Farmer Roger Howison and facilitator Amanda Brown of Scotland’s Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) talk about their Scottish Apples RISS group, which is trying to bring commercial apple growing back to Scotland. You can read or listen below as they discuss:
- Roger’s ambition to process his own apples
- How having Amanda as facilitator has enabled the group to progress
- How the public’s appetite for local food, including Scottish apples, is growing since Covid
- How the RISS group is bringing Scottish growers together and tapping into existing research
Apple growing tradition around Newburgh in Fife
Roger Howison: I’m a farmer at Parkhill Farm up near Newburgh in north-east Fife. We’re a mixed farm of 537 acres, we rent out the grazing land and we grow malting barley, winter wheat, spring oats, peas and potatoes.
Newburgh is famous for its ancient apples, as we know from the Lindores Abbey down the road, but we didn’t want to go down the traditional orchard route because we’re trying to reduce inputs. We discovered the alley cropping system from Stephen Briggs [agroforestry expert] and in 2016/17 we planted 750 apple trees in ten rows, through a 15-acre arable field. We had a view to processing the apples ourselves, turning them into cider or juice, or selling them wholesale to cider producers like Cairn O’Mohr or Thistly Cross.
I got involved with the RISS group at the end of last summer. I had met with a few growers before, but not many, it’s difficult to network. I’d met Catherine Drummond-Herdman, who has an orchard at Megginch Castle just over the River Tay, a few years ago and we tried to get an organisation going but it fell by the wayside. Amanda got in touch last year and that was the start of it.
"Thanks to the media coverage I had 30 enquiries from apple growers across Scotland"
Amanda Brown: With the support of RISS I was able to get involved. They had informally got together, but because there was no one creating the glue at the centre of the group it hadn’t made much progress. These guys are farmers- that’s their day job, but this is my day job! To help people like Roger and the group do what they need to do to progress.
Picture: Group member Catherine Drummond-Herdman in her orchard at Megginch.
Recently we worked with RISS and got some media coverage, and thanks to that I had about 30 enquiries from people who are growing apples across Scotland, from the islands to the Borders.
RH: We had our third meeting online recently and I met a chap from Stonehaven who is growing – it was fascinating to chat with him and I would like to go and meet him. I never would have known about him without this.
AB: I have been putting the jigsaw, gathering people’s different experiences of growing, and soon we will formalise it all.
Question: What is the potential market for heritage apples in Scotland?
RH (laughs): Well, we used to have a history of growing apples in the 18th and 19th centuries, until the 1930s, when we started to import them. A great many of us in the group believe in Scottish apples for Scottish people so I think we will create a market for them!
AB: Just yesterday I had a conversation with someone interested in sourcing Scottish apples for a retail operation, so you see that there’s an increasing appetite for locally grown produce, now more so than ever actually.
RH: We grow a lot of malting barley – 100 acres - and it’s looking like there won’t be much of a market for it. The distilleries are closed, and the maltsters are massive – they need a huge amount to keep going. So it’s an example of how smaller supply chains are going to be crucially important.
AB: We’ve made contact with the James Hutton Institute, who have a lot of cherries and soft fruit-growing expertise, so we’re tapping into that knowledge. AHDB just south of the border have a pile of research into orchards and apple growing too. It’s important to be able to bring that together and collaborate. And we need to test what varieties grow well.
RH: It would have been difficult for me to access that technical knowledge and expertise by myself.