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Journey to a smallholding

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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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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.

One year on…

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So it’s been a year since I started this blog! So I thought I’d review what’s been happening…

What’s happened in the last year?

Plants grew from seed last spring, and mainly died in my garden in summer! Although they were much more successful in other gardens. It was my first year growing from seed though, so I’m counting it as a success that they grew in the first place!

We improved our DIY skills, much to our amazement, and built a brilliant new home for our chickens. Luckily what we built last Easter has actually been perfect for the avian flu outbreak, as it is a fully enclosed pen, with roof. The girls love it. The sides are chicken wire so they are roaming outside in the fresh air, but with the safety of secure boundaries and a clear plastic roof so they don’t even have to get wet when it’s chucking it down with rain! Over recent months we’ve adapted it to include more perches, and a gravel area as they were digging some seriously big pits… and on that subject, where does the soil go?! It seems to vanish and the pen looks like the surface of the moon! But they have great fun doing it, and they love a good dust bath in the moon craters!

Talking of chickens, we gained two new rescue hens, Violet and Rusty,  in October, which increased our flock to 5. Introducing them to the 3 posh birds was a two week slog of trying to stop them fighting and injuring eachother. At one point, I really didn’t think Violet would make it, but one morning they were suddenly getting on with eachother and they have been ever since. They really did have to establish their pecking order first though!

If I’m honest, the two new rescue hens are our favourites now. They have settled in so well and are much more friendly and I think grateful, because the life they have now is so much better than the caged battery hen life they had before. I feel proud to have given them a home, and can’t wait to get more and do it all again.

What hasn’t happened?

Moving home. We’re still on the hunt for a new home which will give us more space, more land and less neighbours! We’re constantly searching, with alerts coming through from Rightmove (www.rightmove.co.uk) almost daily, but nothing quite fits our criteria. We’ve done “drive-bys” on potentials, but ruled them out because of location, busy roads, or neighbours being too close, or the fact that estate agents seem to be photography wizards making them look much bigger and better than they really are! We’ll keep searching, but it is frustrating and a little disheartening sometimes, as it feels we’ll never find the right place.

We haven’t got a dog. My heart wants one right now, in fact, years ago, but my brain knows I need to be working less / at home more, and preferably in our new forever home (if we find it) first. Plus, I’m still not sure how our needy but very loved cat would cope with a dog, and he comes first (even before the husband).

What about the blog?

When I started this blog a year ago, I wasn’t sure if it would take off. Would I have enough to write about? Who would be interested in reading it? What if no one does? Probably the same questions as many think when starting to write a blog.

However, I’m pleased to say the blog has started to take off in recent months, with many more visitors (thank you!) and people retweeting my blog posts on Twitter. I was very proud to see comments and retweets on Twitter from Country Smallholding Magazine, Mr Fothergills, and author Simon Dawson, to name a few. Rather exciting! Thank you to everyone for their support. Please do send in any comments you have and keep sharing my content!

I’ve enjoyed writing more than I thought I would. Design has always been my main skill set, with writing second. But writing about something I’m passionate about has certainly made me more interested in writing, more so than design, a fact that I surprise myself with.

The year ahead

Expect to see more posts from me. I’m aiming to do at least one a month this year. I hope to feature more recommendations and words of advice and some funny stories along the way too!

I’ve already bought more seeds that I could possibly grow in my garden this year, so I hope they are successful in growing, and you never know, they may even provide produce too if I’m lucky!

The girls are already earning their keep, their egg sales pay for their food, as well as providing us with tasty eggs too. We don’t really have the space to increase our flock again this year, so we’ll just continue to keep our regular egg customers happy with a constant supply.

And finally, the search for our new home will continue.

Other than that, the rest of the year is a mystery to us all. Let’s see what it brings!

 

Book review: Pigs in Clover

As you will know, my blog is about my journey to a smallholding. I’m not there yet, so I gather as much information as I can and try as much as possible in the space I have, while looking for that perfect smallholding (see previous posts, such as ‘Looking for a needle in a hay stack’.

So for Christmas I was given a book: Pigs in Clover by Simon Dawson. It looks like this:

pigs-in-clover

It’s a true story about how Simon Dawson went from being a London estate agent, to a self-sufficient smallholder in Exmoor.

Whilst it was given to me so I could read someone else’s journey, so I could gather more information as to how it is done and how difficult it is, and this book certainly provides this information, it is also the funniest book I have read in a very long time.

I read the book in a week, and that was me trying to make it last. I just couldn’t put it down. Every chapter is full of witty tales and surprises.

It covered lots of areas. I hadn’t considered how poor we may be when we move to a smallholding. I have planned all the different business ventures we could have depending on the smallholding we purchase, but never really thought about how we’d cope before they are set up and successful. The book also covers death, I’ll admit I cried a bit. I haven’t had to deal with animals dying yet and I know I won’t be very good at that at all. I’m too soft. He also questions the food chain, and eating meat. Whilst I could never be vegetarian, I’m not sure how I’ll manage sending my animals (which I’m sure will end up as pets) to slaughter. I don’t want to give too much away about the book, so I’ll stop there.

The back cover says: “So join Simon and his extended animal family on this laugh-out-loud rural adventure and learn what it takes to truly survive self-sufficiency.” And that’s exactly what you get from this book. I certainly learnt a lot from the book and it also gave me a lot to think about.  But it was also highly entertaining.

Whether you are like me, wanting to be a smallholder but not there yet, or already living the good life, I have to recommend this book. Such a fantastic read. He has a second book, The Sty’s The Limit, which I hope to get for my birthday next month.

There is also a website, which I have found since reading the book. It gives lots more information about them, their smallholding and what they offer, including courses to learn about running a smallholding, how to look after free-range animals, rearing pigs and butchery. http://www.hiddenvalleypigs.co.uk/

 

Looking for a needle in a hay stack

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I’ve decided to start actively looking for that needle in a hay stack.

The biggest hurdles I am facing are auctions, and Agricultural Occupancy Conditions (AOC). Auctions are a definite no for me. The AOC needs to be investigated. An estate agent has informed me that as long as I am planning to use the land for farming, and the fact I come from a farming family, I should meet the criteria, but I need to check with the local council. That’s action 1 on the to do list.

My mortgage adviser has said I need to investigate an agricultural mortgage, my current residential mortgage would not be appropriate. I’m waiting for an agricultural mortgage specialist to call me next week. That’s action 2.

I need to find the right property, in budget. Something with land (3-10 acres, preferably flat!). Something with a house/bungalow (3 bedrooms or more) and preferably outbuildings that could be converted into holiday lets. That’s action 3. I’ve booked a viewing for Saturday for somewhere that meets all of these criteria.

It’s tough though. A lot of work is involved before you even buy the place. And then that’s where the real hard work would begin. But I look forward to the challenge.

You don’t know if you can do it until you try.

 

Little Acorns

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I went walking in the local fields this morning and suddenly realised what I would call my smallholding should I ever find and afford it… Little Acorns.

A conversation with my Mum last weekend is the reason. She quite rightly said that unless I win the lottery,  I won’t afford my dream of 10 acres, a nice house, holiday lets and animals on a smallholding any time soon. She’s right. I’m looking at £700k for that. Ouch.

But, in her wisdom, she told me to start small. “Look for small plots of land, you could afford them, you don’t have to live there at first.”  Start small. Grow big. Sell on. Then buy the perfect place.

Which made me think of the saying: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

Which led me to thinking, “Little Acorns, that would be nice.”

So there it is, a bit of a plan, and a name. Still need to find that land though.

Eggs – very eggciting!

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Finding an egg in the nesting box is always a pleasant surprise. I can’t help it, I get excited. And after nearly 6 months of having chickens, the novelty of finding eggs isn’t wearing off!

Our egg production has been varied. We started with only 1 chicken laying, so only getting the odd egg ever few days. Then 2 were laying, so we were certain to get an egg every day between them. When the third girl started her feeble attempt (it took her a while to get the hang of proper sized eggs, some were like peas!), the first chicken started to moult and stopped laying.

Throughout Winter 2 out of 3 were producing eggs, and we were getting around 10 per week. Apparently, for Winter that’s not too bad.

Last month, February, Snowball decided she was ready to start laying again, so we’re up to 3 out of 3 laying. Yesterday we got 3 eggs in one day – that’s never happened before – and hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.

With only 2 of us in the house, we don’t eat all the eggs. So we’ve started selling them. We decided £1 for a box of 6 eggs was fair enough, and nervously put our first box out in December. We practically sat in the window twitching the net curtains, waiting for the box to sell. And it did sell.

We have a few neighbours who regularly buy our eggs when we put them out for sale, plus a few strangers passing by. We’re in a quiet residential street, so we don’t have much passing trade, but hopefully enough to sell what we have spare.

Selling the eggs has earned enough to buy their next bag of pellets and shell, which means they are earning their keep and wont cost us anything going forwards.

Well done girls! Keep up the good work!

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