Comrie Croft is an eco-tourism destination in Perthshire, Scotland which houses a market garden supporting four new entrants to farming. The site, which consists of a 200-year-old farmstead, house and barn and 231 acres of fields and woods, has been diversified from a traditional mixed farm which was no longer viable. Comrie Croft now supports a number of businesses including a hostel, campsite, bike shop, café, wedding venue as well as walking trails, wildlife viewing and mountain-biking trails. Comrie Croft provides an interesting example of rural regeneration and access to land in an area of high land prices and high house prices.
The site was a traditional, mixed farm (arable and pasture) with a tenant farmer. As with many farms of similar type, reduced income combined with increased labour costs had resulted in employment falling to a single tenant who was struggling to support a household income. Many farms with a similar trajectory in Perthshire and elsewhere in Scotland have become amalgamated into larger units, often neighbouring farms with a scale sufficient to compete in a globalised market. As such, the number of medium and small units has been decreasing: the number of farms in this category (50-100ha) fell from 547 in 2000 to 471 in 2015 and the number of tenant farmers fell by 42% between 1982 and 2013.
In the early 1990’s it became apparent that the farm was struggling to continue in the prevailing economic climate and the landowner began looking at alternative income streams. He converted the farmstead into a hostel in 1995 and continued letting the fields to a grazing tenant. The hostel business was leased to the manager Andrew Donaldson in 2005. Shortly after this the Andrew decided to build local support to buy the farm and made the owner an offer for the site.
The owner of the site was in his 70’s and combined with being supportive of Andrew’s plans for the farm was willing to make a private sale. This meant that although the farm was valued and sold at market value, it was not open to bidding from other interested parties. The farm is in a scenic area of Scotland and it is likely to have gone for above market value if it was put on the open market. Despite the favourable sale, the cost of the farm was still well out of reach of family and his immediate supporters. Consequently, they put together a business proposal for turning the farm into a sustainable eco-tourist destination with ecological agriculture and affordable housing at the heart of the plans. As a result they attracted 50 investors, including local people and employees, raising approximately 25% of the total costs. The remainder of the money was sourced from a significant bank loan from Triodos bank, a loan from a friend and a deferred payment from the seller to enable the purchase. Employees are still encouraged to become co-owners of Comrie Croft.
The buy-out was made possible due to a supportive landowner who was willing to make a private sale and deferred some of the payment. If it had gone onto the market, it is likely that the price would have been well above the valuation and out of reach of the group. It was an opportunistic purchase which galvanised local support to create a strong example of rural regeneration.
Food production was a central issue in the buy-out of Comrie Croft. Andrew and his supporters had a long-term strategy to enable ecological agriculture on the site and to link food production into other arms of the business. They built up financial security through developing the tourist and wedding components of Comrie Croft and by 2014 the time seemed right to find new entrants who would take up the food growing element.
Andrew approached a group of new entrant farmers who were doing the Nourish Scotland New Farmers Programme. Two of the new entrants came forward and collaborated with a further two people to take on the market garden site, forming Tomnah’a Market Garden Ltd.
Tomnah’a Market Garden began production in 2016. They rent a 2.4ha field and an additional 0.6ha parcel from the Croft on favourable terms, where they have erected a 5-span polytunnel covering 0.2 hectares and opened up a 0.25 hectares outdoor horticultural space. They have been funded through the Young Farmers Startup Grant and through personal contributions from the 4 directors. As a result they have erected the polytunnels, a packing shed, perimeter deer fence, irrigation system, hard surfacing, installed a new electricity supply and purchased equipment all in the first two years of operation. They operate an intensive horticultural operation using small machinery and hand labour and minimise digging through ‘no dig’ techniques. They are aiming to sell 100 veg boxes regularly. Apart from the box scheme their main sales are to supportive local restaurants, through the shop and cafe at Comrie Croft and at the ‘food assembly’ in Stirling where they sell 10-12 veg boxes. They have also established an orchard (apples, pears, quince) which covers a further 0.5ha of the site. Tomnah’a produce vegetables, hens eggs, cut flowers and soft fruit and plan to produce, package and distribute herbal teas and to sell gourmet mushrooms. Cut flowers are sold directly to weddings on the site – a profitable diversification.
It was an expressed part of the strategic plan that the growing project would link in well to other components of Comrie Croft. As a result there is a market for the agricultural produce on site through the café and weddings. In addition they make use of waste from businesses on site such as cardboard packing from the bike shop for mulch.
Access to land and housing
Land in Perthshire is expensive and disconnected from the productive capacity of the land to the extent that small food producers are unable to buy land or sometimes even rent land at an affordable rate. Income from small-scale agriculture is vastly insufficient to meet the mortgage payments which would be required for a land purchase. Comrie Croft has enabled access to land for ecological agriculture in a creative way by financing the purchase through a range of channels and building an economic base through tourism and weddings. This has enabled the provision of a small site for ecological agriculture within a larger project and supported four new entrants to farming to establish a thriving business. In addition the Croft has provided something of a market and local support for the growers.
Housing is also an issue with local people struggling to find affordable accommodation. It is a very scenic area with a lot of holiday owners and retirees with high levels of capital resulting in house prices out of reach of young farmers. As a result, out of the nine people currently living on site, three are living in temporary accommodation in caravans or yurts. This is a not-uncommon feature of small-scale ecological agriculture.
Access to land for housing, sustainable land use and ecological agriculture have been at the heart of Comrie Croft from the beginning of the buy-out campaign. The group wanted to demonstrate what is possible with an old farm that was providing very limited income, housing and sustenance to a small and shrinking number of people. There are now nine people living permanently on the site and 20 full-time equivalent employees of the various businesses compared to one family and a struggling business before the buy-out. The group is now investigating models for affordable housing including looking at cooperative and shared equity financing. This would provide housing for people living and working on the Croft, including the farmers.
It is an explicit objective of Comrie Croft to provide people with the opportunity to live and work sustainably off the land. The site is not just for ecological agriculture, but they have created the environment where a small sustainable farming project can thrive. They have a strong focus on sustainability which they hope to achieve “through the 4Cs – Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce.” Central to this focus is ecological food production and Comrie Croft provides an interesting example of enabling access to land for ecological agriculture within wider aims and aspirations for rural areas.