For all the overwhelming range offered by the modern supermarket (from Egyptian strawberries in winter to Guatemalan peas in the autumn), there is still something to be said for the joy of growing your own produce on your own plot of land.
Whether you’re a budding horticulturalist who’s caught the bug for growing your own vegetables over lockdown, or a seasoned gardener looking to go self-sufficient, a smallholding could be the ideal way for you to get closer to nature. It won’t necessarily be easy, but a smallholding can be an incredibly rewarding lifestyle.
Fresh, seasonal, environmentally-friendly produce for your table might be the result, but for many smallholders the joy is in the process.
With that seed planted in your mind, read on to find out exactly what a smallholding is, what you can grow and keep on it, and how to set one up once you’ve found your dream plot.
What is a smallholding?
A smallholding is a home with a piece of land larger than a garden but smaller than most farms. This land can be used to grow crops or rear animals. Generally acknowledged to be anything with fewer than 50 acres, smallholdings can range from small, allotment-style plots to, essentially, small mixed farms. As there’s no legal definition, the lines between garden, smallholding and small farm can be blurred but smallholdings can be divided into ‘subsistence’ (growing solely for the needs of the residents) or ‘cash crop’ (growing for profit), or sometimes a mix of both.
How much land you’ll need will depend on the balance between subsistence and cash crop farming that you’re going to be doing, as well as what you’re going to be growing. If you’re only producing for yourself and your family, you’ll need around 5 acres. There really is no set formula for the amount of land, though you should consider some factors:
How much time you want to spend on the land:
If you’re a hobbyist who’ll be working a full-time job on top of managing your smallholding you should probably look at a smaller, more manageable plot. Conversely, those who are going to be focussing the majority of their time and energy on their land might want a larger plot to plan and grow into. Either way, there’s a plot out there for you, whatever your needs.
Whether you’re going to be growing to earn money:
Growing or rearing a surplus to sell for profit can be a rewarding way to fund your smallholding. You’ll need plenty of space for future growth, but the importance of diligent planning and how you use the land can’t be understated.
How you use the land:
One of the benefits of having a smallholding can be how productively and efficiently you can use the space. Smallholdings can be more productive per acre than large farms because they often have many uses for the same patch of land (e.g. an orchard with animals and bees in). Indeed, a 2008 study from Bard College, New York, showed a strong negative correlation between farm size and yield. In a case study, farms of fewer than one hectare were twenty times as productive, per hectare, than farms of over ten hectares. This means with the right care and attention, you can do more than you think with your land.
What can I keep on my smallholding?
As a smallholder, you’re free to grow what you want on your plot of land. One of the upsides of having a smallholding can be the variety of produce that you grow throughout the year, and you’re really only limited by your own imagination and the land that you’re growing on. Various soil types (e.g. sandy, clay, silt) will suit various species of crop and it’s worth experimenting with to see how each one does. Part of the beauty of being a smallholder is getting to know your land and what can be grown on it.
If you’re looking to rear animals, there is a certain amount of admin as registration with the pertinent authorities is a must. See the next section for details.
Livestock can be a lot of work, so we recommend that if you’re new to smallholding you start small and ramp up once you’ve got the hang of things. Chickens are a great place to start: cheap, easily looked after, and producing an egg per hen per day.
Another choice is grazing animals like geese and sheep: they can take care of your grass as well as providing a source of food. Goats, too, though they have to be managed carefully to prevent them from eating your crops.
How much does it cost to set up a smallholding and what are the legalities?
On top of the cost of the land itself, there are a few barriers to entry to starting a smallholding. These can be split into two categories: start-up costs and legal admin.
Some start-up costs include:
- Buying the tools and equipment you’ll need.These could be for dealing with crops or animals, or just managing the land (second hand or shared tools are also available if you’re trying to cut costs; the smallholding community can be very generous!).
- Materials to build fences and animal housing, or plant beds (using recycled materials here can save costs).
- Labour costs to prepare the land for planting and grazing. New plots won’t be clear, verdant pasture but will probably have stones or weeds which will have to be cleared (you can do this yourself but will still have to pay for waste disposal).
This may seem like a lot, and the initial outlay shouldn’t be underestimated. However, a well-planned initial investment will last you well into the future and be worth it long term. Many opt to browse smallholdings for sale in order to get a head start on their smallholding journey.
Legal requirements mostly apply if you’re: a) keeping animals, and b) looking to sell the products of those animals on. If you ‘prepare, store and sell food’ you’ll have to register with your local environmental health department. Some of the other agencies with which you’ll have to register are:
- DEFRA (Dept. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs): if you want to keep sheep, goats or pigs.
- Animal and Plant Health Agency: pigs, cattle, and large flocks of poultry.
Rural Payments Agency: you’ll have to obtain a County Parish Holding (CPH) number from here.
- Food Standards Agency (in England and Wales) or the local environmental health department: if you want to produce and sell milk.
- AHDB Potatoes: if you grow three or more hectares of potatoes you’ll have to register and pay an annual levy.
All this can sound overwhelming, and it will be a lot of work initially, but with a good amount of planning, setting a smallholding can be a truly rewarding process. Once things are up and running, a smallholding really is a lifestyle, one that can take you from the turbulence of the modern city and closer to the pastoral idylls of yesteryear (albeit with wellies and waterproofs!). Wherever you are in your journey towards ‘The Good Life’, Addland makes it easy to find, research, buy and sell land.
- As a rule of thumb, the average family can be self-sufficient on five acres of land.
- If you want to rear animals then you’ll have to register with the specific authority. You’ll also need a CPH (County Parish Holding) number, which registers you to keep livestock.
- If you want to sell the products of your smallholding you’ll have to register with appropriate environmental health authorities.
- There are numerous courses available to learn how to grow crops and rear animals.
Do I need any farming experience to be a smallholder?
Not necessarily – anyone can learn the skills they need without any background experience. However, don’t forget that being a smallholder is a huge commitment, so it won’t hurt to get a feel for how the lifestyle suits you before jumping all in. Plenty of farms and smallholdings across the country have opportunities for volunteers to work on site, and many even run courses designed to help prepare budding smallholders for the challenges ahead.
Will I need planning permission for a smallholding?
You won’t need planning permission for any of the usual farming operations on your site, providing it’s already classed as agricultural. But if you’re planning to erect any permanent buildings on your land, whether for agricultural or residential purposes, you’ll need to apply for permission. As always with planning permission, contact your Local Planning Authority before starting any work to be sure of what’s permitted and what isn’t.
Can I sell produce from my smallholding?
Absolutely! Selling your surplus produce can be a great way to recoup some of your project’s startup costs, and there’s always a market for locally-produced food. However, if you’re going to turn your smallhold into a business you’ll need to be registered with your local environmental health department and comply with food safety and hygiene regulations. Contact your local authority to find out exactly what action you’ll need to take.