Food and Drink Interview Series
A series spotlighting local food and drink organisations throughout Sutherland. We discuss the importance of eating locally, and the work that these wonderful local businesses do.
West Drumliah Fruit Farm
With Gillian Mackenzie
On a sunny day in June in her picturesque garden, we sat down with the owner of West Drumliah Fruit Farm, Gillian Mackenzie to discuss her business’s growth, eating locally and the community she has fostered.
In the 1980s, Gillian and her husband were living on their croft with their growing family in Bonar Bridge. Having grown up as the daughter of a farmer, Gillian wanted to make the most of her land and find a career path that would allow her to be outdoors and with her family. This led to starting West Drumliah Fruit Farm, which tapped into a new growing market in the area – berries! Growing strawberries and raspberries was a bit of strange idea as it was not being done in the area and they had never grown them before.
“There were lots of “why am I doing this” moments”
The fruit farm has had organic growth to be where it is now, starting with two polytunnels on the family’s croft, to now having two twin span Keder Greenhouses, a polytunnel and a little farm shop.
Despite having lots of “why am I doing this” moments, Gillian kept putting in lots of hard work to grow her business to where it is, selling her produce to restaurants, shops and of course her loyal customers.
The farm has a real benefit on the local community. Local restaurants and shops use Gillian’s fresh berries in the products and a community of customers has been created.
Going to Drumliah Fruit Farm is more than just buying fruit, as Gillian says, many of the customers have become her friends. Buying the produce is a part of many people’s routines now, and they always have a chat with Gillian while they are there. This all contributes to the experience, to make it feel more meaningful than going to a supermarket.
With the growth in awareness of buying locally, and with social media being a tool to advertise her business, she has plenty of customers. Locals and tourists alike are realising it only takes five minutes out of your day to grab some local strawberries.
“It only takes five minutes out of your day to grab some local strawberries”
Being just off the North Coast 500 route, West Drumliah Fruit Farm has tourism trade, despite a reduction after COVID- 19. However, the loyal local customers make up for any losses.
Local shops and restaurants are supplied by West Drumliah Fruit Farm. Gillian said that getting the initial sales from businesses is always the hardest part, but once established it is a long-standing relationship due to her consistently high-quality produce. The Crannag Bistro and Nanny’s Tea Room in Bonar Bridge are two long-time customers who create incredible cakes and dishes with West Drumliah berries.
To pick up some berries of your own you head up to the farm (Drumlish, Bonar Bridge IV24 3AA) to pick some up from Gillian herself. If you’re lucky you might get to The SPAR in Bonar Bridge fast enough to pick some up, but they go quickly! West Drumliah Fruit Farm have also sold their produce at markets and shows, so remember to keep an eye out when they are next on! Following the farm on Facebook is the easiest way to get up to date information.
Through the years, the farm has fostered a community of producers and developed a network of like-minded individuals who are committed to promoting local eating in the Highlands. Gillian highlighted Caithness Summer Fruits, who the farm continues to work collaboratively with. They share growing techniques, and even go in on orders together to cut down on delivery costs.
During our conversation we discussed the importance of eating locally. Gillian stressed that there is a great variety of local producers in Sutherland, these producers offer a variety of high-quality produce that do not travel thousands of miles to get to your plate. For these local farmers, it is not just about making a profit, it is about creating a sustainable network of food producers.
This, of course, brought us to the topic of the environment and the impact of the food we eat. When you buy from Gillian you are buying fruit grown within the berry season for the North Highlands. She encourages her customers to buy some to freeze during the winter to have as a fresh snack. This is a fantastic alternative to buying out of season fruit that is flown internationally and sold in our supermarkets in the colder months. The carbon footprint of buying this fruit is ten times greater than buying in season and locally1.
West Drumliah Fruit Farm is particularly conscious of their environmental impact, using a specialist to take a natural approach when dealing with infestations like green flies or red spiders. With this method of introducing natural predators it allows them to use only the bare minimum of biological chemicals. The fruit is never sprayed while being picked. Gillian comments that this approach gives a balance, which makes the food taste better.
This environmentalism extends into their growing season, strawberry planting is staggered throughout the Spring, allowing for a steady and natural harvest of berries throughout the summer and autumn.
A big thank you to Gillian for showing us around the wonderful West Drumliah Fruit Farm. Her business is a great example of an environmentally friendly organisation in Sutherland, providing huge benefit to the local community. Our conversation with Gillian highlighted all of the advantages of eating locally, you can see below for gardening and cooking advice for your own produce!
“If you don’t have sunshine, you don’t have flavour”
Home Gardening Advice: How to Grow the Perfect Strawberry
We asked for any advice for home growers for strawberries, Gillian’s first piece of advice is to use tomato feed, a high potassium feed to encourages growth during the growing season.
For the more advanced gardener, she says a polytunnel makes all the difference. As she comments, “If you don’t have sunshine, you don’t have flavour”.
Tips for Overly Ripe Strawberries
When asked what the best use for old strawberries is, Gillian said it’s always either jam or to be frozen.
For strawberry jam, she commented that the best advice is to use jam sugar and small strawberries, and we can add, use good strawberries!
Frozen strawberries can be used for smoothies, or can be defrosted and made into jam.
We asked Gillian if she has any special home recipes that we could share and she included a Raspberry Cheesecake recipe she suggests for raspberries, and said that meringues are the perfect accompaniment to strawberries!
Find West Drumliah Fruit Farm
Their Facebook Page:
Want to Read More?
On Eating Locally:
1 How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, Mike Berners- Lee
How to Grow Strawberries:
The Royal Horticultural Society: Strawberries
Gillian’s Recommended Recipe:
Mary Berry’s White Chocolate and Raspberry Cheesecake
Caithness Summer Fruits
Nanny’s Tea Room
The Caley Café