From Scratch to Veg Patch

IN

The first time I heard about what Kevin and Heather were planning at Nerabus, we were standing in the courtyard at Bruichladdich, and Kevin, who was on a break from the bottling line, was showing me an app on his phone. Myvegpatch.com enables you to drag and drop colour-coded shapes onto your plot, “So that’s brassicas, 4000 onions, the poly tunnel, that triangle is Dutch turnips for the animals, 30 rows of potato plants…” 

In real life, even for this can-do couple, it wasn’t so easy to bring back to productivity a 2.5 acre field that hadn’t been worked for years. Nerabus had become a dairy farm, its herd supplied the island’s creamery in Port Charlotte before it closed down in 2000. Donald, Heather’s stepdad, had gone away to sea at 16. When his father died, there was no-one to carry it on. “There was no money in farming, just hard work,” said Heather.

One of the first things they had to do was to prise the old plough out of its ornamental role in Heather’s mum’s rockery. “There’s pictures in the house of Clydesdale horses pulling the plough right here in this field, and five men at the harvest,” Heather told me when I first went to visit, just over a year ago. They had the plough hitched up to the tractor again and were elated about how well it was working, although Kevin conceded that it wasn’t the straightest furrow the world had ever seen. He reckoned that in just a few generations, there had been a change from everyone on the island growing their own potatoes to no-one growing them, and a whole sense of Islay had been lost through that, disconnected. 

In classic local style, however, as soon as they started to turn the earth, anyone passing on the road to Portnahaven slowed down; ten men stopped, and offered their advice over the wall. “And suddenly, every man in Islay is a ploughman!” 

The Field April 2019 // May 2020

Much of that neighbourly advice was actually mystification as to why they had wobbled over the field themselves, taking two days, when they could have got a contractor in and seen to it in 45 minutes. My impression was that Kevin and Heather wanted it to be hard work, the harder the better. They were already imagining the harvest, possibly some scything, a hand-harvest, as the spring wheat and oilseed rape areas they had in mind would be too small for a combine harvester. In terms of scale, Kevin remarked, “There isn’t really anything in the middle. They’ve all got heated seats and sub-woofers in their tractors. We are just doing it for ourselves. We’ll remember how hard it was.”  He went on to point out the advantages of getting to know the field, its rocky outcrops and boggy spots, slowing down to constantly check the soil.

“We used to just watch TV all the time, when we got home from work,” starts Kevin, and Heather interrupts, “He gets so angry being inside now.” In Spring 2019, they had recently reassessed their work at the distillery so as to have more time to work on the land, Heather taking a short contract in customer services, and Kevin moving over to the bottling hall from the brand team offices. “We wanted to do this. So we had to make some changes,” said Kevin.

One of their first constructions in 2019 was a shelter from the hail next to the compost bins // In 2020 they have 7 poly-tunnels

Why? What was driving them? Eating well was definitely one factor. Heather had designs on the rapeseed oil already, for mayonnaise, and an Islay mustard, for preservation, and for cooking. There was talk of milling their projected wheat and making home-grown bread, pasta, biscuits. One of the first things to move into the new poly-tunnel was a smoker for the mackerel that can be caught off the rocks there. They realised that the alternative, the weekly shopping which was costing them the lion’s share of their income, wasn’t really bringing them flavour or a sense of reality. Kevin describes it, “All the fresh produce we can get comes from elsewhere. It’s not even in season any more. You just appreciate this tomato so much more.” They wanted to live off the land. “Its really heartbreaking, because you’ve got the soil – the soil we have here in Islay is perfect – but it just going to waste.”  Heather joins in, “That’s one thing everyone has said, the soil looks really good. You’re ploughing’s bad but your soil’s good…”

They set out with organic principles. One of the first things they did, after the ploughing, was organise their compost, distributing wee bins to Bruichladdich distillery canteens for fruit and veg waste and to the mini-market for their coffee grinds. They nabbed an old transi-tank from the distillery and were planning to fill that with seaweed and water so as to have home-made organic liquid fertiliser on tap.  They had been doing their research, “It’s unbelievable, the science that goes into it,” said Heather, going on to talk about agitators and the compost-kick-starting that comes from chicken poo. They were researching “no dig” systems. They’ve got a caravan full of books, Kevin mentions Ridgedale, permaculture, the ideal of a holistic and profitable small scale farm. They have a pet sheep, called Agatha Christie because it’s a mystery where she came from, and one pig. “It’s huge!” says Heather, “See that polytunnel, it’s half the size of that!” Chickens, and eggs, are definitely going to be a part of the mix and help the business case. Before lockdown, last time I saw Kevin in the bottling hall, over the noise of the line, he was telling me earnestly that they were expecting delivery of 350 birds before the end of March. Instead in the lockdown, they are thinking of incubating a smaller quantity themselves. 

Back in 2019, the farming community received their initiative warmly. They mentioned a helpful conversation with Hunter Jackson who grows a malting crop for Islay barley, as he had grown mustard before for green manure. They’d been leant a ridger, received manure, and tools from several local farms, in return for payment in kind with their produce. Kevin spent a formative period in Morocco, and traces his appreciation of the barter system back to then. Donald, Heather’s stepdad, an engineer, is working harder for them when he’s home than he does when he’s offshore, and “loving it” apparently seeing Nerabus come alive again. These members of the younger generation believe in the place, in its soil, in what it once was, and in its potential for the future.

So the question I dared not voice this time last year was, would it last?  Sustaining anything takes a lot of energy and tenacity, and in Islay even ordinary life is a fraction harder than it is elsewhere. The soils might be good, but factor in the weather, and noone would deny that farming on Islay is a good 10 – 20% harder than elsewhere, for considerably lower yields, when it comes to barley anyway. So how would they get on, after the first wave of enthusiasm, after the first harvest?

They’ve modified their plans for the oilseed rape, after discovering that the field was naturally full of charlock, which they didn’t want to spray down. They had a stall at their first farmers’ market in Bowmore at end of September, and have some local customers ordering veg boxes. They supplied the potatoes for our Christmas dinner. This Spring, they’ve quadrupled their poly-tunnel capacity. They’ve used 1500m of white netting instead of spraying their brassicas against flies, and planted 15,000 organic seeds. The furrows in the potato field even look pretty true this year as they stretch down to Loch Indaal, and they’ve occupied a second field, an extra acre, for the main crop of potatoes. That’s the site a little up the hill where, ultimately, they intend to build a house. Once Islay is open again for hospitality, they have a large golf hotel to supply on their books. Originally, they were wanting to invest, not in terms of capital but in terms of energy, and have a homestead, roots, that gave them more of a reason to stay put. And there they still are, digging for victory, at a time when local food is being re-evaluated and the risky choices they made a year ago seem prescient. 

“We’re not proper farmers,” says Heather, who is doing her distillery office job from home at the moment, “but it’s evolving.” Watch this space. My money is on them going all the way. 

Work Bench April 2019 // May 2020

You can follow Kevin and Heather’s progress on instagram @nerabusfarm

Read more about Kevin here https://www.bruichladdich.com/bruichladdich-whisky-news/laddie-people/kevin-johansson-distillery-ambassador-academy-host-since-2016/

And more about Heather here https://www.bruichladdich.com/bruichladdich-whisky-news/laddie-people/heather-leslie-retail-administrator-since-2016/

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