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Journey to a smallholding

Is there money in farming, or do farmers just have money?

cherry blossom ballooning

We’ve been searching for a smallholding for a year now. It’s tiring.

We’ve seen a few places, although I have to say there hasn’t been many coming on the market, but they haven’t been suitable. Either the house needed demolishing, the land was poor, or it was just too far out of budget.

When you’re surrounded by countryside, it’s hard to believe how difficult it can be to find a field of your own.

But, while still searching, I find myself asking if we could make it work anyway? We dream of the good life, where we can be our own bosses, spend the day outside with our animals and enjoy our own produce, but where does money come into this?

We’ve had ideas of selling eggs and garden produce, rearing goats for meat, growing and selling plants. On a bigger scale, we’d like to set up glamping in shepherds huts and pods, and provide camping too, but this depends on the land we buy. Perhaps even a small farm shop.

But the more I read, the more I hear how hard it is to make any money from farming. That it is a constant struggle and that in reality, it probably wouldn’t earn enough for us to give up our day jobs. By juggling the smallholding and two full time jobs, this wouldn’t be so much the good life, as the burnt out life.

So how do you do it? Do farmers already have money, and therefore it’s all a bit of a hobby, or does farming really make enough money?

Until we buy somewhere, we won’t know what we can do on the land. Or should we decide our game plan, what we want to do, and hold out until we find the right land for the job? That could take forever, and what if the perfect place doesn’t exist?

I think compromise is the answer if we want to get anywhere soon. Find some land we can afford, where we’d be happy living, and adapt our plans to suit it.

But one question I am certainly struggling to answer, is how do people start out? The prices of smallholdings in Dorset is crazy. So are all smallholdings handed down through the generations, eliminating the need to buy? Or are they all wealthy people who decide to sell up in the city and buy a smallholding in the countryside? I wonder if the biggest challenge is actually buying a smallholding, and that what you do with it once you have it will be easier by comparison.

 

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Painting a new palace

Unfortunately the chicken coop we’ve had for the last two years has become infested with red mite. We’ve tried everything to get rid of them, but we are finally defeated. So, time for a new house.

We went to Flytes So Fancy (http://www.flytesofancy.co.uk) and they had some absolutely amazing coops for sale, but, at the risk of having to throw it away in two years if we had another infestation, we decided we couldn’t justify the price. Their customer service and knowledge was excellent though, so I would certainly recommend them. Well worth a visit.

We decided to buy a simple coop from Feel Good Uk on Amazon, and painted it using Cuprinol wood paint. It was time consuming, but looks lovely. It has cost us £150 in total, which means if we do have another infestation, we can throw it away and start again. Here are our before and after pictures:

We also purchased diatomaceous earth from our local country store, John Bright (https://johnbrightfencing.com). Their customer service and knowledge is also excellent and I would recommend them to any locals in the Bridport area.

The diatomaceous earth is used in the chicken coop and the ground in the run to help prevent and kill any mites. We covered the insides of the new house and spent time landscaping and reorganising the run, before sprinkling a good coating of the earth. Here’s their new set up:

They loved going back in and spent hours dust bathing on the newly levelled ground. However, after a few hours it looked like land mines had gone off!

Bed time was a different story. They all queued up outside the new house, not knowing where to go. It got really dark, a few bravely went in, soon coming back out again!! Eventually all but one went to bed and we had to guide the last one in. There was an awful lot of banging and shuffling inside as they decided who was going to sleep where, but eventually they settled. The following night was easier.

Egg laying was also a fuss on the first morning, as they tried to decide which nest box they preferred, but eventually they got there!

Our girls are so spoilt!

First harvests: The satisfaction of growing your own.

You can’t beat going into the garden and gathering the veg you’ll eat for tea that day. Within an hour of being picked, it’s cooked and on the table.

So far, we’ve had some lovely meals using home grown produce including courgettes, radishes, mange tout, peas, green beans, lettuce, rocket, and of course, eggs.

I always enjoy wandering around the veg beds seeing what’s growing, working out what meal I could make with what is ready to use. Much more satisfying than walking around the supermarket. The first harvest is always the most exciting.

The cucumbers and butternut squash are growing nicely, and the tomatoes are waiting to turn red. Beetroot and sweetcorn isn’t looking as promising, but we’ll see. Courgettes, marrows and green beans are doing much better than last year.

I’m already starting to think about what I’m missing, what I should grow next year, what is working well and in which location etc. Gardening is such fun, and a never ending job too!

Below are a few of our daily harvests. We pick little and often, to ensure we eat it while fresh.

 

Chickens, veg and everything else!

Since my last blog, following the fox attack, we’ve gained two new rescue hens. They haven’t been named individually as they look the same, so they have been called ‘The Twins’.

They only took a week to settle into the flock, much quicker than last time. I think we’re getting the hang of introducing new birds.

The twins seem very happy, keen to try anything remotely edible and running around the garden trying to take off like a plane down a runway! Happy rescue hens. Thank you to Taylor’s Rehoming Centre for rescuing them and allowing us to give them a home. (http://www.westdorsetrspca.org/taylors.htm)

Our other three girls, Violet, Ginger and Snowball, have all recovered well from the attack and are back to normal, although Violet still limps slightly.

One thing it did make us decide though, is not to continue with building our own chicken house. For those of you that read and follow my blog, you will know that we were building our own chicken house, for under £30.  It was going well. We have the base, sides, a door and ramp, perches, nesting boxes. Everything except the legs and the roof. However, having seen how clever a fox can be and how determined he was to get to our girls, we don’t trust our building and DIY skills. If anything happened to them again, and it was because our house wasn’t secure enough, we’d never forgive ourselves. Our chickens’ safety comes before saving money. So, apologies to anyone who was following to see how that project panned out.

On another, non chicken related note, my veg garden is growing well. We had our first meal last night using home grown peas and mange tout. I can’t say they tasted any better than shop bought, but it was satisfying to know they were out of our garden.

Pencil radishes on the other hand, have proved disappointing. Huge, promising greenery on the top, and very little beneath. They were a free pack of seeds with my order from Mr Fothergills, (http://www.mr-fothergills.co.uk/) so nothing wasted, but I wouldn’t buy them. Next year I will try the proper round radishes instead.

Last year I had rubbish luck with courgettes, only getting a single small courgette through the whole season! This year is looking more promising so far. But we will see.

Something I haven’t blogged about for a while is moving house. We’ve been to see a few properties recently. All lovely in their own way, but not quite right one way or another. To say I’m getting frustrated is an understatement.

Another frustrating thing is that I have acquired a shepherd’s hut. There’s one at my family farm, that is rotten and sunk into the ground. It’s been there for over 50 years apparently. It’s something I grew up seeing every day and would love to restore. 

At the recent Bath & West Show, I met a lovely man who restores shepherd’s huts, and to my surprise, he lives locally (www.plankbridge.com). His huts look stunning and I have no doubt that he would do a fantastic job restoring ours to something beautiful. I spoke to my Uncle about this, and he has no interest in the hut, but has said I can have it if I want it. Excellent. How exciting.

The problem? I have nowhere to put it once restored. I need to find my new home with land first. Another reason to find something soon. So now, I have run out of space in my home and garden, want to grow my chicken flock, get ducks, have more veg beds and a greenhouse, and space to put a shepherd’s hut. The list of reasons for moving is growing, but the list of properties available is not.

Still, life is good and that is something to be grateful for.

Goodbye to Rusty

During the fox attack, when Barney was taken from us, Rusty was also injured.

She was left with wounds around her tail feather and bum. I could tell she wasn’t in a good way. 

I kept an eye on her yesterday, half hoping she’d recover, half expecting her to die. 

This morning, when we let them out, she was visbly worse and had suffered a full prolapse. I don’t know if it was the wounds or the shock that caused it, or a complete coincidence. But I knew I couldn’t leave her like that.

I called my local vet, Haydons Vetenary Centre in Bridport (http://www.haydonvets.com), and they fitted me in. They are fantastic there, I’ve been taking my cat there for years, but it’s the first time I’ve visited with a chicken.

Unfortunately it wasn’t good news for Rusty, the kindest thing was to put her to sleep. I said my goodbyes and left her there. It broke my heart. Many would say “it’s only a chicken”, but to me they are pets regardless of the type of animal.

I take them on to love them, care for them and give them the best life possible. They are my children.

Rusty was an ex-battery hen rescued and rehomed by Taylors Rehoming Centre in Dorchester (http://www.westdorsetrspca.org/taylors.htm). We got her and Violet ( known as the oven ready twins!) last October. In that time Rusty has had a fantastic retirement, laid an egg every day without fail, had a fantastic character and became my favourite girl. 

I miss her already. But I know she had a good time here and I did what was best for her.

Goodbye to my Rusty girl.


Goodbye to Barney

This morning my husband went to let the girls out, it was 5:30am ish. He came running back in the house to get me.

The girls were already out of their house and in their run when he’d got there.

Except Barney.

The door to the pen had been busted in, and Barney’s feathers were all over the lawn, leading to a hole that had been dug under the fence.

Barney had gone, and a fox had taken her.

The other 4 remained, but were very subdued. Further investigation showed that Rusty had also been injured, with tears along her tail and what looks like a prolapse.

I spent all day cleaning the mess, keeping an eye on them and checking they didn’t curl up and die from shock. That can happen with chickens.

It was mid day before I  noticed that Violet was limping. There’s no sign of a wound, so I’m hoping it’s just a sprain.

Rusty isn’t looking well.

We’ve reinforced the pen, added extra bolts and latches. Burried a board under tbe bottom of the fence and secured it so the fox can’t dig under it again. But I’m still scared to go to bed tonight. Now the fox knows there’s chickens here, he’ll come back.

The girls wouldn’t go to bed tonight. They were too scared to go back into their house. That broke me. That, and the fact that earlier in the day one of them still laid an egg despite everything. 

We caught each one and put them to bed. And now we wait.

Wait to see if the fox comes back. Wait to see if Rusty makes it through the night.

We’re lucky, foxes normally slaughter them all for fun. This one was hungry and took what he needed. But that doesn’t make it any easier. 

Yesterday they had a wonderful day, roaming the garden for the second time. Barney enjoyed mooching and digging in the flower beds, which I allowed because she looked happy. I’m glad they all had that time together.

Goodbye Barney blackbird. You are missed.

A big day for our girls!

Yesterday was a big day for our girls, and for us! We let them out of their pen to free range in our garden.

Before now our garden wasn’t secure. But now we’ve had our gates and fence installed, our only security risk is the hedge, which we’ve put pallets along to stop the chickens getting through. 

So, we very nervously opened the gate, expecting them to run and scatter in all directions! But this was what actually happened…

They weren’t very adventurous at all! They stayed by the door for a long time, enjoying digging in the bark. They ventured around the garden a little bit, in a group, and after around an hour or so they took themselves back into their pen for a dustbath and nap so we closed the door again. Enough excitement for one day! 

I had such a proud mummy moment letting my girls out, worrying if they’ll be ok and what they make of it all!  Now we’ve done it once, we’ll do that every time we’re pottering around in the garden for a while. I’m not ready to leave them unsupervised yet, for their sake and my flower beds!!

This one makes me laugh… “Wait for me!!!”

Building a chicken house for less than £30!

This weekend we decided to embark on a new project that would test our DIY skills and our chicken knowledge too! We’re building a new chicken house for the girls from scratch!

The idea for the project started out because their current house is a red mite haven with so many tongue and groove hidey-holes and felt roofs, and also because should we want to get more chickens, they’d be a little too cosy when they are all in at night. I browsed several online suppliers and soon realised we’d be spending at least £150 on a new house. As the girls are supposed to be self-sufficient, they’d have to produce and sell an awful lot of eggs before they could afford to buy themselves a new home with their earnings!

So, we thought “How hard can it be to build one?!” and so at the weekend, we started our project…

We have purchased two large OSB boards (chipboard) for £15. We’ll have to buy some hinges too, but other than that, we’re hoping to put it together with wood and screws we have left over from other projects. Therefore building a chicken house for under £30, instead of spending over £150.

We’ve sourced a free sturdy pallet for the base, which we then fixed some of the OSB board onto:

 

We’ve added corner pillars from wood left over from building the porch on our bungalow:


And we’ve cut and attached 3 of the sides using more OSB board. So far, this has used 1 out of the 2 boards purchased. This should leave plenty for the remaining side which will include a door, and the roof.


By the time we had done this, rain was on its way, and our ears were ringing from using the circular saw so much, so we called it a day while we were doing well! 

Next on the list will be the remaining side, door, perches, nesting boxes and roof!

If you’d like to know if our DIY project works out, and therefore how you could build your own chicken house for next to nothing, please follow my blog and my twitter account @tan_churchill for regular updates.

 

Spring is here! Well, sort of.

This week welcomed the 1st day of March, and therefore the start of Spring. Someone should probably have told the weather.

We’ve had an awful lot of rain in Dorset this week and the weekend has been unpredictable, with lovely sunshine one minute and torrential downpours and howling wind the next.

However, this hasn’t stopped us. 

The husband, under strict instruction and supervision, pressure washed the winter sludge off the decking and back steps. 

I, meanwhile, started planting my bare root astilbes, begonias and aubrietas that I ordered from J Parkers (www.jparkers.co.uk). I haven’t ordered from them before, but found their pricing very reasonable and delivery quick and packaged well. Although, some planting instructions would be handy to refer to as I’ve never planted bare root plants before. Google came in handy and I hope they grow. 

I also started planting the first of my seeds, and so the coldframe has been brought back to life. Spring is officially here. 

The chickens enjoyed dust bathing in the sun, swiftly followed by shouting at the wind and rain. Ginger, one of our original posh birds (at the back, next to the white one), has started moulting which is reducing our daily egg count. Most chickens stop laying in Winter and start again in Spring, but no, these girls like to be different!

So that’s the beginning of Spring. There’s plenty of tasks ahead. But the sun needs to put in a little more effort. 

And finally, a question to my readers. Does anyone know what’s digging up my lawns? I’m thinking badgers.

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