Local Heroes

2015 is the year of Scotland Food & Drink and programmes to promote it are already kicking off. This week I dropped in on a Taste Our Best workshop sponsored by Visit Scotland‘s Food and Drink Quality Assurance Scheme, which is “designed to drive change in use and promotion of Scottish produce.” Workshops were presented on how local businesses can benefit from the scheme- topics such as food tourism and quality assurance. In another room, area producers and processors showcased their products and services. Paradise Kitchen was there with famous preserves, jams and chutneys, Oban Chocolate Company showed off some dreamy concoctions and Great Glen Game was on hand with bites of to-die-for charcuterie. The Kitchen Garden, Oban’s home of all things gourmet and scrumptious, prepared an impressive spread of canapés and sandwiches stuffed with indigenous goodness such as smoked salmon, fruit preserves and savoury pickles.

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Paradise Kitchen at the Taste Our Best event

Local food is one of my passions. I had a small organic farm in Mississippi for ten years and ran a village farmers market. As an advocate for sustainable food issues, I got to see the blossoming of a local food culture in the American South over the last ten years-and even play a part in nourishing that culture. When I started in the late 1990’s, I was one of the few small organic producers in the area, but over the years, appreciation for all things local- from music to art to food-went from a resurgence to a trend to the norm in most Mississippi communities.  Today there are over 50 thriving farmers markets in the state. Shops and even chain grocers carry local goods. Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, subscriptions support dozens of farmers and their families. You can easily get everything for your plate-meat, milk, eggs, veggies, beer and value-added goods like preserves and herbal products- sourced from within a 50 mile radius.

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Will and Amanda of Native Son Farm in Tupelo, Mississippi at the Taylor Farmers Market

Now I live on a farm in the Scottish Highlands. The climate here is as different as can be from Mississippi, but we still manage to grow greenhouses full of vegetables in summer and enjoy the bounty of several types of fruit. I can’t grow my staples such as okra and blueberries, but, for once I can grow rhubarb and enjoy bushels of sweet apples from the tree. I don’t keep chickens here, and I sure miss my freshly laid eggs and the occasional plump hen for Sunday dinner. But sheep and shaggy Highland cows graze the sweet grassy hills here in the glen, destined for tables around Scotland, including ours.

Since arriving in Oban, I’ve enjoyed experiencing local food, Highland style. The best is the bounty from the sea- they don’t call it The Seafood Capital of Scotland for nothing. Sweet mussels, luscious oysters, moist salmon, succulent langoustines, tender haddock- yum! Highland beef, mutton and farmed venison abound on local menus and in shops, and local free range eggs are readily available for a reasonable price. No shortage of fine drink here, either-there are over a dozen of the world’s finest whisky distilleries in the area and several breweries. The only area which I find lacking is the availability of local vegetables. Most veggies can thrive only in greenhouses here, and doing that on a large scale is just not cost effective. I’m lucky to have access to the greenhouses, where I can grow my own tomatoes, courgettes, beans and cabbages, but I miss browsing those overflowing market tables of home grown exotic peppers, mushrooms and watermelons.

I got involved with Argyll-based Local Origins Rural Network (LORN), which supports and promotes locally produced food, fibre and art. They sponsor a biweekly farmers market in Benderloch, a few miles outside of Oban, and an annual summer Gaelic wool festival. The market features local seafood, meat, eggs, honey, breads and sweets, small batch canned goods and condiments, and lots of little lovelies from area artists and crafters-jewelry, textiles, wood carving and accessories. I’m doing public relations for LORN and after having shopped these outstanding vendors, I am getting to know them better. Their amazing stories practically write themselves. Individuals with passion, standing against all odds and working their fingers to the bone to bring high quality products to the people. They aren’t in it for the money.

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Highland smoked salmon at the LORN Community Producers Market

It seems that the Scottish Highlands are at different stages in the local food revolution than in the U.S. For example, the Buy Local mantra has not caught on here as much as it has in America. Local food is generally higher priced than factory big box brands, and this is a big obstacle to getting folks to fork over their hard earned cash. On the other hand, Scotland’s restaurants, in general, source more of their food locally than American restaurants. Back in Mississippi, I found it was more often the chef than the individual consumer that wouldn’t pay for local, sustainable quality.

I believe these obstacles will be overcome- here and back home. As local food goes from a trend to the norm here, higher demand will mean more local farmers, which eventually will lead to lower prices for the consumer. As consumers become more aware of sustainable food issues and the benefits of eating locally and in season, they will adjust their spending so they can afford to fit local food into their budgets. As constituents demand government agricultural policy become fair to the small producer and not just Big Agribusiness, family farming will become a more viable way of life.  At the rate the Buy Local movement is going, I can definitely see a future where fresh, affordable local produce can grace every family’s table.

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