Green shoots of recovery in the ‘garden county’

The Elder family have farmed aling the banks of the River Tyne for over 150 years and sell pressed rapeseed oil. Picture: TSPL
The Elder family have farmed aling the banks of the River Tyne for over 150 years and sell pressed rapeseed oil. Picture: TSPL
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FOOD and drink producers in East Lothian are preparing to join forces in a unique bid to put the area back on the map as Scotland’s premier larder.

For generations East Lothian was regarded as the nation’s market garden, famous for its rich farmland produce, in particular its high-quality potatoes and soft fruit.

But as the economy bit and production methods changed, farms were either sold off for housing or forced to diversify. And concerns emerged that the area’s profile as the “garden county” of Scotland had slipped. Now a new generation of diverse and inventive food and drink producers – from kitchen worktop chocolatiers to curry spice producers and craft brewers – are aiming to return the area to its former glory, by borrowing from an idea rooted in 18th century Scottish history.

They hope to unite under a single banner – the first scheme of its kind in Europe – which will make use of each other’s expertise and skills, plus act as a driving force to attract investment and renewed interest in the area. And while it’s thoroughly modern, the idea is not unlike the traditional co-operative movement which began in Scotland in 1769, and involved small producers coming together to share expertise and generate funds to improve their business potential.

Nearly 50 food and drink producers in the area have been asked to support the East Lothian Food & Drink Business Improvement District (BID).

Although Business Improvement District schemes exist elsewhere – such as Essential Edinburgh which connects business in the heart of the city – the East Lothian BID is challenging rules around how they operate to enable it to become the first in Europe to involve a single sector of solely food and drink producers, who could share contacts, customers, marketing tools, web pages and even their products.

Businesses are now voting on the move, which is supported by East Lothian Council.

According to group leader Louise Elder, of Stevenson Mains farm in Haddington, the move to bring businesses together could boost the area dramatically, helping East Lothian regain its status as Scotland’s larder.

“So much has changed in the fruit and vegetable industry, that I think East Lothian lost its ‘market garden’ image down the years,” she says. “At one time our farm, like probably every farm in East Lothian, grew 30 acres of potatoes. Some were such good quality they’d be sent to London restaurants. Now there are only seven potato producers left. “

Agriculture across Scotland shifted in the early 2000s, with many farms being lost. East Lothian’s food producers had to rethink their approach if they were to pull through.

More recently, a raft of new food businesses emerged, creating artisan products never before produced in the county.

That, added to bustling farmers’ markets and the thriving Food Assembly – which involves customers ordering artisan goods online from various niche producers and picking them up at a set time from a pre-arranged drop-off point – has raised hopes that the county’s food scene is on the cusp of a major revival.

“I believe there’s a renaissance going on where quality, premium products are being produced,” she adds. “We’ve still got this magnificent arable county, but people are doing lots of exciting, new things. And if we can all work together – almost like an old fashioned co-operative would but in a modern world – I’m sure we can all benefit.”