Smallholding: introduction

“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.” – Abraham Lincoln

What is smallholding?

A smallholding is a residential site with more land than a garden, but less than a farm. The land is typically used for productive mixed crops including livestock and woodland management for fuel. Often there will be growing both for the needs of the residents (subsistence farming) and for cash crops.  The lines between garden, smallholding and farm are blurred but basically a smallholding is just a very small mixed 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.

A bit of land will give you the opportunity to try lots of low-impact technologies, from wind turbines, compost loos and reed beds to rainwater harvesting and charcoal burning (pictured); all can save money or possibly provide an income.

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.

As well as commercial activities, most smallholdings will have free-range chickens, a log pile, compost heaps and kitchen garden.

There have been some moves that have encouraged smallholding, however. 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 then 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.

Here’s some inspiration for potential smallholders.

What are the benefits of smallholding?


Smallholdings can be more productive per acre than larger farms because they often have many uses for the same patch of land e.g. a fruit orchard containing sheep, chickens and bees. Crop output can benefit from the inter-relationships between species when grown together i.e. polyculture versus monoculture (and, just maybe, when there is more love applied per acre by smallholders living on and from their land than large farms with huge subsidies and absentee landlords).

Small is bountiful: smallholdings produce more food per acre than large farms; Scientific American agrees, as does the UN; and here’s GRAIN’s report. For those who think industrial agriculture is more ‘efficient’, they can surely only mean in the very short term, as industrial agriculture destroys soil, which is catastrophic for farming in the long term.

Crofts are traditional smallholdings found in the Scottish Highlands. Image: Scottish Crofting Federation.


Smallholders on their own land are often inventive with their methods and harvests, as their rewards are not purely financial. Many experiment with low-impact practices and technologies such as tree-planting, wind turbines, reed beds, rainwater harvesting, charcoal burning etc. As smallholders can provide  more of life’s necessities for themselves and their local communities there are reduced transport needs and associated fossil fuel usage. The varied activities on a mixed smallholding allow and encourage more biodiversity and of course, environmental benefits are far greater if the smallholding doesn’t use toxic pesticides and builds soil with compost and manure rather than applying synthetic chemicals.

When it comes to building a home on a smallholding, you can go super-eco, like this roundhouse in Wales – off-grid, turf roof and made from timber harvested from the property – which received retrospective planning permission.


Smallholdings employ more people per hectare than larger farms, and so provide benefits to rural economies in terms of employment and locally-produced goods for sale. Buying from smallholdings (see below) rather than supermarkets helps keep money local, which is important because stronger rural communities and economies can retain more services such as buses and post offices, and can 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, creative, outdoors and close to nature. It’s less of a job and more of a way of life – in fact another word for smallholding is lifestyle farming. The rewards are social, environmental and we might even say spiritual, with greater independence from commercial pressures.

And here’s some excellent advice for budding smallholders (with not much money – although not exactly ‘no money) from a new smallholder.

What can I do?

It’s important that you get some experience, find out what works well and what doesn’t, and see if the lifestyle is for you. Many people use WWOOFing as an opportunity to talk to smallholders and farmers, or an apprenticeship to 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, wood fuel, 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.

There’s a huge range of commercial activities available to smallholders – fruit & veg, meat, dairy, firewood, honey, eggs, even eco-tourism; often it will depend on the local environment. Sheep, for example, are more suited to higher ground (pictured is a small flock of Jacob sheep).

You’ll need some money. If you don’t have a house to sell it’s increasingly common to 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 being able to get away for the occasional holiday.

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. Woodland tends to be less expensive than agricultural land, but it’s catching up. Also, an online search will help you find sites with listings of land suitable for smallholdings for sale – like this one for example, or this one for advice on getting land.

Offering yurt, tipi or ‘glamping’ holidays can bring in extra income for smallholders – especially in beautiful areas of the country.

Your workload will depend on the activities you choose. On 50 acres it might be possible to run beef cattle on a very part-time basis, but a smaller more intensively-run mixed holding with vegetables could involve a lot more work. If you’re going to run a successful smallholding, you’re going to need outlets for your produce. To avoid the exploitation of corporate supermarkets, there are various, local, direct options, such as:

The Ecological Land Co-op provides land with planning permission to build a home for new entrants into smallholding.

How can I get started if I can’t afford a holding with residential permission?

This is a question asked by lots of people because, unless you have a house to sell, getting a smallholding with a house on is usually prohibitively expensive. But buying land and attempting to get permission to live on it is not a decision to take lightly either. To live on your smallholding – you have to prove to the planners:

  1. that your enterprise is viable and can maintain a livelihood
  2. 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. Things are easier if you live in Wales, due to the One Planet Development policy.

This home was the first to gain planning permission in Wales under the One Planet Development planning law.

One 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. See here for more information on obtaining planning permission generally, and here for advice on obtaining planning permission in the countryside from someone who did it. Read Chapter 7’s website and Rural Planning Handbook, and/or attend a smallholding or a planning course. Also be aware of the Ecological Land Coop, who are successfully buying plots of land and gaining permission for committed growers to live there legally.

Thanks to Simon Fairlie of the Land for information.

The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.

Chris Smaje runs Vallis Veg, an 18-acre farm in Somerset – woodland, grassland, orchard and cropland for vegetables sold locally. There are also educational events, camping and livestock raised on a semi-commercial basis. His blog  looks at the political (mostly) but also practical case for small-scale agriculture; he helped his holding become a thriving enterprise with permanent planning permission for an agricultural dwelling.

We'd love to hear your comments, tips and advice on this topic, and if you post a query, we'll try to get a specialist in our network to answer it for you.