Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

RONNIE EUNSON: the sheep farmer

In articles on October 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Ronnie runs Uradale Farm on Shetland and agreed to an interview to appear in Fork Magazine. While we were planning to get up to Uradale during a visit to the islands, it never quite happened and so I ended up interviewing Ronnie on the phone when I got back to Bristol. He was a very easy person to chat to and clearly very passionate about his business. The photo was sent over by Ronnie.

“Well, yesterday was very nice, but today is damp again,” Ronnie sighs in an accent owing as much to Scandinavia as Scotland. “The wind is supposed to go southerly which should make things a bit milder. We’ve just finished the sheering but now we have to reseed a number of fields where the crops have failed. It’s only barley as that’s all that’ll grow this late on. We’ll cut it green and use it to bulk up the silage.” Uradale Farm covers 750 hectares of heather moorland near Scalloway, the ancient capital of Shetland. It’s been a strange year for farming on the islands. The weather hasn’t co-operated and when you only have a hundred growing days, every one counts. The farm is home to 700 Shetland ewes and 30 Shetland cows. Alongside feeding and tending the livestock, Ronnie takes care of the farm and is chairman of the local mart and abattoir, which is run as a co-op for the local community. “Nowadays my sons help, but the days are still long and hard.”

Uradale didn’t land in Ronnie’s lap. It was only through a combination of hard work and determination that he got his land. “Farms don’t come up for sale very often in Shetland,” he tells me, “I studied in Edinburgh and came home during the oil boom. I took construction jobs and saved my pennies to buy crofts and bits and pieces of land. I ended up being a conventional producer for the area, selling livestock to be raised in Aberdeenshire. The only other source of income was farming subsidies.” But as time went by, making a living got harder. In 2000, Shetland lambs were virtually unsellable and things hit a real low. After having worked so hard, for so long, the only option Ronnie had was either to give it all up or change drastically.

Uradale went organic in stages from 2000 to 2006, starting with a separate unit on the western edge of the farm where the sheep could be converted as quickly as possible. “The organic system was designed for a longer growing season so compliance wasn’t easy,” Ronnie tells me, “we have far fewer choices and relying on clover for all your nitrogen puts you at the mercy of the weather. The markets don’t care if it goes wrong.” Ten years ago, no-one wanted ‘inferior’ Native Shetland meat but by focussing on its benefits, Ronnie changed the markets’ minds. “We’ve been involved in extensive scientific research to show how much better for you our product is, with much higher levels of healthy fats than conventional red meats. We supply Lidgates of London with lambs and beef every September now. More recently, we’ve been spinning our own Native Shetland organic wool. It’s the only one of its kind on the market. I’ve been invited to address the Food Writers’ Guild and our lamb has won two gold medals at Smithfield.” It was growing up around his father’s butchery business in Lerwick that gave Ronnie the insight he needed to change. “Seeing things from the point of view of the end product – the meat – and the consumer gave me a different perspective.”.

When I ask Ronnie if he regrets having to go organic, there is no hesitation. “My focus is on sustainable agriculture that’s embedded in its own ecosystem. It sounds lofty, but I feel I’m doing something worthwhile rather than just chasing after daft subsidies.” The bureaucracy involved in running an organic farm in the EU is prestigious, but Ronnie demonstrates remarkable patience given the frustrations. “The detail of the regulation here is sufficiently inappropriate to make me want to change certain aspects of it,” he explains, “up here, things can be a bit different. The rationale of having a farming system that doesn’t rely on artificial inputs is a good one but it should work in the Arctic Circle if needs be, not just in kinder climates. Only flexibility will make things really sustainable.” A case in point, the once-flourishing Shetland dairy industry has been reduced to just three farms. “They’ve done their bit and followed principles of ‘good farming’, but they’re clinging on by their fingernails. All it takes is for Tesco to import cheaper milk from mainland Scotland and their feet are cut from under them. We live in a very centralised country and Edinburgh is just as far away as London is in terms of understanding our problems. Islands mould people into different beings. If you get the chance to go to Fair Isle you’ll see what I mean. It’s a really unique community out there and much more on the wild side of things.”

I ask Ronnie if he could imagine living anywhere other than Shetland and there is a long pause. “Oh that’s difficult,” he chuckles, “maybe Norway if I could get used to the trees? You get a bit stifled with all the regulations and inspections here. Over there, they seem to have a healthier balance between control and encouraging people to do good things.” Finally, I ask Ronnie what he would change if he had a magic wand. His answer is both humbling and sums up the attitude behind his success. “Oh, I never believed in magic wands. I try not to think in terms of lucky finds or treasure troves because what you do and achieve is down to your own efforts. Simply wishing things could change means you’re not accepting reality. If you can’t cope with reality, you’re in the wrong game.”

This interview is an extract from issue 25 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.