If you’ve ever dreamt of having a yard full of chickens and a barn full of straw, or just imagined living a simpler life, you may find yourself asking whether you want your own version of The Good Life. The answer, believes Liz Shankland, author of the Smallholding Manual: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide, lies in having a clear idea of how far you want to throw yourself into it.
“I always say don’t take on too much too soon,” she says. “There’s no actual definition of smallholding – you can be as much or as little of a smallholder as you want. You can just set out to make a lifestyle change – to have more control over the food you’re eating, maybe buying a couple of lambs or pigs – or set up as a business. The key is not taking on too much so you don’t enjoy it any more.”
If you do decide to go for a full-scale smallholding – buying a house attached to land – there are some common pitfalls that you should avoid. Don’t, for a start, look to it as an answer to a problem such as a job that’s getting you down or a relationship that’s not working. “If your relationship has a weakness, don’t take on a smallholding,” says Shankland. “There are financial pressures, physical responsibilities, going outside when it’s raining…”
Equally importantly, choose your property – and especially the land attached to it – carefully, looking at how you will need to use it. “The biggest mistake people make is going in with no plan in mind and being seduced by the location,”says Shankland. “You can be bowled over by the pictures on the estate agents’ websites. But people often underestimate the acreage they’ll need. Buying a smallholding is a bit like buying a shed. Just after you’ve bought it you think it’s great, but a couple of weeks or months later you’re saying you wish you’d bought a size up. You might find a gorgeous property with three acres of land, but three acres isn’t that much. Even 40 acres isn’t enough if it gets flooded or it’s too rocky to plant on.”
It’s also worth investigating whether the property has agricultural ties attached. “If it’s being offered for a fraction of the market rate it may be subject to restrictions that mean there has to be someone working in agriculture on the land.”
Don’t just look at the house, either – outbuildings are just as important. “You’ll need them for storing feed, straw, hay, machinery and even livestock in the winter.”
Before you buy, think carefully about what stock you’re likely to keep and what crops you might grow, and allow for expansion in the future. Might you want to set up a B&B or glamping business on your land?
All animals are not equal, and it’s a good idea to start with some straightforward ones. Chickens are relatively simple to look after, though don’t expect to make much money out of selling eggs, especially if you live in a rural area where there will be plenty of competition.
If you’re going to keep chickens for meat, you’ll need to be sure there is either a poultry abattoir nearby or facilities on your smallholding to kill and dress them.
Pigs have a quick turnaround but Shankland warns that it may be hard to make money from the meat. “If you can add value to it by processing it, you’re on to a winner, but you’ll have to pay someone or get a licence to handle raw meat.”
If this all sounds like too much of a commitment, don’t rule out smallholding-lite. Growing herbs on the windowsill, tomatoes in pots, even keeping a few chickens for eggs can be a realistic way to achieve the good life without uprooting your whole life.
“I have friends in a well-heeled place in Cardiff who buy two weaners [animals weaned that year], keep them for four months, send them for slaughter and then go off to Barbados,” says Shankland. “It works for them.”
It might take a little longer for the food to get to your table, and you might not even save much money. But for all the effort involved, living even a little closer to nature is as good for your soul as it is for the environment.
Nic Goddard lives in an off-grid static caravan on eight acres of croft land on the Scottish island of Rum with her husband Ady and her children Davies, 16, and Scarlett, 14. They moved there in 2012.
The family grows vegetables in polytunnels and on raised beds and fruit in a soft fruit and orchard tree cage, with apples, pears, plums, cherries, currants and berries. They keep pigs for working the land and for meat, plus chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and guinea fowl. They have recently introduced sheep for grazing and for fleece which they spin, dye, felt and use to make woollen goods to sell. They forage for many of their greens and some of their meat and fish.
Before we moved here we lived a fairly conventional life in West Sussex,” says Goddard. “Ady had a full-time job and I worked part time at a library. We had an allotment where we grew a lot of fruit and vegetables, we grew more in our garden at home and kept chickens and ducks. We were pretty environmentally conscious, but very much within the confines of a standard middle class family life.
We set out to achieve as close to a self-sufficient lifestyle here as possible. We spent time creating a brand, working out the best way to sell our produce. We have an online presence, which nets us a small amount of sales by mail order and a small shed at the croft gate, which we opened this year, selling arts, crafts, photography and produce. We sell a small amount of produce and baking to locals, local businesses and the campsite and hostel on the island.
Despite really doing our research, we still had so much we simply had not thought about before we embarked on this. We started from scratch with a bare field with no vehicular access or services and have dealt with an inhospitable climate, short daylight hours in winter, plagues of midges, lots of ticks and poor soil. I suspect if we’d known the sheer magnitude of the undertaking we’d probably not have even tried and we’re really glad we did, but acceptance of our own limitations has been a tough lesson.
Despite the challenge I think all four of us would still choose having this adventure over not having it. I’m proud of what we’ve learned, how we have grown. Every small victory has such meaning and is so soul-feeding. No day at the office or trip to the supermarket back in our old lives ever gave us that.”
Daniel Butler moved with his then girlfriend to a smallholding in rural Wales in the 1990s and wrote the book Urban Dreams, Rural Realities about their experiences of escaping townie life. He now lives there with his wife, Helen, and children, William, eight, and Arthur, nine. Alongside his smallholding he runs wild mushroom safaris and writes and teaches on the subject of fungi.
For the first two or three years here we did try to do it all Ð to grow pretty much all our own meat and a lot of our own vegetables,” he says. “I’ve slowly morphed out of that. Animals are a lot of work and although I’m very good at tilling the soil and planting vegetables I tend to forget the watering and weeding. We have a couple of pigs, two or three ewes, a horse and a couple of hawks. We’ll have orphaned lambs that we’ll rear and then eat one year and a couple of pigs the next, but it’s more for the general ethos that it’s nicer to eat your own food Ð we don’t really farm.
I do a great deal of foraging for wild mushrooms and that’s how I earn a significant part of my income. I find globe artichokes grow very well and they’re incredibly beautiful and low maintenance, and chillies grow well even on a Welsh mountain Ð you can process them into quirky things for yourself and to give to friends. Chickens are dead easy if you want your own eggs, though the fox does tend to get them.
Living on a smallholding is really rewarding and there are ways to make it viable, but you have to find a niche market. It’s a big lifestyle change and you have to think it through. Don’t assume you’ll be able to sell your produce; you need to do something to add value like processing your pork into home-cured ham or salami, or turning apples into single variety cider.
I don’t regret for a moment doing what I’ve done. I live on a pittance up a Welsh mountain and I’m happier than a lot of my friends earning 10 or 20 times as much in London, who spend much of their week planning how to get away. I wouldn’t swap it for the world.”