again in the future, we hope this record of our short influence will provide interest and help to those who come after us.

Energy Sources

One of our aims for Achray Farm was to create a regenerative environment.  This tenet is not only in what we produce (see Blog from April 2018), but also in how we operate on our triple-bottom line of Financial, Social and Environmental impact.

One of the biggest environmental aspects outwith our direct control is the power and heat used to supply the domestic residential, guest accommodation and operations on the farm.  Although we currently utilise a “green” tariff with our energy supplier we knew there was more potential and opportunity with the space and environment to do more.

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In late 2017 we began investigation into integrating a local district heating system for the buildings under current (and future) development and solar to use our own power on-demand and supply a little back to the grid.  Although we considered geothermal, the risks of shallow arrays in our stony glacial till and the costs of deep bores brought us to more conventional solar and biomass combination.

Solar

Solar power in Scotland? That sounds like growing grapes and sweetcorn here but there are now large-scale subsidy-free commercial developments and panels that work well under a range of conditions, including direct sunlight (and there are even sweetcorn and grapes growing in Scotland now as well!).

Even with these, typically East coast, developments The Trossachs is not seen as a primary or high solar gain area.  However, being able to optimise a ground-mounted  array with unrestricted orientation and alignment, when the sums were presented the long-term financial balance along with the improved environmental impact of the farm as a whole allowed us to progress.

As it turns out, 2018 has been a phenomenally sunny year since May, making up for the long cold winter.  We passed our first tree saved, have hit a couple of 30KWh days and even reached 1MWh in less than 2 months.  Some modern offshore wind turbines can generate a MWh in around 10 minutes under good conditions, but I am very pleased by our performance from late April to June.

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immersun2_controller_make_greenWe have also installed an ImmerSun immersion control to maintain our hot water tank temperatures by scheduling hot water during the day to use our own power first before the biomass system needs to fire up.

 

Biomass

Our biggest investment, and biggest capacity to control our impact and energy security is the biomass infrastructure.  There is a lot of discussion in relation to biomass as an environmental level, but living in Scotland, surrounded by commercial forestry that creates local by-products and sourcing local suppliers.

Now, after construction of a new building, built to fit into the listed building environment, hand digging deep trenches, the installation of  a new boiler and accumulator with enough pipework to make an almost sculptural engineering work of art contorted into the space.  All this is supplied by a 9-ton pellet store and automated auger feeder. When filled up in the autumn (no seasonal price differences in pellet supply) this should be able to readily last us through the winter and icy/snowy forest roads that can prevent heavy deliveries for months at a time.

Pellet supply from BD Supplies was efficient with advice and a clean delivery, weighed to the Kg.

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Our main energy contract suppliers, Mike and Dave from Energy Source (UK) have throughout been professional, friendly and flexible in designing, installing and commissioning our solution.

Heavy Plant and Little Plants

This winter we have been working through our online Making Small Farms Work course run by Richard Perkins at Ridgedale in Sweeden.  One of the critical tasks that came out of our early design work was to assess the farm according to Scales of Permanence.

PA Yeomans‘ work both helps us to understand what can be changed and what can be done.  The Scale shows that at the top overall climate cannot be adapted, but at the other end soil is highly adaptable to change over a short time period.  This is great news for the damaged and disadvantaged land that we now curate.

Knowing that soil health can be changed then leads to how?  Again Yeomans work in Keyline design provided the backbone for our development.  Although founded in more arid areas, the principles of spreading water across the land applied to our wetter environment well.  Following topographic surveys and landform pattern identification we set-out a series of “keylines” to be subsoiled.  Heavy and intensive machinery usage is not part of our regenerative plan, but as a one-off catalyst is a good investment.  The Tayforth Machinery Ring provided the tractor, driver, subsoiler and we took the opportunity to follow-up with a power harrow to define the tree lanes for the silvopasture planting pattern to follow.

Coincidentally it was the same day that the Machinery Ring also supplied the heavy lifter to allow us to relocate the portacabin.  Previously a bakery and latterly a store the building is a great size for some of our future plans and so reusing the block by recycling the location was ideal.  A stable block, aptly blocking the way was removed prior to the JCB arrival and despite being at the very edge of lifting capacity the modular building (which may or may not be a Portakabin, but sure looks like one to the layperson) was lifted and dragged nestling into it’s new home creating new space and light.

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Now we are another couple of steps closer to our vision and future blogs will introduce the planting patterns and development of energy sources on the farm…

Edit 8/June/2018 – clarification that our “portacabin” referred to in the original text is a modular building, courtesy of the Intellectual Property Manager at Portakabin®.

Fencin’ & Hedgin’

Achray Farm is pretty small as smallholdings go, so we want to maximise our use of the land as well as the location and buildings. This means creating a planting plan that will return high-quality, low-input produce that is suitable for our soil and climate.  More on that detail in a future post.

Firstly though, the local environment has plenty of challenges to new planting and in particular deer.  So this March, before planting could begin and risk being chomped, was to deer-proof fence the farm perimeter.

The existing stock-fence had become so rotten in places that the pigs had taken to simply pushing under and heaving the old posts straight out of the ground.  So once they were grounded in the “naughty field” we could begin several hundred meters of dismantling wire and wood.

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We had considered the line of the new fence at length, as with the public path through the farm track we didn’t want to create “Fortress Achray” with 2m high boundaries encroaching on the public experience.  Fortunately the buildings create a natural division that we could use to secure the Northern proportion of our land and keep a natural feel to the landscape.

Integral to this approach was not just to have a boundary deer fence in isolation, but to use the fenceline as protection for native hedging along the boundary.  To do this we applied for a Loch Lomond & The Trossachs grant under their Natural Environment scheme and were successful in our application.  The program’s support meant the arrival in early April of 1000 bare root hedging plants of hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, guelder rose, dog rose and crab apple.  In addition, 60 native trees have added to the riparian (river boundary) edge to enrich the character and environmental value of this area.

1000 plants is a daunting task and so we enlisted the help of the 30th Glasgow Scout Group.  On a cold and damp 10 March they arrived in force and set to (after a cuppa and a roll) in a veritable planting frenzy.  Sue from the Forestry Commission gave an introduction to the value of trees in the environment and taught us how to dig a T-Cut with a planting spade.

After lunch and warmed hands the team were at it again before a farm tour with egg collecting, goat milking and a walk/run with the goats down to Loch Achray. Everyone appeared to have a great day and all in good causes.

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Thank you again to the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park for their grant assistance and to the Glasgow 30th for literally digging in and getting the job done.  New shoots are showing already as we all take root for the spring.#

UPDATE:

Link to National Park Press Coverage.