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Smallholding: the basics

Gervase Poulden

18th October, 2011

From sheep to spinach, Gervase Poulden has the skinny on how to make your smallholding dreams a reality

‘Ill husbandry lieth in prison for debt: Good husbandry spieth where profit get.’
Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry


The prospect of abandoning life in the city for a Good Life-style existence on a smallholding can be intensely alluring, as Ecologist columnist and author of Brave Old World, Tom Hodgkinson can testify. ‘I didn’t think it would be hard work. My idea was that it would be some kind of Epicurian fantasy land,’ says Hodgkinson. But as 16th century husbandry expert Thomas Tusser’s couplet pithily points out, it’s not exactly a simple existence. Organic food and self-sustainability are possible – even enjoyable – but don’t expect an easy ride and don’t even think about taking the plunge without considering what the 2011 take on the Good Life really means. ‘I wouldn’t do what I’ve done which is just doing it with just one Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall book and a spade,’ says Hodgkinson. The potential rewards, however, are considerable. ‘We ate a very cosmopolitan diet with our own beer and wine. Far from doing without, we actually lived incredibly well’, says Pat Gardiner, founder of website Go-self-sufficient.com, who achieved self-sufficiency in food production for a number of years. So how do you get started?

The most important decision for a prospective smallholder is choosing where to live. ‘We found that the only place where a really suitable site could be found was west Wales’, says Chas Griffin, author of Scenes from a Smallholding. Some smallholders recommend staying close to home, as a support network of loyal friends can be vital. ‘It’s very easy when you live in the city to look out and think that the countryside is completely idyllic. It isn’t idyllic when you scrape the surface off, it’s just as belligerent and awkward as the city’, says Gardiner. By definition, a smallholding is plot of land under 50 acres but it is possible to grow more than enough food for your family with just five acres. More important than the size of your plot is how intelligently you use it. ‘A lot of planning and a lot of mental work are required. You’ve got to draw a plan of your garden and devise a proper rotation network’, comments Hodgkinson.

Vegetables
Every vegetable has its own set of pests, flaws and ideal growing conditions. ‘Each individual vegetable could be the subject of a lifetime study and we still wouldn’t understand it,’ warns Hodgkinson. Soil quality can vary dramatically, even in areas just a few miles apart, making it difficult to list ideal vegetables for different parts of the country. ‘Really, if you have a vegetable patch you should just observe the land for about a year before you do anything,’ says Hodgkinson. If you can’t wait, start your smallholding with hardier species such as lettuce, radishes and carrots. The chances of disaster can also be reduced by trying a range of varieties. ‘I don’t grow one variety of tomatoes; I grow 25, so if one thing fails another thing will come through,’ says Gardiner.

Tomatoes, peppers and cucumber Growing these vegetables unassisted out in the open will often result in a complete disaster. This should not, however, put off smallholders. A small outlay on polytunnels plus regular watering can lead to a bountiful crop of all three. ‘I recommend unusual varieties such as white tomatoes and black tomatoes, which often don’t appear on our shelves simply because they don’t travel well,’ says Gardiner.

Lettuce and kale ‘You can’t really go wrong with lettuce’, says Gardiner, and the same is true for a handful of other leafy greens such as kale. If they are given sufficient protection during the winter, these vegetables can be grown year round and they tend not to fall prone to as many pests or require as much care as others. Kale, a superfood, also benefits from having an Aggregate Nutrient Density Index score of 1000 - the highest of any food.

Root vegetables Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and radishes ‘grow best in a deep, loose soil that retains moisture yet is well-drained,’ says Vincent A. Fritz of the Horticulturist Science Department at the University of Minnesota. The soil needs to be deep and free of any stones or pebbles; otherwise you might end up with wonky carrots. If the soil is good quality and not too acidic, root vegetables will usually grow in abundance. ‘Our carrots really just went mental’, says Hodgkinson, remembering a particularly successful season.

Hedgerow fruit Elderberries, blackberries, sloes, rosehips and hops can all be found growing in the wild but that shouldn’t put you off growing your own. They require remarkably little maintenance, with the main drawback being that they sometimes grow too well – given the chance, blackberries will consume your entire garden. Frequent pruning is necessary to prevent this. Together, these bountiful fruits can be used to produce hedgerow jam.

Animals
Assuming that you aren’t vegetarian, there’s great potential in raising animals for food on a smallholding. Not only will you know exactly how well they’ve been looked after during their lifetime, you’ll also have a good idea of what they’ve been eating – dispatching concerns about antibiotics and fishmeal in the process. Animals can also provide far more than just meat. A system of ‘managed symbiosis’ can be created with animals providing fertiliser and pest control (in the shape of manure) for arable crops. Although some animals require less attention than others, they all change the nature of your commitment to your smallholding. ‘Once you get any animals, unless you’ve got some very willing and able neighbours, you’re pretty much tied to the premises,’ says Gardiner.

Chickens Chickens are an ideal species for smallholders to start with, thanks to the low initial start-up costs, reasonably small amount of food needed and the weeding they will do for you. Keeping chickens to eat can be a challenge as people in Britain consume, on average, a third of their body weight in chicken every year but you can expect an egg a day from a healthy hen. For around 25p, you can buy ex-battery hens. If you prefer ornamental or pure breeds, expect to cough up around £15 per hen. Hens will nest happily in an outhouse or a hen house, although this needs to be secure as the biggest threat to your egg supply comes from the local fox population.

Bees Beekeeping, like most types of animal husbandry, requires additional knowledge and training. Once you have learnt the skills however, bees require minimal upkeep. Weekly check-ups in summer and swarm-control in May and June, when a colony duplicates itself, will usually suffice. A well managed hive should provide you with a jar of honey every fortnight and can also help the local ecosystem by aiding pollination.

Pigs Keeping pigs is a perfect introductory course to the wonders of the modern bureaucratic state. You will need a Country Parish Holding (CPH) and a herd number, your garden may need to be assessed for suitability and you are not allowed to feed the pigs on anything that has passed through your house. If you can get past this and the initial costs, pigs can provide an abundant source of meat; averaging out at around 1000lbs per animal. Slaughtering your pig at home is illegal, and butchering it yourself is also a bad idea. ‘It took us two days to do what would take a professional 40 minutes, says Hodgkinson. ‘There are butchers, bakers and candlestick makers for a reason.’

 

Cows Perhaps the most demanding of domestic animals, cows require an abundance of land for grazing, heavy amounts of paperwork, daily milking and must reproduce to provide you with dairy products. If you’re prepared to be up bright and early every morning to milk your cow, and raise calves from birth or send them off to the slaughter house, than the rewards are great. ‘Our one dairy cow provided us with a calf every year and enough milk for both of us,’ says Gardiner. Cow manure can also be used as a fertiliser for your crops.

Sheep Sheep thrive on a gloriously simple and convenient diet of grass, which means they can double up as your lawnmower. ‘The only problem is healthcare - they seem to catch anything that’s going,’ says Griffin. Although their close relative, goats, also provide a steady supply of dairy products, their eating habits are a serious issue, as they will lay waste to your cultivated garden given the opportunity. ‘What he [the goat enthusiast] forgets is that the goats have 24 hours a day to plan to get into his garden, and he doesn’t.,’ says John Seymour in The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency.

 

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