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
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.
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