The Mackenzie family have owned, lived on and farmed a 38-hectare croft in the village of Aithsetter on the Shetland Islands for hundreds of years. The farm produces fine food for the local community and sources and sells produce from like-minded crofters and growers from across the Shetland Islands.
Hazel Mackenzie, Owner of Mackenzie’s Farm Shop and Café, provides an insight into life on the farm and how it ensures its produce is excellent quality.
Hazel Mackenzie, Owner of Mackenzie’s Farm Shop and Café. © Mackenzie’s Farm Shop and Café
The history of the croft
Our family has lived on and farmed our 38-hectare croft for around 500 years and continues to use similar practices to those of our ancestors. A croft is a traditional system of small-scale farming, which is unique to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, where crofters work and live on the land.
In 2013 we started selling some of our produce. To begin with we sold a few dozen eggs operating an honesty box at the roadside but as demand grew, we sold produce from a livestock trailer, which we stocked with our meats, bread, firewood, milk, groceries and other locally sourced supplies.
When the only local shop closed, we became the only outlet available to many locals, which meant that in a short space of time we outgrew our little trailer and launched our farm shop and café which was extremely well received. Living in a remote area, our business is a crucial part of the local community and provides residents with all of the necessary produce and delicious goodies.
Life on the Croft
In some ways life on the croft is not too different to that of our ancestors as we still use very similar practices.
A typical day on the croft starts at 7am.
The first jobs of the day are to check the weather – this depicts the day as we try, as far as possible, to work with the weather rather than against it! We then head down to the farm, feed the animals and restock the farm shop with freshly laid Aister eggs.
At around 10am, I check on and feed the sheep. There are always jobs that need doing, whether that’s some maintenance work, cleaning or gathering supplies and delivering them to the shop. While it’s always very busy and it can be hard work, it is very rewarding.
There are also a lot of seasonal jobs. In the spring we spend a lot of our time seeding and planting and the summer months are spent growing and harvesting crops. It tends to slow down in the autumn and winter months, and we focus on getting indoor jobs done and we also have the chance to enjoy our knitting projects.
At the croft we rear beef cattle, sheep, pigs and hens. We also produce silage, meadow hay, oats and barley, vegetables including neeps (turnips) and our native Shetland kale (cabbage), which takes two years to grow from seed.
The Shetland Islands have a short growing season - approximately 90 -100 days, so we winter our cattle for seven months of the year, which means they stay inside. This is why we grow many acres of silage plus meadow hay, Shetland kale and neeps to feed them.
Years ago, Crofter Shetlanders used an older version of lamb, called hog, as an almost daily food. We want to keep this tradition going and still sell hog in our farm shop. Allowing the lamb to age and continue to graze means that there is more meat available and that we are not slaughtering the animals at a young age making our processes much more sustainable. This custom is rarely practiced outside Shetland.
The past few years have highlighted how important it is to support small and local businesses.
We are very lucky to have some fantastic suppliers located throughout the Shetland Islands and are committed to supporting local businesses. By using these supplies, we can that the produce sold in our shop and used in our café is incredibly fresh.
In Shetland you are never more than three miles from the sea. We benefit from daily deliveries from our supplier Blydoit Fish, so the product is caught, packed and delivered within a day. Blydoit Fish is a member of the Taste of Shetland Local Seafood Provenance scheme, which aims to promote and celebrate seafood that is sustainably farmed and caught within the Shetland Islands.
What’s next for Mackenzie’s
We’ve recently embarked on having our Shetland wool made into its own brand of yarn – Aister ‘oo’. We shear our sheep by hand and enjoy (mostly) the process, especially on the warm summer days. It’s testament to the hard work of our ancestors that we can bring this new product to market, and it is a sustainable new product we can sell in our shop. I really love seeing the creativity of the community who use the yarn to create their own clothes and other crafts.
We are also keen to expand our own Mackenzie's brand of award-winning jams, chutneys and relishes, with new flavours and products as well as launching our own Shetland Kale seed packs.
To find out more about Mackenzie’s visit - www.mackenziesfarmshop.co.uk