What is smallholding?
Liz Shankland, author of the Haynes Smallholding Manual, explains
Ask a dozen smallholders why they want to move to the countryside and they’ll give you a dozen different answers. Some want to leave the rat-race altogether and follow devoutly in the self-sufficient footsteps of John Seymour, the most famous ‘grow it, eat it’ pioneer, whose writings inspired generations of downshifters. Others may have reached a career crossroads and plan to start up a business, working from home. There will be many more who just want to live in beautiful surroundings and provide a safer, healthier, more enjoyable environment for their loved ones. And then there are those – probably the vast majority – who would like to do a mixture of all the above.
So what actually is a smallholding? The standard dictionary definition is ‘an agricultural holding smaller than a farm’ – which really explains next to nothing! As Tom and Barbara Good proved in the classic 1970s TV comedy, The Good Life, a suburban garden can be classed as a smallholding. There are two phrases worth remembering: the first is ‘Size isn’t everything’; the second is ‘It’s not what you’ve got – it’s how you use it’. Even a small patch of land like your own back garden can, in theory, be registered as an agricultural holding – but check if there are any restrictions in your house deeds and warn your neighbours, too.
You can be as much or as little of a smallholder as you like. You can grow fruit and vegetables and few chickens or a paddock for a couple of horses and call yourself a smallholder; equally, you can have acres and acres of farmland, raise all kinds of livestock, and sell meat to large commercial enterprises – and still use the same label to describe yourself. You may also be part of a community landshare initiative, sharing labour and skills to produce food; people who do this are smallholders, too.
Is smallholding for you?
The decision to make the break and embrace country living is often a joint decision, with both partners totally committed to the dream. Often, however, one partner is less keen, but resigned to the idea. How will they feel commuting maybe a longer distance to work, completing a full day’s toil, and then coming home to a list of smallholding chores? There may be children or other family members reluctant to be uprooted and transplanted into a strange, new lifestyle. Be warned – Hell hath no fury like a teenager dragged away from best friends and reliable, super-fast broadband! And have you thought about those family members who can’t drive? If you’re in a remote location, you may have to add ‘taxi driver’ to your portfolio of roles if you want to keep everyone happy.
It’s important to remember that taking on a smallholding and getting into the whole business of working the land needs the commitment of all concerned. You may have a vision of being like Superman or Wonder Woman, doing everything yourself, but how would you cope if something dreadful happened to you? Who would be there to pitch in and feed the animals, manage the land, and maybe even fulfil customer orders, should the worst occur? Could you summon instant support, or pay for some hired help?
Depending on how far you go into it, running a smallholding can be an extremely physical lifestyle, so you need to be prepared for a lot of strenuous work, often in terrible weather. Animals need food and water every day, all year round – not when it suits you. You may have to forget the leisurely mornings in bed with the Sunday papers and put holiday plans on hold. Smallholding can be exhausting, annoying, costly, and frustrating – but, as many a townie-turned-landowner will tell you, the benefits you get in return will be well worth the effort!
If you don’t feel ready – or aren’t able - to sell up and become a smallholder just yet, there are other ways in which you can achieve at least some of your aims:
* Start small, in your own back garden. Even the smallest garden will have space for a couple of laying hens, maybe a small pond with some ducks, or a beehive or two.
* Get on the list for a council allotment. As well as being able to grow your own produce, you may be allowed to keep some hens or bees, depending on the rules.
* Look out for community schemes aimed at bringing together like-minded people to cultivate areas of land. Your local authority may be able to put you in touch with a group.
* Try and persuade a local landowner to let you rent some land where you can hone your growing and animal husbandry skills. Bear in mind, however, that there may be preparation work involved, e.g. land clearance, fencing, etc.
* Offer your services as an unpaid spare pair of hands to a farmer, smallholder, or volunteer at a visitor attraction which has livestock. You’ll learn a whole range of new skills which will help you prepare for your future life as a smallholder.
* If you do have land, but can’t yet get round to doing anything with it, why not offer it up as grazing land? That way, you can have the visual benefit of livestock in your fields without the responsibility.
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