Michael Littlewood and his book The Eco Smallholding
Michael Littlewood is the author of a new book, The Eco Smallholding. Here he explains why careful planning and good design are key to making your smallholding dreams come true.
Smallholders are practical people, and many look askance at the idea that they might need anything as bureaucratic as a management plan, or as fanciful as a site design. There are animals to be fed, crops to be tended, and the shed roof to repair; who has the time for planning or design?
But there are two problems, both of which every smallholder will recognise to some degree. One is that for most of us smallholding is a long-cherished dream. Many of us have spent years nurturing ideas about the animals we would like to keep, the crops we want to grow, or the conservation goals we would like to achieve. When we finally make the longanticipated move to a country property, we inevitably discover that not all of our dreams are realistic – or at least not there, or not yet. It is, therefore, necessary to reshape our dreams to fit the reality on the ground.
The other problem, given the scarcity of good smallholding properties, is that you are unlikely to find a property in move-into condition, and still less one with all of the facilities and amenities that you require. It is much more likely that you will find a property ‘with potential’, where much of the work of creating the holding you want has still to be done – or redone. If you inherit a working smallholding, you will also be inheriting your predecessor’s decisions – and their mistakes.
The combination of these two issues means that it is all too easy to impose unrealistic dreams on an unsatisfactory site – and then make the best of the results. Plenty of people do this, and are still making the best of it 20 years down the line.
When you move into a new smallholding, you will probably want to get started straight away. If you have brought livestock with you, there is little choice on that score. But at some point – and preferably sooner rather than later – you need to stop, take stock, decide what changes you want to make, and work out how you can implement them.
An ergonomic whole
Allowing a smallholding to evolve piecemeal can work, but it rarely works well. Smallholdings that have developed ‘on the hoof’ inevitably embody a degree of inefficiency: compost bins that are inconveniently far from the areas where most of the waste is generated; a vegetable plot that needs constant enrichment because it is too close to a hedge; fruit trees that never crop very well because they are planted on an exposed boundary. Planning your site as an ergonomic whole will allow you to make the right decisions about where you site the various elements in your design.
Developing a smallholding takes time, effort, energy, money, and year upon year of hard work. With so much emotional, practical and financial investment, you need to make sure that your decisions are the right ones. Success with smallholding depends on many things – determination, discipline, willingness to work hard, skill, experience and, at times, luck – but it also requires clear goals and sensible priorities. In order to translate those into day-to-day management and year-on-year progress,
Success with smallholding depends on many things – determination, discipline, willingness to work hard, skill, experience and, at times, luck – but it also requires clear goals and sensible priorities
you need to have a plan.
Most 21st-century smallholders want to manage their land holistically and organically. Our countryside is in crisis, and we need to move towards an alternative way of farming which works in harmony with nature. But this presents a further problem: conservation goals are often not compatible with plans to maintain a working – and economically viable – holding. The key to harmonising these apparently competing demands is careful planning and design. This will allow you to incorporate the important principles of eco-farming – sustainability, ecological and permacultural design, organic methods, diversification, and eco-friendly choices like renewable energy and water conservation – into your smallholding, while at the same time creating a viable enterprise.
Once you have a management plan for your property, you will have a clear vision of how to proceed, and a programme of work which will let you move towards defined and achievable goals. You will be confident that your construction projects are based on sound decisions, thus avoiding the risk of costly mistakes. You will be clear that you are using your land in the best possible way, and you will be confident that you will be able to realise your dreams in harmony with nature.
The process of making a formal plan can seem arcane and complicated, but in essence it is very simple. It involves working out where you are now, where you want to get to, and how you are going to get there. Its stages lead you logically through assessing your aspirations and your existing site, evaluating your findings, translating those into realistic objectives and the best site design, and putting your plans into practice.
The first decision is whether to produce a management plan yourself or employ a professional to do it. There are benefits to both approaches. Doing it yourself means that you can devote as much time as you
like to the process, and it will not cost you anything. You know your site best, and have the best understanding of your resources and aspirations. Creating a plan yourself will also give you a real sense of ownership of it, and that will help to motivate you in seeing it fulfilled.
However, most people do not have the time, facilities or skills to undertake all of the planning and design process – a site survey, for instance, is a job that should really be done by a professional. The experience, knowledge and objectivity of a professional can be invaluable. They will be able to undertake a proper survey and supply you with professionally drawn plans of the final site design, along with a full report containing maps, plans, and a costed work programme.
A middle way would be to employ a professional to do some or all of the work, while involving yourself fully in the information-gathering and consultation parts of the process. The process of creating a plan can be almost as important as the plan itself. It will let you clarify your aims and aspirations, and open your eyes to possibilities you may not have thought of. If you are setting out in smallholding with a partner or family, it provides a vehicle for sharing ideas, resolving disagreements, achieving consensus and securing everyone’s commitment to the successful implementation of your plan.
The planning process
The first stage in the planning process is to assess what already exists. There are two sides to this: people and property. You need to work out what you want from your land: what are your aims, aspirations and needs? The next question is what you have to offer: what skills, resources, time and money can you bring to the project? Then you need to assess your property – or the property you want. Ideally, the planning process should start before you purchase a piece of land, so that you are sure that you are buying the best site for your aspirations and needs. Once you have secured the right property, you then need to assess exactly what you have, by undertaking a thorough site
evaluation, and conducting – or preferably commissioning – a site survey.
Next, you need to analyse and evaluate your findings, interpreting all of the information provided by the site survey. You also need to revisit your aims and requirements and decide how these can best be met, in the light of what you have discovered about the site. Preliminary sketches and estimates will help you to explore different solutions to the various issues that emerge. These can form a basis for discussions, until agreement is reached on the best way forward and you are able to decide on realistic objectives for your site.
Once you have finalised your objectives, you will know what elements – buildings, enclosures, plots, trees and so on – are required to make them a reality. This means that you are now in a position to design your landscape. Using the tools of ecological and permacultural design, you can create a layout for your site which meshes with the natural ecology and connects its different elements in the most productive and ergonomic way. Using the map of your existing site as a template, you can sketch different design proposals until you have agreed on the best layout. A final design drawing can then be produced.
The final stage of the planning process is to draw up a detailed programme of work covering labour, materials, time and costs, and to make provision for monitoring and review. This is essential; the real test of a management plan is how it works in practice. A plan is a tool, not an end in itself – but it is all too easy for the process to stall with the successful completion of the design. The way to avoid this is to include a final section in your plan which sets out how it will be implemented. It is also necessary to build a degree of flexibility into your plans, and to revisit and revise them as necessary. When you are working in harmony with nature, a design for a site is a living thing, and it will continue to evolve for as long as you live there.
Setting out to create a thriving smallholding which is also sustainable, and which is productive but also gives you a congenial way of life, can be challenging – but with careful planning and design, it is entirely achievable. Get the planning right, and having the smallholding of your dreams is only a matter of time.
Michael Littlewood is a landscape designer and the author of many gardening and landscape publications. To find out more about his publications and planning and design services, visit www. ecodesignscape.co.uk An example of a plan for a smallholding
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