Managing the work
How do you find the time to do all the work involved in smallholding? Career smallholder Tim Tyne offers some thoughts…
‘It is beyond the capabilities of any couple, comfortably, to try to do what we have attempted. If a married couple settled down on five or 10 acres of good land, in the British climate, and devoted their entire time to being self-supporting in food, clothes and artefacts; and if they knew how to do it, and had the necessary stock and equipment, already paid for, they could succeed. They would be working just the 15 hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days of the year… …They would be very healthy doing this, they would not be bored… …but they might sometimes wish they could sit down.’
Almost without exception, anyone we talk to about our self-sufficient lifestyle will, at some point in the conversation, ask how on earth we manage to do all these things, and where do we find the time? Usually these questions are directed at Dot, when people discover that, in addition to all the usual domestic chores associated with the management of a family home, such as the daily cooking (no ready meals or fast food in our house!), cleaning and washing, she also bakes all our bread, biscuits and cakes, churns all our butter (not to mention the ice cream and yoghurt that she makes) and grows all of our vegetables (and preserves the surplus). This is in addition to having a part-time, home- based office job that keeps her tied to her desk from 9am to 5pm, two days a week. She also does the school run, checks our outlying sheep and helps me with the other livestock whenever required. I receive my fair share of the comments too, although to be honest, living as we do in an area where the landscape is dominated by small and medium-sized family farms, what I do on a daily basis doesn’t really seem much out of the ordinary. Having said that, there aren’t many people whose activities are quite so diverse as my own.
But do we really work hard to achieve the lifestyle that we’re lucky enough to enjoy, or is it just that everyone else has got lazy, softened by the comforts of a 37-hour basic working week, two days off out of every seven, paid holidays and numerous other benefits? Compared to that, our average working week of around 70 hours, rising to 100 hours at times, may seem a trifle excessive (particularly when the ‘Working Time Directive’ sets a legal maximum of 48 hours per week for employees), but
the really ironic twist is that many of the questioners have a regular job in order to be able to afford to do the things that we call ‘work’ in their leisure time. For us, on the other hand, the distinction between work and leisure is decidedly blurred. For example, if I spend a sunny summer afternoon out in my kayak, hoping to catch some mackerel to re-stock the freezer, am I taking time off, or am I still working? The alternative would be to spend a few hours in ‘normal’ employment in order to earn enough cash to buy fish for supper in the supermarket on my way home. I know which course of action I prefer. Likewise when I go shooting, which I do primarily for pest control purposes and for the pot, is this work or pleasure?
‘Economics is a great science,’ said John Seymour, ‘but it falls down flat on its face when it tries to equate all goods with money. It is inefficient, any agricultural economist will tell you, for me to hand-milk a cow. But what if I like hand-milking a cow? What is the economist going to say about that? Has any economist ever tried to measure the ‘efficiency’ of playing golf? And what if a couple of gallons of milk a day derive from my activity of handmilking a cow? Does that make it any less ‘efficient’ than if I spent the time playing golf?’
In days gone by…
I believe that the workload associated with our lifestyle is little different to that endured by any small-scale farming family of around a couple of hundred years ago. In fact, the hours we work are probably considerably less; in The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife, 1796-1797, Anne Hughes describes being ‘Up betimes, and to the washen, for which the carter’s wife here at 4 of the clock’. On another occasion she rewards her maidservant for devoted service by giving her permission to ‘lie abed till six of the clock, which did please her’. Much more recently (c. 1940), in The Farming Ladder, author George Henderson writes ‘Working from 4.30am to dark, and every penny we could find reinvested in stock and on the land, we had neither the time nor the money for amusements’. 4.30am ‘til dark is one hell of a long working day, particularly during the summer months, and, while I don’t mind doing it on occasions, I don’t think I’d want to make it my regular routine. However, Mr Henderson doesn’t stop there, for in another chapter he states that ‘It is a remarkable thing that so many farmers will work late in summer, but stop at dusk in winter simply for want of efficient lighting. There is hardly a job we have not done at night, and there is no hour of the day or night which I have not heard Kiddington church clock strike out when the wind is in the south.’ Sometimes I wonder if the Henderson brothers were superhuman!
It is of course worth considering that even such a small farm as ours would, once upon a time in the days when labour could be hired for a few pence, have had not only a team of men working on the land but also some domestic help and probably a dairymaid as well. However, in the modern context, aren’t these positions simply replaced by the labour saving devices that we have at our disposal nowadays? So the lack of a dairymaid and domestic help is replaced by an electric butter churn, vacuum cleaner, washing machine and so on, and outdoors we have the benefit of a milking machine, a four-wheel-drive tractor, quad bike and various other implements which do away with the need for additional full-time labourers.
Another consideration is that, while most of the people who comment on our seemingly insurmountable workload are viewing our way of life very much from the outside, we’ve never done anything else. I was brought up on a productive smallholding, where all the family were expected to shoulder some of the burden and responsibility, and Dot quickly adapted to the lifestyle when she met me and I dragged her off to spend a few years living in isolation on small offshore island. We were both in our early 20s at the time, and that experience, coupled with my upbringing, gave us the resilience, the perseverance and the stamina to continue to do what we do, on a daily basis, year after year, with only occasional outside assistance.
(I do think it might be nice to have a fulltime dairymaid though, but Dot’s not so keen on the idea. Can’t think why…)
Do we really work hard to enjoy the lifestyle?
The Tyne family at work with the sheep
Then there’s machinery to fix....
Dot Tyne juggles lots of smallhdlding tasks with family commitments and a part-time job
Dot Tyne in the veg garden
Tim erecting new fencing