What is it?
A smallholding is an area of land bigger than a garden and smaller than a farm, used for productive agriculture or forestry. The lines between garden, smallholding and farm are blurred however. It’s just a very small farm – small being relative to the size of farms in that particular society. Crofts (Scotland) are smallholdings, although there is a legally-defined tenure for a croft, but not for a smallholding. Smallholdings can be comprised of families, individuals or communities, where people pool resources to hold land together.
Smallholding is still the most common livelihood in the world, even though there is a global flow from country to city (and in the West, a trickle has started in the opposite direction). The UK has larger farms than anywhere else in Europe, due to a history of deliberate policies intended to phase out smaller farms. The Enclosures were the most obvious example of this (and in Scotland, the Highland Clearances). Landowners and factory owners were often in conflict, but when it came to despatching poor farmers into cities to become factory fodder, they were in complete agreement. Also in the UK, primogeniture (passing land on to the eldest son) tended to monopolise land ownership. In France, this system was changed after the revolution, and helped to keep holdings smaller.
There have been some moves that have encouraged smallholding though. Copyhold tenure came out of the feudal system after the labour shortages caused by the Black Death, setting out the duties of peasant farmers to the lord of the manor. By the 19th century these had turned into ordinary freeholds or leaseholds. There was a smallholding revival in the early 20th century. The Liberal Party won the 1906 election on a land reform ticket, and brought in the Allotments and Smallholdings Act of 1908 that initiated county smallholdings – county councils were able to buy land and rent to smallholders. Land taxes were introduced after World War 1, and about a quarter of all English land changed hands. Many large estates were sold off for housing, land resettlement and farms. The land resettlement scheme was designed for returning soldiers, and when the depression kicked in, for unemployed rural workers.
The land resettlement scheme was finally killed off by Mrs Thatcher, and then John Major advised county councils to sell off county smallholdings. Now the situation is becoming more polarised. As farms go bust, some parts are sold to already large farmers, and some parts get sold to a variety of individual buyers, including horsey folk, leisure parks and smallholders.
What are the benefits?
Smallholdings are normally more productive per acre than larger farms – because they are farmed more intensively, and often mixed, having more than one thing on the same patch of land (eg fruit trees, sheep, chickens, bees). Also, because smallholders’ income tends to be lower, they tend to try and get as much from the land as possible (and, just maybe, because there is more love applied per acre by smallholders living on their land than large farms with absentee landlords).
Small is bountiful: smallholdings produce more food per acre than large farms
Smallholders on their own land can be more flexible, and their rewards are not just financial, so they can experiment with low-impact technologies and practices such as tree-planting, wind turbines, reed beds, rainwater harvesting, charcoal burning etc. Also, smallholders can provide more of life’s necessities for themselves and their local communities, so reducing transport distances. And of course the environmental benefits are greater if the smallholding is organic.
Smallholdings employ more people than larger farms, and so provide benefits to rural economies in terms of employment and providing locally-produced goods for sale. Smallholdings could take income from supermarkets, and put it into rural areas that have been losing jobs for years. And stronger rural communities and economies can retain more services such as buses and post offices, and support traditional skills such as blacksmithing and hedgelaying.
It’s not easy to make a living from a smallholding, but no more difficult than from a larger farm. Smallholdings offer activities that are varied, physically and mentally demanding, healthy, outside and close to nature. It’s less of a job and more of a way of life; the rewards are social, environmental – even spiritual, with greater independence from commercial pressures.
What can I do?
First you need to get some experience, find out what works well and what doesn’t, and see if the life is for you. Maybe go WWOOFing – talk to smallholders and farmers, and pick up skills.
Next work out what you want to do – market gardening, animals, or a combination of the two; or maybe something more specialised – veg box scheme, bees, mushrooms, flowers, polytunnels or point-of-lay hens. Of course you need to know how to do those things, so you need some training, some targeted WWOOFing, or a job at a specialist farm for a while.
You’ll need some money. Do you have a house to sell? Maybe you could get together with other people, buy the land together and divide it up accordingly. There will be benefits in having a cluster of smallholdings – shared vehicles and equipment, marketing, childcare, labour and bartering.
Then find some land. Word of mouth is good, and about 5-10% of estate agents specialise in land. More than half of land sales are via auctions – run by estate agents. If the land has a house already on it, it’s less likely to be sold at auction. Agricultural land in the UK is around £7000 per acre, but certain factors will bump this up, e.g. being close to a town. Woodland is less, but is catching up.
Your workload will depend on the activities you choose. On 50 acres, you could run beef cattle on a very part-time basis, but a much smaller mixed holding with vegetables could involve a lot of work, and you might need to live on your smallholding.
To live on your smallholding – you have to prove to the planners:
- that the enterprise is viable – can maintain a livelihood
- that you have a need to be there for the purposes of the enterprise
You can apply to your local planning authority to build a house, but the process could take a long time, is often unsuccessful and many people give up. An option is to build your house and apply for permission retrospectively. This not an offence, but can also take a long time. Permission is more likely for an enterprise that is demonstrably competent and financially viable. If it’s neither of those things, then you probably won’t succeed. You have to put in copious management plans with your application. Write down what you’re going to do, all the costs, and targeted profits over 3 years. If you build a single dwelling house on your smallholding and live in it continuously for 4 years (and can prove it) then you will be immune from planning enforcement (which is the equivalent of having planning permission). Being allowed to live on your smallholding can be very complicated however, and we suggest you do your homework first. Read Chapter 7’s website and DIY Planning Briefings, and/or attend a smallholding or a planning course.
Buying a smallholding with a house on already is very expensive. This route could work if you have a house to sell though – especially if the house is in London.
Thanks to Simon Fairlie of the Land for information.
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