Com­mu­nity Spirit

New to small­hold­ing or feel­ing cut off? There are many ways to make friends and start feel­ing as if you be­long to the lo­cal com­mu­nity, as Jack Smel­lie re­veals

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month - By Jack Smel­lie

An­i­mals stranded due to heavy snow­fall, flooded barns and spoilt for­age, calls for more hay and straw be­cause sheep and cat­tle re­mained end­lessly in­doors. Th­ese were all fa­mil­iar prob­lems last win­ter. Along­side all the cries for help came the heart-warm­ing tales of farm­ers and small­hold­ers com­ing to the res­cue. It is rare that peo­ple don’t lend sup­port in times of need. But what about the other times? What about the times when, as a small­holder, you want to know what you should be feed­ing your goats, or you need help moving a chicken house or you sim­ply want to talk things through with some­one?

Small­hold­ing can be quite a lonely way of life, but be­yond the farm gates or en­sconced in the millions of so­cial me­dia in­ter­ac­tions via your in­ter­net con­nec­tion there is a huge, wel­com­ing and prob­lem-solv­ing com­mu­nity just wait­ing to of­fer sup­port. No mat­ter how triv­ial, mun­dane, mad or em­bar­rass­ing your needs, some­one will be able to help. But how do you tap into this world? First of all you have to get over ‘small­holder syn­drome’ — the “I can do this on my own” at­ti­tude which can of­ten re­sult in the job be­ing done badly or not done at all.

Love thy neigh­bour

If you want to dis­cover more about your lo­cal com­mu­nity, your first port of call has to be your neigh­bours. My part­ner, David Chidgey, and I are lucky with ours. None are that close —and we rather like it that way — but the two lo­cal farm­ers whose land sur­rounds ours are friendly, wel­com­ing, un­der­stand­ing of our small­holder ways and they have been there in our hours of need and vice versa. Last spring we swapped skills and ad­vice with one on how to get a ewe to foster a lamb in ex­change for two cru­cial votes to en­sure that their grand­daugh­ter be­came the vil­lage car­ni­val queen. It was bartering at its best.

When we had our first small­hold­ing, we had more of a mix of neigh­bours — from the farmer who threat­ened to shoot our dog, to the slight recluse who had a pet steer liv­ing in his kitchen and whose idea of help was to come and lean on our fenc­ing and chat while we en­deav­oured to get the evening chores done around him. We had to go a lit­tle bit fur­ther afield to find help­ful neigh­bours then, but to the rest we were per­haps overly nice, even do­ing a weekly egg drop-off to a neigh­bour we knew had moaned to the gun-wield­ing farmer about our dogs. At least she was then nice to our faces and we didn’t much care what she said be­hind our backs.

Neigh­bour dis­putes can get ugly and if al­lowed to rum­ble on can be an emo­tional drain. It is there­fore al­ways worth­while to cul­ti­vate good re­la­tions. Apart from any­thing else, it can be a huge com­fort to know they are there. And be­cause small­hold­ers tend to be gen­er­ous sorts, as much plea­sure can be gained from giv­ing help as it can from re­ceiv­ing it. Get­ting on with your neigh­bours also has a cas­cad­ing

ef­fect be­cause if they can­not help with a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem, they will surely know some­one who can.

Mak­ing the first move when you are new to small­hold­ing can be daunt­ing, but there are var­i­ous ways of do­ing it. Meet your im­me­di­ate neigh­bours over the bound­ary fence and in­tro­duce your­self. At this point clar­ify what you un­der­stand all the bound­ary rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to be: this can save time, hassle and po­ten­tial awk­ward­ness in the fu­ture. Dur­ing th­ese first few chats it is also pru­dent to glean as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble about your new com­mu­nity. What is the lo­cal vil­lage like? Where is the near­est show?

An­other great way to get in­volved is to use lo­cal con­trac­tors for the jobs you can­not do. We hit gold when we asked a neigh­bour to rec­om­mend some­one for a fenc­ing job. It turns out that Mike Ford of Mike Ford Fenc­ing is a na­tional fenc­ing cham­pion. He not only helped with our fenc­ing, but he also went on to build field shel­ters. Through Mike we found Andy, who came with a dig­ger and sorted out a leak­ing well. It is net­work­ing at its best — all the while sup­port­ing the lo­cal econ­omy.

Mar­ket day

Live­stock mar­kets, agri­cul­tural shows and vil­lage fetes or events are all great ways of meet­ing like-minded lo­cals. Many smaller vil­lages/towns run low-key shows that boast some­thing for ev­ery­one, from an­i­mal classes and demon­stra­tions to com­pe­ti­tions to en­ter. I am still proud of the rosette won by my first dog in the cat­e­gory Dog with the wag­gi­est tail.

Shows and mar­kets are also great ways to catch up with peo­ple you only see oc­ca­sion­ally and they can pro­vide con­fir­ma­tion that you are now a part of the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

Small­hold­ing groups and so­ci­eties, such as those linked to rare breeds and wildlife, can also turn out to be use­ful net­works. Reg­u­lar meet­ings and events are per­fect op­por­tu­ni­ties to build re­la­tion­ships, swap ad­vice, gain new skills and pick up in­no­va­tive ideas. In Devon, the Devon As­so­ci­a­tion of Small­hold­ers (DASH) is par­tic­u­larly proac­tive. It runs train­ing cour­ses and monthly meets; it or­gan­ises farm walks, as well as hav­ing a pres­ence at lo­cal agri­cul­tural shows, where, among other things, it helps to pro­mote mem­bers’ small­hold­ing busi­nesses.

Find­ing that vi­tal USP

And talk­ing of busi­nesses, sell­ing pro­duce within the lo­cal com­mu­nity is a bril­liant way of get­ting your­self no­ticed. From sim­ple farm gate sales of eggs to hav­ing a stall at a farm­ers’ mar­ket or set­ting up a de­liv­ery round, sell­ing free-range, out­door reared pro­duce is sat­is­fy­ing and will help you to make a name for your­self.

You may need to come up with your own USP (Unique Sell­ing Propo­si­tion) as huge numbers of small­hold­ers have now got in on the act. Grow­ing flow­ers for cut­ting, mak­ing your own chut­neys/jams or get­ting cre­ative with wool or wil­low — all th­ese are great ad­di­tions to en­cour­age peo­ple to buy your eggs as op­posed to your neigh­bours.

There are also var­i­ous food net­works you can tap into to help you with this. The Food Assem­bly, Open Food Net­work and From Gate to Plate are just three ex­am­ples.

The in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia chan­nels have brought about a seis­mic change in how peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate with each other. On­line com­mu­ni­ties now ex­ist where peo­ple feel sup­ported, safe and bet­ter able to ask ad­vice, but choose your plat­forms and meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion wisely.

Many of the real life small­hold­ing groups will have twit­ter ac­counts and/or Face­book groups and, as such, are a great place to start. You can be­gin by fol­low­ing the tweets and posts of peo­ple you know and trust and then al­low them to lead you to other trusted places where you can find ad­vice and in­spi­ra­tion. Get­ting in­volved in an on­line com­mu­nity can be just as ben­e­fi­cial as be­ing in­volved in a real life one.

There are, how­ever, is­sues to be aware of, such as con­sult­ing your vet, not your Face­book group, when an an­i­mal is sick. You also have to be pre­pared to find your­self be­ing crit­i­cised if peo­ple dis­ap­prove of your meth­ods of do­ing things. Ad­di­tion­ally, it can be hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the un­in­formed ad­vice from the in­formed. How­ever, in­volve­ment in an on­line com­mu­nity can of­ten lead to yet more real life en­coun­ters.

As Robin MacKay from the Lake District com­ments: “It is al­ways good to try to blend into your lo­cal com­mu­nity and, if all else fails, at least pro­vide the en­ter­tain­ment.” Jack Smel­lie runs Face­book site Cel­e­brat­ing Small­hold­ing UK.

And be­cause small­hold­ers tend to be gen­er­ous sorts, as much plea­sure can be gained from giv­ing help as it can from re­ceiv­ing it

Live­stock mar­kets, agri­cul­tural shows and vil­lage fetes or events are all great ways of meet­ing like-minded lo­cals

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