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Western Isles Challenges

Just a couple of weeks ago I took a call from Richard Tarves at                   e-Sgoil, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. All slightly confusing, if like me you don’t speak Gaelic. But really it’s not really that complicated, as the last part is the Western Isles Council who are based at Stornoway, Outer Hebrides on the Isle of Lewis. The e-Sgoil part is where it gets really interesting as Sgoil is School and the “e” first and foremost stands for electronic, but not only that, it also stands for education and equality.

So, why a call from the Western Isles to Farmer Jones Academy (FJA)?

To quote Richard Tarves “We are encouraged and inspired by your approach [at Farmer Jones Academy] and are keen to provide as positive experience as possible for students … and increase our Foundation Apprentice numbers significantly next year.  We have great food & drink assets here on the islands and employers crying out for engaged young people – we just have to package and sell the course effectively to those young people.”

In short, that means that some of us from FJA are off to Stornoway to see for ourselves exactly how we could deliver the same training that our existing 42 students are benefiting from, to one of the more remote parts of Scotland.

The key phrase that jumped out to us was “We have great food & drink assets here on the islands and employers crying out for engaged young people” … the same kind of statement we have heard many times on our journey with FJA!

Logically we reasoned, this is really no different to delivering our courses anywhere else in the Highlands and the challenges of training and retaining a young workforce for food and drink are just the same. However, the stakes in the Western Isles are even higher with a greater risk of depopulation in the more remote parts of Scotland.

As the conversation went on with Richard Tarves it seemed that we share so many common themes in the food and drink industry right across Scotland. Despite the efforts of NFU Scotland, Scottish Government and the various food and drink organisations, there is still a gap between the primary producers (farmers, crofters, growers and fishermen) and the rest of the food industry. That gap has narrowed a bit since I first started in journalism 15 years ago, but it will never close completely until the finances of primary producers change dramatically. All too often primary food producers feel as though they are treated as a commodity who are just there to provide the raw goods and not valued for their time, care and effort that goes into the high quality food that ends up on our plates and in our glasses.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions and supermarkets and retailers have noticed a real upturn in sales when they work with producers. When they go the extra mile and make special efforts to show that local and Scottish is what they value and stand for, then it becomes a real “win – win” for both producers and retailers. Of course, it’s something that at one time was commonplace with butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers all able to tell customers exactly where their supplies of food came from, but with the advent of supermarkets, that story got lost and sourcing the cheapest food became the normal pattern. 

So, how does this tie in with our visit to the Western Isles?

The answer is that over on Lewis and Harris as well as some of the smaller Islands, they produce some fantastic, often unique food and drink products and all come with a great story behind them. The producers are often the processors and you don’t get a shorter supply chain than that! A lot of the producers add value straight away and make sure that customers know the story behind the products. However, unless The Western Isles can get youngsters engaged with food and drink, then the population drift will continue and some of these unique products along with the economic benefits for the area will be lost forever.

This is where we at FJA fit into the picture, as we try to engage with and inspire the next generation to join in with some of the amazing success stories that have already come from the Western Isles. It’s not going to be easy, but then the best success stories never came without plenty of hard work!