Life as a Smallholder
What possesses anyone to become a smallholder and what is a smallholder? Why do you want to grow/rear/make your own food? How much land do you need? Is it difficult to look after pigs, poultry, goats, etc. What do you feed them?
A few short years ago I couldn’t have answered one of these questions and now the answers trip off my tongue because I get asked so often. Long ago no one would have batted an eyelid at what I am doing because everyone did the same. Somewhere along the way – we lost our way and supermarkets became God. And then, as with everything in human existence, they are began to slowly fall out of favour and the wheel is creaks back to whence it began.
What is a smallholder?
So a smallholder, apart from being a bit of a rural attraction and considered a bit eccentric, is someone like me who rears a small number of animals or grows food for their own table. There is no absolute definition. The Department of Agriculture has no actual definition. In view of this I am going to try and shine a light on what it is I, and others like me do and hopefully amuse, entertain and inform you. I will outline the highs, the lows and the downright crazy stuff that goes with living on a smallholding with dogs, cats, hens, ducks, pigs and goats.
Finding the right farm
Just over a year ago I literally upped sticks and moved with all my animals from north Meath to south Wexford. I found this place after viewing 10 other properties. I needed a small amount of land (I decided at least 2 acres) and some outhouses. The other criteria was that the house should be old and absolutely not a bungalow. Easier said than done because in Ireland it’s much easier to find a place with 20+ acres or what is described as a garden but is usually the guts of an acre. I never intended moving this far south but I when I saw the details of this place, after trawling through 20 pages on MyHome, I knew I had found what I was looking for.
Moving animals is stressful at the best of times but moving them from their home to another is even more so. And following a banger of a trailer on the motorway watching a wonky back wheel is enough to make your hair turn grey. Most smallholders don’t have the benefit of owning tractors, trailers, muck spreaders, toppers etc and all the machinery that makes managing land and animals so much easier. Most of us make do with begging or borrowing equipment or if we do have it, it’s long since seen its heyday. My abiding memory of that day will be Honky (my pet pig)… yes, I know that’s not supposed to happen but it did… stick her snout out of the old rattly cattle trailer and grunt a greeting at an elderly woman coming out of her gate to walk her dog. We were inching through the town in a bank holiday backlog and despite the stress I laughed and laughed at the shock on that poor woman’s face.
Smallholding won’t make you rich
I suppose the ultimate aim of every smallholder is to try and make some money from your hard work but if that is your motivation, forget it. You are unlikely to ever cover more than your costs but you do get to live and eat well. A UK survey found that this is a dream for a large portion of the population. People have become increasingly disillusioned with our food production system and having so little control. They want to escape the rat race and live life at a slower pace. There are ways you can boost your income although you may never be able to give up the day job.
The benefit of sites like Your Local Food Network is – it puts people of a similar viewpoint in touch with each other to sell, buy or barter food. There is so much more interest now in buying local, seasonal, chemical-free, organic food that can’t be easily bought in shops or supermarkets. And let’s face it, there are not a lot of farmers’ markets around Wexford.
Rule number one…
So what are the rules of being a smallholder? The number one rule is: DO NOT NAME THE ANIMALS YOU ARE GOING TO EAT. You can see already that I broke that one very early on. It is impossible to have a small number of animals and not get to know them intimately. It is also impossible to not name at least one of them, even if it is just Redser, Rooter or The Thug. It also makes it much easier to be able to call them if they escape into your neighbour’s pristine front garden, which they inevitably will. Hint: if this happens, bribe the neighbour with the promise of a packet of rashers and sausages and any amount of incursion will be forgiven.
After this the rest of the rules get thrown in the corner and for the most part you muddle through learning as you go. The wonderful thing about getting to know other smallholders is that they are the most helpful people you will ever meet and are willing to share the benefits of their own hard won knowledge.
I hope you will enjoy reading the rest of the “rules” and I can answer any questions you might have about what’s involved. I will also include some recipes and tips for making the most of your produce that you grew or reared.
Tales from a Smallholder is a series of posts by Margaret Griffin featuring fortnightly on the YLFN Blog. Margaret is an agricultural and food scientist turned smallholder who writes about her life at www.uppedstickswithpigs.com. She also hosts Airbnb guests on her smallholding and is available as an accredited trainer in food: cooking, baking, curing, brewing, fermenting, pigrearing and of course, smallholding.
Illustration by www.mizzwinkens.com