Rosemary Champion, aka the Accidental Smallholder, runs a 12-acre smallholding in the east of Scotland.
In the first of a six-part series in partnership with NFU Mutual, Rosemary, a driving force in the creation of the Scottish Smallholder Festival shares her experiences and provides five tops tips for any prospective smallholder.
“The much-loved TV series “The Good Life” has much to answer for. The story of Tom and Barbara Good’s quest to live a self-sufficient life in suburbia is still hugely popular but for many, the dream is a few acres in the countryside – a smallholding!
1. Do your research
Before committing to becoming a smallholder, it’s a good idea to do a bit of thinking and research. This would seem to be self-evident but it’s not. Having responsibility for the stewardship of land – which is, after all, a finite and vital resource – and ensuring its purposeful use is a big commitment in terms of time and money, so it should not be entered into lightly.
Even if you aren’t planning to try to make a living from your smallholding, doing a bit of business planning is a sound investment of time. Consult the family and any like-minded friends. Running a smallholding, especially if you have livestock is a 24/7 commitment so it’s good to have support and backup that allows you to have some time off, access some additional labour or even to just have a moan to someone sympathetic. In the wee small hours, when lambing, calving or farrowing is not going well, it’s essential to have moral support. And someone to bring you a cup of tea and chocolate.
2. Have a plan
Think about what your aims are for your smallholding and develop a plan to achieve them; this can help avoid expensive mistakes. Of course, plans change over time but the planning process itself is key. Whilst planning make sure you involve anyone else who is involved in the running of the smallholding, even if it’s the tea maker or chocolate supplier.
Even if your main aim is simply to produce food for yourselves and family, you may still find yourself with a surplus. Consider selling this to local people – folk appreciate being able to buy good quality food of known provenance with low food miles. And there can be advantages in being a small food business, especially in relation to VAT. This isn’t chargeable on most food products but being registered allows you to claim back VAT on business purchases – very helpful in the early days when you may be investing in your smallholding’s infrastructure.
If you are thinking at the outset about establishing a land-based or other business on your smallholding, then you will want to be considering things like access to markets, grant funding (remember most agricultural grant schemes are only available to holdings above a minimum acreage, so check this before you purchase, if it is likely to be relevant to you), cash flow and other business considerations.
3. Make plans for your livestock
If livestock features in your plans, then some serious thinking is essential. The welfare of the animals must have the highest priority – and keeping any livestock, regardless of numbers, means that you are subject to the same legislative requirements as any other farmer. If you can get yourself some hands on experience before committing yourself, then do so. Or go on a few courses. At the very least, read some books. And unless you want to become a petting farm or an animal sanctuary, learn to say “no” to those who think it would be a really good idea if you “adopted” a variety of elderly animals “because you’ve got a nice field and plenty room”. It’s easy to end up overstocked with animals that make no contribution to the aims of your smallholding.
4. Protect yourself
Do give some thought to seemingly boring stuff like insurance and security. As a smallholder, you will build up a range of equipment that will need to be insured; you also need to take advice on other insurances like public, product and employers liability (even if you only plan to use volunteer labour). Expert advice will prove invaluable.
Your local police will have specialists in rural crime prevention – arranging a wee visit and a chat on how you can best secure your property and possessions is a good investment.
And also think about biosecurity – which the police won’t be able to help you with but your vet will – and how you will protect your livestock from disease. A good boundary fence round your property is a must – and if you can double fence and plant a good, robust native hedge between the two fences, you’ll be helping to address security and biosecurity concerns, while also helping wildlife and even providing opportunities for foraging food.
5. Record your progress
Taking photos and keeping a blog might not seem like the highest priority but it’s all too easy to get disheartened by what still needs to be done and to lose sight of the progress you’ve made. Your diary will also be an invaluable tool for identifying areas for improvement – you think you’ll remember, but you won’t. Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself!”