The community web of crofting. Organization, government funds, and young people are bringing life to tenant farms

Crofting, a method of small-scale tenant farming - and croft communities in Scotland's Outer Hebrides - are once again at a turning point. There's talk of a future in crofting. In the past, many changes supported the theory that island culture here was dying. This time, however, the future looks brighter. ``There are more young people dedicated to making a go at crofting,'' according to James Hunter, director of the recently formed Scottish Crofters' Union.

Undoubtedly, the main support for this recent rejuvenation has been 60 million (about $105 million) worth of grant-aid in the form of an Integrated Development Program (IDP). This was jointly funded by the European Community (EC), the British government, and crofters involved in the various economic projects.

Nineteen eighty-seven was the last of five years devoted to this pilot project. It was the first well-planned approach to development aimed at the Western Isles of Scotland.

Of the 60 million, over half went to improving the island's infrastructure: new piers and harbors, new roll-on, roll-off ferry terminals, road improvement, coastal protection, and buildings.

This also includes two new auction marts at Lochmaddy and Lochboisdale, in the Uists, where livestock can now be centrally marketed instead of from individual pens.

The remaining 28 million ($49 million) went to agriculture and fish farming.

Raising livestock is by far the most popular form of croft activity, and the rearing of smolts to maturity has been praised for bringing new employment to the islands. Smolts are young salmon entering salt water for the first time.

A steady flow of grant- aid has been aimed at crofters since the mid-1950s - for everything from better housing to land improvement, to the free use of a purebred bull or ram. But none of it was integrated enough to improve the overall situation.

For example, better-bred stock suffered from poor winter fodder. Reseeded grazings that weren't properly drained beforehand soon became choked with rushes.

The aim of the IDP, however, was different. Certain parts of the program were blended together to improve whole areas of the underlying economy. Land improvement was coordinated with livestock development. Marketing went hand in hand with improved production.

``It wasn't there for radical change,'' says Iain Matheson of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, in Benbecula, ``but for the improvement of existing techniques.''

Mr. Matheson adds that ``there is far more get-up-and-go in the islands now. Crofters are in a much better position to look after stock than before. If they're prepared to plow back profits, it could be a springboard and go on and on.''

Things are far from rosy, however. Much work still needs doing. The rocky soil of any marginal Scottish farmer is at a distinct disadvantage to the factory fields of temperate southern Britain. Crofters with their small plots and harsh island weather are especially handicapped.

To survive in this age of food surplus in the West, crofters need to be organized. Though beef production in the United Kingdom looks good for the immediate future, sheep consumption is falling, and a mutton glut in five to seven years looks like a real possibility.

The emphasis today must be on quality, not quantity. Here, marketing plays a key role.

Until two years ago, the Hebridean cattle were unpopular at market, according to Dennis Overton, general manager of Highlands and Islands Livestock Ltd. (HILL), an independent marketing body.

Traditional slow-growing breeds with little beefiness, combined with a lack of good feeding, resulted in a calf of poor reputation. Yet the crofters rarely learned of the negative response to their product.

Since it was started in 1984, HILL has provided crofters with constructive criticism and feedback on how well their produce is received.

This - coupled with IDP's grant-aid for modern, continental breeding stock with better flesh conformation (stock were fed on richer grazings) - has vastly improved the quality of livestock on the island. Today it is competitive with that on the mainland.

Crofters continually look for a ``specialty product'' so as to gain a higher price. Mr. Overton says that for the moment, the best bet for crofters is to stick with high-quality store products (weaned calves and lambs that are not yet ready for slaughter).

At some point, however, there may be the possibility of marketing traditional beef heifers. They can be sold to mainland farmers for breeding with continental bulls, producing a quicker-maturing calf.

Despite all these advances in crofting, there are still a number of problems to be tackled, mostly legislative.

Crofting, with its diversity and dependence on community, demands an organization wholly devoted and specially geared up to defending this Hebridean way of life. The National Farmers' Union just won't do. In the fall of 1985, the Scottish Crofters' Union was born - the first full-scale pressure group voicing crofting concern in recent history.

``At the moment anyway, the union is in a very healthy state,'' according to director Jim Hunter. It has exceeded projected membership numbers and is financially in the black. The union ``would not have succeeded 10 years ago, even less 20, when the pervasive feeling towards crofting was highly negative,'' Mr. Hunter says.

Besides providing the basics (legal advice, insurance, and discounts on supplies), the union bites into much larger issues.

A campaign for crofter housing reform has called for increases in home improvement grants to keep pace with inflation. To encourage better forestry, the union is asking for changes in the age-old law that makes all the trees the landlord's property.

The union is pushing the EC to support small farmers over much larger lowland ones in another issue. The union is also arguing against a future poll tax, which would charge individuals rather than households - the majority of croft households contain far more individuals than a typical urban home.

To adversaries, crofting merely appears to be a method of leeching off the government, rather than a way of earning a dependable living.

But according to Ken Kennedy, economic development officer with the Western Isles Island Council, in Stornoway, ``The community web of crofting is not an economic system and cannot be judged on profit in terms of cash.

``An existing community is far less expensive to maintain, from central government's point of view, than reallocation with new housing, social workers, more people on the dole, et cetera.''

Even so, the massive expenditure of the Integrated Development Program will be considered a terrible waste if it follows the route of previous grant projects.

Only time will tell, but optimism is high.

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