Evolution of smallholding, by Debbie Kingsley
When you look back to subsistence farming and the origins and development of smallholding ( Country Smallholding, November) it is plain to see that small-scale farming was once far from a life choice, more a necessity to avoid starvation. But what about smallholding in the 21st Century? Has the original impetus to produce our own food through need and/ or desire now been diluted?
Reflection of a wealthy nation
Notwithstanding a brief halt 10 years ago when the economic recession really bit and no one with a job was prepared to make a risky location and lifestyle change, there seems to be a steady stream of people moving out of the city to experience a slower pace of life in a rural setting. The sale of a moderate city house can buy a place in the country with accompanying land and the possibilities that brings are part of the excitement of the move.
Often the land is an important part of the equation and there will be dreams or clear plans in place as to how it will or could be used. But in many cases the realisation comes later that something needs to be done with the newly acquired land, that it is a responsibility and it takes time and thought to manage. And just like that, a spate of accidental smallholdings can start, and often flourish, although sometimes not.
This is undoubtedly a reflection of being a wealthy nation, where having a plot of land one can call one’s own is an achievable luxury.
For many, the hunt for land is the driving force behind their move and space for pigs, sheep, goats, poultry, a notable veg patch and an orchard are more important than the state of the kitchen and number of bedrooms. In a country of broad economic experiences, there are increasing numbers looking for a more adorned lifestyle that may involve keeping a range of animals, many of which are put to no use other than
fun, pleasure and rescue. Part of that is an innate desire to get back to nature and be closer to the land, even if taking the animals off to the abattoir is a step too far.
Exploring different approaches
With a commitment to the land, there are so many ways of doing things and there is much expertise and passion that can be accessed globally, inspiring smallholders to try approaches that appeal. Permaculture. Bio dynamics. Bio-intensive. No-dig. Mob-grazing. Pasture fed. Rare breeds. New breeds. These are just a few examples of what inspires. However, there are still plenty of people focussed on a commercialon-a-small-scale ethos. Taking their lead from larger scale farming practices, smallholders are rearing butchers’ lambs for size and conformation, choosing breeds that reproduce more than once a year, concentrating on calf rearing, or developing a name as a breeder of top quality rams, bucks, bulls and chickens.
Those with the pluck and investment capital are all about creating rather than following trends, and this is certainly pursued lucratively at smallholder level — the creation of new colours of chickens, developing new cross breeds of sheep, such as the British Lavender, importing beautiful new breeds, such as the Red Fox sheep of Coburg or the Swiss Valais Blacknose.
The time when creating a niche market to make a living off the smallholding meant yet another artisan pork sausage has definitely moved on. Now you can make alpaca sausages, a huge variety of charcuterie influenced by flavours and practices from around the world and grow extraordinary vegetables from yard long beans to Ulluco tubers from South America, or edible flowers of every colour, much loved by top end restaurants and entirely appropriate for growing on smaller plots.
Livestock as pets
An increasingly popular activity is the rearing for sale and keeping of livestock as pets. This is a far cry from the original smallholding ethos, where everything produced was for consumption by the producer or their customer. Again, this is an indicator of a moneyed society, where we can indulge in statement livestock that enhance the look and feel of a country home. In the past this role was carried out by the peacock, but pet pigs, camelids, sheep, cattle, wallabies, emus and more now strut their stuff in endearing fashion. Of course, the care of such creatures is no less demanding than those raised for meat. Readers will have differing opinions on whether this constitutes smallholding.
Producing our own food
Talking to smallholders it is clear that for many there remains an overpowering drive to produce our own food. Sometimes it is a financial necessity, more often it is about growing the very best fresh food, including luxuries, such as asparagus, baby salad potatoes, raspberries and peas and beans that haven’t been flown in from Peru or Kenya.
Increasingly, raising and growing one’s own food is down to anger, fear, distrust and irritation directed at corporate food manufacturers, whether it is a hatred of the unnecessary use of plastics, horse meat scandals or deliberately misleading labelling. Decreasing one’s reliance on processed foods and intensively farmed animals is a strong driver for smallholders, as is certainty about provenance and animal welfare. A love of cooking is surprisingly rarely mentioned (perhaps it seems too obvious), but if you are cooking from scratch, having the best possible raw ingredients does justice to the time and effort you put into preparing meals. Every new pig keeper is amazed at how good their home-grown pork tastes.
What are the drivers behind smallholding?
If the origin of smallholding was the necessity of feeding oneself, that has moved on and there are new drivers at play. Having