A Farm of Your Own

by frankbeswick

Many people dream of the good life, owning their own small farm.

What we British call smallholding, and the Americans call homesteading is a dream for many and a reality for a few. For smallholders it is a lifestyle choice, a desire to live authentically away from industrialized living, and many love what they do, otherwise they would not do it. But it is not simply "back to nature" , for the smallholder has to treat the holding as a business and ensure that the money comes into pay the bills. Perhaps the principle to follow is "Soft heart, hard head." Smallholders love nature, but they must be realistic about nature and about economics.

Image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures/18043

The Economics of it All

I regularly read Country Smallholding and Permaculture and my eyes rove to the advertisements selling smallholdings. Many show a lovely house with a few acres of land, but the price is enormous, way beyond my reach.My neighbour on the allotment bought one some time ago, but she was very well off. But you do not have to buy a massively expensive house, for some smallholders simply get hold of a field and make the most of it; and for many it is a very happy experience.

Firstly, though, let us be realistic about land.Agricultural land is divided into prime and marginal. In Britain prime agricultural land is very expensive and the price goes on rising. You will be lucky to snap up a field. But marginal land is cheaper, and it is often land like this that aspiring smallholders purchase. Often such land is in the hillier parts of the country, far from the cities, or on the margins of industrial towns. And note, you  do not need a beautiful view for a smallholding to work.There are urban farms in run down inner city areas.

But you must think of the legal side of your endeavour and learn all the laws relevant to your enterprise. In the UK  you must register your holding with the government, who will give you a number which you quote on all correspondence. You must also learn the regulations pertinent to the stock that you hold, for there is legislation concerning animal welfare, movements from the farm and slaughtering, too complex for me to go into in this article. Smallholders who offer food products made on their premises must ensure that their production system meets all the hygiene laws,which in the UK are strict.

You need also to arrange the business side of the operation, for the economics must be right.Many smallholders combine a small farm with a job or another business. Some offer courses to other would-be smallholders or growers, and others publish books or offer specialist food products. Sometimes one member of a  couple works on the holding during the week while the other works in a conventional job, this spreads the economic risks and brings in a more regular supply of money.Many businesses fail because of  cash flow problems, so would-be smallholders need a business  plan that prevents these from happening. You can never do without  a business plan with proper revenue forecasts.

Smallholders must weigh up their physical capacity, as they must not take on a load that is too much for them. This is especially so as they age. Dealing with heavy weights might be less easy for people in their sixties, and there are times when older people feel tired and need to rest. But also smallholders need to ensure that both members of a couple are not only well, but are  enthusiastic for the lifestyle, and there are marriages that have broken down because one went grudgingly along with the other partner's dream, for a while.


Managing the Operation

My father had a friend who retired to his native Wales with the dream of running his own smallholding, and he had the money to buy one. The man had everything:cows, sheep,pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys, geese and vegetables. But over the years my father noticed that when he visited his friend one of these kinds of farm animal had disappeared, as he found the burden of dealing with such a wide range arduous, especially as he was ageing. There is a lesson here. You should not over-stretch your resources and your energy. Many smallholders specialize in a limited range of stock and link this to the products that they sell. For example, someone who kept bees might specialize in honey-based products; and there are smallholders who specialize in meat products such as sausages. Some produce rare breeds and sell their meat  as a specialist product on the Internet. But as my son Andrew said pertinently to me, "There are reasons why a breed is rare." so rare breeds are not the dream way to an income that they might appear to be. If they were they would not be rare.  

Any smallholding business plan must consider the costs of machinery, which can be expensive to purchase, and there must be a decision whether to buy it or rent it. Tractors are costly. There is also the problem that not only are quad bikes costly, but they also need skilled handling, as they can turn over on slopes and crush the driver.

The capacity of the land that smallholders purchase or rent determines what can be done with it. They may have taken over a piece of land that is neglected, and the work level required can be quite high, especially if there are troublesome weeds. For example ,in Britain some land has Oxford Ragwort, which is poisonous to cattle, and so  if you are keeping cattle you need to clear it. The costs in time and money of clearing land must be realistically considered.

Some smallholders who have marginal land prefer to use polytunnels for growing vegetables. On marginal land the large scale production of crops that farms do may not be economically viable, but the answer is to work your land more like a garden.Gardens cultivate their land more intensively than farmers do, tending crops very carefully. A small, well tended acreage will produce wonders, especially if you have raised  beds and polytunnels/greenhouses.

A Small Farm in England

Image courtesy of Gaertringen
A farmyard in England
A farmyard in England

Succeeding in smallholding.

One of the keys to success in the smallholding business is finding a niche and working it. There is no point in competing with the big farmers, so bulk crops are not going to be profitable for you. Potatoes, for example, can be grown for the smallholder's own consumption, but you are not going to produce and sell them in bulk and the supermarkets like to deal with the big growers when dealing with crops like these. The same goes for dairy farming, you can sell milk to a specialist local market, but in Britain dairy farmers are going out of business in droves because milk prices are so low. Specialist milk like goat and ewe's milk do sell well.

Finding local markets is a useful idea.I met a man who grows gourmet mushrooms, but only sells in his locality.Similarly,specialist milk markets are often local. There is often a market for herbs produced locally.Local markets cut down transport costs for sellers and therefore costs for purchasers.Selling at a local farmers' market or through a farm shop often provides an outlet. Farm shops in the UK can sell only produce grown or made within a radius of I think five miles. I remember going to the farm shop of a large estate, which sold not only estate products, but also products from local farmers. There was mutual advantage in this, because the shop extended its range and the farmers gained a market for their goods.   

But markets can be specialized, and some growers sell their products on the Internet.Specialist meat and cheese products can be thus sold, but herbal products, maybe oils and creams, are very suitable for what is a special niche in the market. Some growers might establish their own nursery to sell plants. Sometimes they will sell only their own products, but they might sell those of other farms. For example, when my son worked in a tree nursery they sold their own trees, but also fruit bushes that they bought in from a nursery nearby in Wales. Both sides were advantaged by this arrangement.

Many smallholders prosper by adding value to their goods.  Instead of just selling herbs,for example, turning them into creams and oils is the more profitable option. Similarly, meat can be turned into pies and sold at farmer's markets quite profitably. There are so many ways to profit, but I think that the ideal today is to have a portfolio, a range of opportunities for earning money that complement each other. You can succeed in running a small farm, but you need hard work,imagination and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Updated: 09/20/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/20/2023

There are several routes that you could travel. There is a train route that goes to and from Car.isle in the North of England via an impressive viaduct. Journeying north from Manchester to Glencoe in Scotland is a scenic route. I like the train journey from the North West of England where I live that takes you to East Anglia, crossing hilly scenery in the Pennines right up to the large expanses of Finland in East Anglia. I enjoyed driving through Cornwall and Devon with their expanses of rolling hills and sea scenery.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/20/2023

That alters my imagining an interesting journey with different topographies visible through a window on one's left side and another on one's right.

Would there be any bus, car, train journeys of that nature that would be interesting on your, eastern side of the (Atlantic) pond?

frankbeswick on 02/17/2023

I think that such a journey would be short in duration and lacking in scenery.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/16/2023

Thank you!

Online sources identify imaginary lines -- that indicate lowland regions on one side and upland regions on the other -- from the Severn Estuary to The Wash and from the Severn to the River Trent mouth.

The Wikipedia article Tees-Exe line mentions the Cross Country Route as a railway line along most of the Severn-initiated line. The Wikipedia article CrossCountry NE-SW route notes that the line observes 100-mile (160-kilometer) hourly speeds.

Would that make a train trip along the imaginary Severn line too fast to appreciate the different lowland and upland terrains?

frankbeswick on 02/16/2023

Yes,you suspect rightly.in Britain water quality is not a problem, but you can grow near to industrial towns. Much of britain North west of the Tees
Exe line is hilly,but farming still goes on there.

To find this line take a map and find the mouth of the River Exebin the south west and trace it to the mouth of the Tees in the north east.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/15/2023

The second paragraph in your first subheading, The Economics of It All, indicates that "Firstly, though, let us be realistic about land. Agricultural land is divided into prime and marginal. In Britain prime agricultural land is very expensive and the price goes on rising. You will be lucky to snap up a field. But marginal land is cheaper, and it is often land like this that aspiring smallholders purchase. Often such land is in the hillier parts of the country, far from the cities, or on the margins of industrial towns."

Would such marginal land "just' be compromised by terrain indications -- such as being hilly or near industrial-town noise and pollution or remote -- alone or also by land- and water-quality issues?

frankbeswick on 02/05/2017

Gardeners manage their land more intensively than farmers do, and so if they are growing vegetables for personal consumption and maybe some for sale, then they can make do with less land than farmers need. Of course, animals need lots of space and the larger the animal the more space it needs.

frankbeswick on 02/05/2017

This is a good and worthwhile observation. In Britain we have smallholdings, which are small sized farms whose owners feed themselves and sell surplus produce, but often they are into niche markets. Moreover, sometimes one of the farming couple keeps an outside job. In my wife's family, in Ireland, her cousin maintains a small family beef cattle farm, but does a job as a delivery driver during the day. The cattle are tended morning and evening. This way he makes a living.

sockii on 02/05/2017

Great piece on small farming, which issues that apply in the US as well as the UK. I can certainly speak from experience as my mother decided to try to re-operate old family farmland on her own some years ago...I won't go into the losses and costs that followed in detail, but it is not something to be undertaken alone and without a LOT of experience. Out our way there are very few family, independent farms left and for good reason. It's hard to compete against the big commercial farms, as you mentioned. Also, in truth, in the past farming families could count on having a good number of children and using them for "free" labor, knowing they would in turn carry on the operations. Now? Not so much. You may need to hire a farm manager to maintain equipment, feed animals 1-2 times a day, stay through the night with birthing animals...deal with insurance in case someone is injured on your land...never mind taxes and regulations.

Those I do see being successful in small farming here today, tend to specialize in niche markets: heritage/special breeds for local markets or restaurants focusing on farm-to-table or organic meals, those selling whole animals or animal "shares" direct to consumers, etc. It all seems like a nice peaceful fantasy, an idyll way of life, until you actually try it yourself.

frankbeswick on 09/21/2016

These are extremely important points that you make. We don't get the drought problems over here that you get in parts of North America, but we are prone to the opposite, wet and unpredictable weather and flooding, with all that follows therefrom. This weather can ruin fodder crops, such as silage or hay, and vegetable crops can be diminished by bad conditions.

You are right about health, and I must say that farms are places where accidents do happen. There have been instances of elderly farmers being killed by rams, which sometimes charge from behind.

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