The Good Life: reflections on the book "Pigs in Clover."

by frankbeswick

This well written book shows the problems faced by those who set off to live rural dream.

The book, Pigs in Clover" is a long book well worth reading and certainly worth the money that you spend to buy it. I appreciate the author's self-deprecating humour, but the book is not all laughs. It deals with the serious difficulties and emotional stresses of a couple who set out to abandon middle class life in London to commence a life on Exmoor in South West England and soon become smallholders, owners of a small farm, certainly a farm that is small enough to be on the edge of financial viability. They survive, but are not rich, and they do so not by farming, which is inviable on twenty acres, but by other skills that are spun off from their rural activities.

The basic story

Simon Dawson, a thirty two year old estate agent [realtor] married to a solicitor [attorney] was in a bar on Exmoor for the winter vacation when his wife admittted that she no longer wanted to be a solicitor and desired to move to Exmoor, a rural part of Devon, South West England. He was happy in his London life, but went to keep his wife content, but stayed to work in London in the family firm four days a week, commuting to Devon for long weekends.

They quickly rented a property, but soon acquired land, twenty neglected acres of sloping farmland and woods. The couple began to stock it with sheep and pigs. They kept horses and chickens. He worked for money while Debbie, his wife tended the animals, while Simon worked weekends. Their stock grew, but they had spent all their cash reserves buying the land and were spending much on animal feed with no savings to act as  a buffer against emergencies and little income coming in from the farm. It was basically what is known as a hobby farm, or better a lifestyle farm, a residence for people committed to green living.

Eventually problems began. The family firm owned by his mother and brother asked him to work part time as work was scarce, and this worsened when he was let go by the cash strapped business. He had to begin writing for a living to add to what the couple made by selling meat at farmer's markets and on their website, but although he made some cash it was insufficient. [He wrote the Self Sufficiency Bible.] Despite some television appearances cash conditions worsened, and he had to obtain a loan from his mother to keep a roof over the couple's heads. Eventually he augmented his writing by offering courses in self-reliance, and the couple are now financially solvent, though not rich.

The story

Pigs in Clover: Or How I Accidentally Fell in Love with the Good Life

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Simon Dawson comes across in the book as a basically decent human being with a good nature, and he is certainly aware of his weaknesses and doubts. However, we cannot ignore his mistakes, and we can draw some important lessons from his experiences.

Firstly, there were only three months between the decision to go and setting off to Exmoor. The couple simply sold up their flat [apartment] and drove westwards, confident of finding a  place to live, which they soon did. However, Debbie had given up a job as a solicitor, probably because this stressful occupation is not tolerable to everyone who takes it up, and although she found some temporary work as a cook, she was generally afterwards not working for cash, throwing the full burden on Simon, who faithfully bore it until his working life began to collapse. Before the collapse they had spent all their spare cash on twenty acres. Did they need this much?

Going without adequate planning is a poor decision. Sadly the decision was made on emotional grounds. Debbie had had enough.I do not blame her, but there are people who hang on to painful jobs out of duty. There are times when we have to live with the pain of a less than fulfilling occupation. The couple needed to have done more planning before they left. They certainly needed a place to live before getting into the car.

They did not have a back up plan. Yes, Simon was working in the family business, but not as an owner, and when the property market in Britian slumped during the infamous credit crunch he had to be let go to save the business. Did the couple not see it coming or did they think that his being in a family firm would save him. Debbie did not go back to work, indeed what work was there in a rural area known for limited job opportunities? She was a property solicitor, and in the credit crunch property solicitors were losing their jobs. Spending all the financial reserve to get the land was a doubtful strategy.

What did strike me as unwise was their going without a business plan. Money matters, and you have to keep enough of it coming in. If you are leaving paid employment, you have to go into self-employment or business, and this needs planning. You need to think out the economic opportunities in an area and plan how to maximise them to your advantage. To some extent the couple's planning was crisis management. It worked in the end, but it might not have done.

Observations on the Products

The couple were bent on having animals. However, not all animals were well chosen. Early on Debbie got horses, which is fine, but they provided no income and were thus a drain onthe couple's limited financial resources. Chickens, sheep, pigs,geese and goats followed, and all of these were profitable to some degree, but getting feral cats from a cats charity to live in as domestic cats was plainly unwise, and it resulted in Simon's getting a mauling that required hospital treatment.

The question that strikes me is whether they needed to place the emphasis on animals, which require much space and expensive feed. One acre given over to vegetables would have provided more than enough for a vegetarian diet for a couple [they had no children.] Other acres might have been kept for chickens and pigs, but did they need the whole twenty? My Irish mother- in-law tells me that when she was a girl in County Mayo the family  had eight acres, which they expanded to ten, and their father kept a large family on this land half the size of what was available to Simon and Debbie. More judicious use of the land would have been worthwhile, and some could have been sold or rented off to provide a financial buffer. This would have been feasible, as there are always people seeking land in Britain.Some of their land was woodland, and there is a good market in this island for people wanting their own patch of woodland/forest.

Self sufficiency

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The story of Simon and Debbie is well written and it is good to see that they have survived in their chosen lifestyle. They seem to be a likeable couple. Yet the book shows that while leaving the incredibly heavy burden of modern careers can be fulfilling, there are pitfalls to the decision. You need to go with your eyes open to the dangers, having made careful consideration and a good business plan. Your emotions are important, as they tell you that there is something wrong in your life and that you want to change, but the emotions should not control or overwhelm you. Reason should direct  your decisions, and you need to be realistic about what is  feasible in the situation.

Updated: 12/28/2013, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/13/2024

Scotland, West of Ireland, Wales

DerdriuMarriner on 02/12/2024

Thank you!

Might there be certain areas in the British Isles that seem more supportive -- such as in climate, fertility, infrastructure -- than others for "the slings and arrows of outrageous" -- ;-D --smallholding?

frankbeswick on 02/10/2024

Smallholdings are unique to the individual smallholder, so no clear patterns may be drawn.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/10/2024

Thank you!

Let's imagine that an east-side ponder - ;-D -- is affluent enough to purchase one such -- ;-D -- non-reasonably -- ;-D -- smallholding.

Might smallholdings attract a certain kind of cultivation -- such as marketable flowers or herbs or vegetables -- or would they be so individualized and personalized as to resist any such quantification?

frankbeswick on 02/09/2024

Smallholdings on top class agricultural land maybe willl work, but such land is nighnimpossible to obtain atva reasonable price.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/08/2024

Your introductory paragraph describes farming as not viable on 20 acres.

Is that amount not viable anywhere in the British Isles or just in the Exmoor area?

frankbeswick on 03/02/2023

I do not know this recipe, but its ingredients are all staples of the British diet.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/01/2023

Online sources equate the phrase "pigs in clover" with extreme happiness.

Alena Kate Pettitt, in her article Pigs in Clover: a wartime ration recipe, for the Darling Academy England site, furnishes a recipe with baking potatoes, butter, olive oil, pepper, salt, Savoy cabbage and skinned sausage.

Would that be a recipe that still is around on your, eastern side of the (Atlantic) pond and that you and your wife and your family would want from time to time, if not regularly?

AngelaJohnson on 01/30/2015

When you have livestock and other animals, your life centers around their care. It's hard to ever go away for a while unless you have great neighbors or family who will come over and feed them. With a garden, you have a little more flexibility, although you are at the mercy of the weather and harvest times.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/19/2014

frankbeswick, Your review is interesting, and your analysis of possibly avoidable pitfalls is helpful and well thought out.
Self-reliance waves alluringly before one's eyes, but the desire is not sufficient. As you point out, planning is imperative.
This couple is fortunate to have survived so many unforeseen difficulties.

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