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Features / Pandemic helped local plant grower to flourish

Carol and James Titcomb of Da Barn. All photos: Sarah Cooper

OVER the last five years Da Barn has become one of Shetland’s premiere suppliers of local plants after opening in 2017.

One of Hillswick’s hidden gems, the company operates a number of polytunnels located from an exposed position but sheltered by a barn.

Husband and wife team James and Carol Titcomb set up the operation in 2017 with an original plan of selling a few plants, but it’s expanded into far more. They also grow a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, tomatoes, courgettes and onions.

When the pandemic struck early in 2020, James’ first thought was that he had to “put everything in the compost”. However, since they kept receiving parcels, he had the innovative idea of delivering plants for free around Shetland and, to support that service, set up their website.

He said: “I realised we were still getting Amazon deliveries and thought ‘hang on, we can do that as well’.

The original plan of selling a few plants developed into something much bigger.

“I basically ran around Shetland all of 2020, delivering plants in our own vehicles, and that showed us we could do a lot more. It also gave us the money to expand and add on two more polytunnels.”

Now they sell plants via the website, which are delivered via an electric van rented from Northmavine Community Development Company (NCDC). They also stock plants in various stores around Shetland, and sell via their website.

The entire set-up is an aquaponics-based system in which fish tanks provide vital nutrients for the plants. There are fish tanks set up with pumps that bring the water to the growing beds of plants.

Instead of using soil, lightweight clay balls that attract a certain bacterium surround the plants. The fish excrete ammonia, which interacts with the bacteria to create nitrates, providing the plants with the necessary nutrients.

Another polytunnel has an inventive irrigation sprinkler system set up using natural spring water from the land on the croft.

Carol said: “Historically, there was a pipe that came from the wells in the hill. All the natural nutrients in the hill feed the plants and we have used no chemical sprays in the last two years.”

That’s not the only way Da Barn tries to be sustainable. Customers can return pots and receive a small sum of 10p, 20p, or 30p back depending on the size, so these plastic pots can be reused.

James explained: “When you buy the plant, you pay a deposit of around 20p for the pot. We’ll be happy to take the plant pot back if it’s in good condition, and you’ll get the money back or a discount off your next plant.”

Da Barn has created three seasonal part-time jobs in the local community, in payroll and for support on the site. They’ve also carried out workshops with NCDC to support people in learning about propagation, and pest control, and teaching people about aquaponics.

Their future plans involve the development of a tree park with a shelter belt. They also hope to add another polytunnel, and branch out into having a year round employee.

Da Barn at Swarthoull, Hillswick is open for visitors from 10am to 5pm from April to September.