Living off your land: the Practicalities of the Good Life

by frankbeswick

You can do quite a lot of with a small patch of land if you know what to do and can plan.

Some of us are lucky enough to be able to purchase a small patch of land, and we want to be able to make the most of it. Some people will use it purely for leisure, for example keeping horses for recreational riding. Others may use it for shooting. But there are those among us who want to lead the good life, growing our own crops and keeping animals. There is good advice available to those who want to live, at least partly off their land.

Basic assumptions

Suppose that you acquire some agricultural land. It is unlikely to be prime grade, as this is expensive, in great demand and becoming more expensive as time goes on. It will most likely to be marginal land, not as fertile as the prime grade stuff, but you can do something with it. I am going to assume that you get a few acres. Where it is you will have to decide for yourself, but if you are in the USA it is more likely to be in the eastern states or the North West, rather than on the prairies; and if you are in Britain it is most likely to be in the North or West,or to a lesser extent anywhere but London,  though there are opportunities elsewhere.

Firstly, there is a juggling act to do, because you will need to continue to have an income. This means either a job or a business. A business is under your control, while a job is not. It makes sense to have a business that you can do in the evenings, when it is darker. I do private tuition and exam marking. You must ensure that the business thrives because it provides the financial resources that you will need and a small plot cannot offer. Some people are  portfolio persons, having a network of small opportunities, and this is useful because when one fails or weakens the others may survive. You can look for other business opportunities as your farm develops.

You need to do a survey of your land, working out what you have and what you need. If you have woods on your land then you might think of keeping organic pigs, which will forage for roots in the woods, but you need to fence them well and train them to come when you call. You can do this by getting them used to the sound of a bowl of mash being banged with a spoon. But do not keep pigs if you are sentimental about having them killed. Pigs are ony kept for meat. If you are vegetarian do not think of pigs. If you are near the sea there may be opportunities for fishing or shellfish collection, though the latter is often subject to local laws and you will need to ensure that you only collect from clean waters for fear of infection, and you must not collect shellfish in summer months or when there are dangerous algal blooms in the sea.

You need to identify any areas of your land that need improving or where there is danger to you, your family or the public. Then you must do something about the danger. Dangerous trees should be felled, but this should be done with maximum consideration of safety. Never bring down a big tree on your own; and always have proper gear for felling.

Also needed is some idea of what tools you need and where you can buy or hire them. If you are getting a quad bike, beware. They are dangerous if you are riding them across a slope, as they can topple and crush you.

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What to do with the land

Personally, I would always have an acre of vegetables, but ensure that you have a wide variety so as to avoid gluts of one kind.  Even if the land is marginal, you can always have raised beds, and any land can be improved by the addition of compost and manure. It is important to identify any persistent weeds on your land and begin to eliminate them, but this may take time. In Britain we have Japanese knotweed, which is so invasive it is illegal to grow it and must be destroyed or taken to a special disposal site. We also have Oxford ragwort, which is toxic to cattle, and the over-abundant Himalayan Balsam, which grows by streams and rivers.

Keeping the land fertile is important, so you will need to bring in compost and manure. If you are near the sea, then you can collect seaweed, which is  marvellous fertiliser. If you have chickens then their manure will be great for the land. Waste plant material should be composted, so you will need compost bins.

One area where some people make money is worm farming. They have worm bins into which they put compost worms, which are not earth worms, but brandlings  or some other species that can only live in compost. These farmers sell them to fishing companies, but they can also make great food for pigs. However, dealing with the worms is time consuming and messy,so not everyone likes the job.

You might also grow mushrooms. These generally need a building, and some species, such as shiitake, require warm conditions, though agarics, the conventional mushrooms that you see in shops, and oyster mushrooms need less heat. There are some people who turn mushroom farming into a serious business, which can be done in small spaces.

Many people keep poultry of various kinds, but once you get animals you have a commitment. You need to house and feed them and you cannot just go off for a weekend and leave them, or they might starve. they must be fed and watered properly, and you need to ensure that they are properly protected against predators. Foxes can get into a chicken coop, and they will kill every bird in it, so you must pay attention to their security and keep it checked all the time. Rats are also attracted to chickens, and while they are not as likely to kill they can take eggs. You must, though, be tough enough to despatch a chicken when necessary. Even if you are vegetarian, there will be times when a bird or other frm creature must be put down for mercy's sake.

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Some males are necessary.

No, this is not a feminist's concession to realism, but a simple fact. Generally, you keep females for milk and eggs, but no female lactates without a male to impregnate her. So if you want to keep a cow or goats for milk, you will either need to keep a male for this purpose, or you will need to buy in the services of a suitable male. You might find a friendly farmer, but generally they sell their males' services, so you will need cash. Getting a bull is incredibly expensive, and few smallholders are able to afford one. They also  take careful handling, and a farmer told me that dairy breed bulls are the most dangerous kind.

If you want piglets then you will need two or more sows and a boar: two because boars need a harem. Boars are large, smelly and potentially aggressive. It might be better to purchase their services for a day or two, but then you will need to have a vehicle to transport the sows to their prospective mate. You cannot do this in the family car, as pigs smell bad.

Male chickens, cockerels, seem better, as they are smaller than large animals like boars or bulls, but there are pitfalls. They make a noise every morning, and the neighbours may not be happy. They exist only for breeding and do not make good meat, being useful when they are finally put down as a pot boiler, cheap stewing meat. Two or more adult cocks will fight.But they are only necesary if you want to breed chickens, as even without a male females produce eggs. The eggs which you eat are their unfertilised ovulations.The chickens are uninterested in them, so they just drop and leave them. They only sit on the fertilised eggs.

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Chickens and Eggs

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Structures and Defence

A vehicle to convey farm gear and animals around is important, especially after the incident of the chicken manure. I purchased bags of concentrated chicken manure and ferried them home in the family car [no other choice] and one leaked. Wife and daughter were most unhappy. "Cars are for chicken manure, not daughters! I'm only your daughter, what do I count where chicken manure is concerned?" This went on for several days. I need a van!

Some structures are useful. A polytunnel for bringing on sensitive vegetables and for winter and spring growing is important, but remember that the covering decays and you will need to replace it every few years. You also need to ensure that it is properly installed, to protect it from blowing away in strong wind. Keep it away from sharp claws. If you get a greenhouse use glass rather than plastic coverings, but it is more expensive, A shed for storing tools is useful.

However, if you keep animals you need housing for them. Sheep need to be brought indoors for lambing, a time when the ewes need comfort. You also need to be ready to help them during the birthing. If you keep sheep you need a sheepdog, and it is expensive to purchase any trained dog, especially a good one. Pigs need to have pig arks, which are simple structures, but like lambing sheds they need straw, and this should be kept fresh. A regular supply of fresh straw is an absolute must. Each kind of fowl, such as chickens and ducks, needs its own housing, and it is vital that it be kept properly fenced. Regular  cleaning is vital, but the waste can be put into the compost heap.

Being aware of predators is vital. In Britain our main trouble is foxes, which take chickens and lambs. Foxes might be cute, but only to non-farmers. They can be savage, and there was a case in Britain only a year or so ago when one entered a house in a town and attacked a baby. Fortunately, the attack was non-fatal. Rabbits also take crops in abundance, so vegetables need to be protected. Rabbit wire is a net that is dug into the ground to more than a foot in depth, and it it does deter them.  Many farmers use a shotgun. Woodpigeons in this island have taken to attacking cabbage crops, which need to be properly netted.

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Conclusion

Done realistically having your own land is a dream, as long as you keep your feet grounded in the reality.  A down to earth approach is vital. The biggest mistake is letting the dream take over and doing more than you can handle or afford.

It is also important to  realize that agriculture is a skill that you need to learn. You should not dive in inexperienced. It is important to take courses and learn new skills and acquire new knowledge all the time. You also need the skills and equipment to preserve your bounty, otherwise it will go to waste.

Updated: 12/30/2013, frankbeswick
 
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AngelaJohnson on 01/30/2015

Start small with a few raised beds and see what you can handle. You'll learn from each year's crops and know what works and what doesn't. Joining a local community or club will get you involved with your neighbors and you can learn from them, too.

VioletteRose on 01/12/2014

Thank for the tips, I grew up in a place where we had a big garden and lots of trees. We had many varieties of fruiting and flowering trees and I had lot of space to grow plants. Now I have 3 balconies where I try to grow plants in containers, I would love to grow plants like tomatoes, peppers or some leafy vegetables there. I already have sfew plants with and without flowers.

frankbeswick on 01/02/2014

It is important to grasp the chance. Make the opportunity. I don't know what facilities you have, but even if you only have balcony or window ledges, start to grow in containers. You can grow some plants like tomatoes and peppers indoors, and India is good territory for them. If you ever need advice, message me and I will give it. I am qualified in Horticulture and taught it in a school, quite successfully.

One tip: don't have too much weight for a balcony. Another tip: never let the soil in containers dry out.

VioletteRose on 01/02/2014

Nice article, I would like to grow fruits and vegetables and flowering plants if I have a chance.

Sheri_Oz on 12/31/2013

You've got point here that are useful for those who only have a small yard behind their houses (like me).

jptanabe on 12/30/2013

Excellent advice! My brother-in-law grows fruit and vegetables - no animals, he lets the local farmers deal with them.

AbbyFitz on 12/30/2013

It sounds like you're quite a busy man. I hope your little farm is successful.

ologsinquito on 12/30/2013

This is great, practical advice. People who have a little land, and know what to do with it, are truly blessed. I'm pinning this to My Wizzley Writing Board.

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