Growing your own vegetables has never looked so attractive for crofters in the west coast islands as it does now.

Rob Black, an enterprising SAC advisor has pioneered the use of a robust polytunnel, the Polycrub, for numerous island businesses. Rob has recently moved from the SAC’s consultancy office in Stornoway to the Oban team, but he has left behind many delighted clients.

“I spent almost four years in Stornoway,” says Rob, “and it was a client that approached me to see if there was any funding available for a Polycrub which set me on this path.”

A Polycrub is a greenhouse that is manufactured in Shetland by what was a community-run social enterprise project, it is made from recycled materials, including waste pipe reclaimed from the salmon farm industry. It is made to withstand the worst of weathers, and can stay put in 120mph winds.

Rob says he started looking into what funding was available, and he successfully made the first grant application to the Crofting Agricultural Grants Scheme (CAGS), which supports infrastructure projects for crofters in the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) Area, to include the erection of the rigid-framed Polycrub. The move has enabled scores of island crofts to diversify their incomes into a host of covered crops, including salads, vegetables and even Hebridean lemons.

Rob said: “There was teething problems as there was no guidance laid down for this type of application, however, after two or three applications, the process is much smoother now.

“For crofters, making a traditional living from the sale of beef and sheep store animals, is impossible without another source of income,” Rob explained. “The CAGS grants are a very important source of funding, typically used by crofters for agricultural improvements such as drainage, reseeding or erecting a farm building.

“One of my crofting clients had been considering diversifying into growing fresh produce, but he knew that this would only be possible in a very robust structure like the Polycrub, because his croft is so exposed,” he said.

“I offered to work with him to see if we could obtain CAGS funding for erecting four Polycrubs on his croft, it took a lot of work, but we successfully received the grant, which gave him 80% of the capital cost for the project.”

This success has led to Rob being contacted by more than 100 people looking to install Polycrubs, or similar structures to extend the scope of their crofting and farming businesses.

“There is a lot of land that’s derelict on the Islands, so people don’t want to take on crofts that won’t make money from sheep,” he explained. “So, the Polycrub, and the related funding, has given crofters an alternative; all of a sudden, they can have livestock and fresh produce, so it’s a great option either for current crofters to add another enterprise, or for new entrants to make a start.”

New entrants, having had their business for less than five years, and under 41 years of age should qualify for 80% funding. Otherwise, the grant offers up to 60% of the total cost of the project. (is this correct, Rob??)

Following on from the success of the crofters there was a need to find markets for extra produce that was being grown.

Rob and a colleague Calum Johnston of the SAC Food and Drink team set up a Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group with local producers to explore new routes to market, and a supply chain, for produce grown in the network of Polycrubs and other covered structures on the islands.

“Polytunnels and greenhouses offer the opportunity to supply fresh, local produce into local cafes, hotels and shops, and to reduce the carbon footprint of the local food economy,” he says.

“The RISS group is still in its infancy, but it has huge potential to make a real difference to the local food economy, and it’s great to be using my experience to help develop this idea.”

Rob was originally brought up in East Lothian and is from a non-farming background. He studied at SRUC before becoming a consultant.

“I always wanted to be a SAC Consultant and my first posting was to Stornaway which was a challenging, but hugely rewarding place to work for the last four years.

“I had no idea of the distances I’d need to cover, nor the weather conditions I’d have to contend with to visit clients on the Islands, some visits could be a good four hours, and two islands away from our offices.

“But I’d be hard pressed to find more resilient, welcoming and pioneering people anywhere in the world.”

Rob will extend his involvement in supporting crofters to diversify into polytunnels, Polycrubs and greenhouses on mainland Scotland, and will continue to be involved in the projects he started in the Outer Hebrides.

“The ideas are endless for how these structures can be used for production and income generation. Some Polycrub users are housing their hens in them, some use them for feed storage, and recently we have secured funding for one to be used to house livestock on a temporary basis (see panel). It can be used for lambing, or as a livestock infirmary, they are not set up to be used to house livestock on a permanent basis.”

Panel: Karen Macleod

Karen and John McLeod have a croft on the Isle of Lewis and have been growing an organic vegetable plot for the past seven years.

In January this year Karen and John added a Polycrub, also via the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme (CAGS).

Karen commented: “We have the benefit of very long days in the summer here, it’s a terrific place to grow your own produce, and the Polycrub has been a fantastic addition to the croft.

“If it hadn’t been for the funding from CRAGS, we would never have done it, it would have been too much of an investment. Rob was really positive that we would meet the criteria needed to qualify for the funding. We received 60% of the total cost of the project, including installation etc. We are hoping to apply for another one, with the hope that we will qualify for 80% funding this time.”

Karen is a real advocate of growing organically and using what the land can offer. She lives beside a beach and lifts seaweed to use as mulch for her crops. She said: “We worried that our soil in the Polycrub would dry out, but the temperature inside the Polycrub is always so much higher than outside and with the seaweed addition we have found that it is not a problem, our soil doesn’t dry out. Inside her Polycrub she is growing lots of vegetables but also has trees growing, apples, pears and even a lemon tree. That’s not something you hear about often, lemons from Stornoway.

The family also made a rain-water harvest system to water the plants, using tile edging along the length of the Polycrub to catch the rainwater and direct it into a container, as it is completely off grid.

Karen has attended the Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) that Rob set up, and says it has been a tremendous benefit to her. “I didn’t know anyone there, but it is where I got the idea to start preserving some of my produce, eg chutney, sauerkraut, and I am looking into a market for my salad leaves. I also now take some of my produce to a stall in Stornoway that sells local food, which is a terrific idea, none of which I would have been involved in, had I not gone along to the support service.

“I would 100% get another Polycrub, it has been a great addition to our croft.”

Panel: Donald Macsween

Donald has just gone through the process of applying for funding for two Polycrubs, while filming a year on his croft with BBC Alba.

He said: “Ideally, I would prefer to put up a large barn, but basically I would need to find around £40k. There’s no point in putting up a small barn, as I have around 100 sheep, so the Polycrub seemed like an affordable alternative. With the CAGS grant it should cost me around £4000, and the hope is I can apply for another two or three further down the line.”

As Donald’s application was the first for livestock use, it did take a little longer than usual, as fulfilling the criteria for the funding had to be carefully looked at. “I didn’t have to deal with the paperwork at all, it was Rob that organised that side of things.

“I need the indoor space to bring the stock inside particularly when lambing. Where we live on the islands there is a very short growing season, by September/October you have to be able to find some housing to finish the sheep. I also have pigs and the Polycrub will be ideal to house the piglets for the first few weeks of their lives.”

The strength of the structure was important, particularly as Donald’s croft is very exposed to the elements.

“I went to the makers of Polycrub and they said that their polycarbonate sheeting could withstand a blow from a hammer. I hit it a good five times on the same spot, it dented it a little, but it didn’t break. We do get winds recorded at over 100mph here, so these should be ideal for our needs.”