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Choosing your smallholding

The first challenge for those searchiing after the "good life" is to decide just exactly what you want to do. Do you like animals and all the excitements and worries they bring? How much physical work do you want to do? Will you want to have extra accommodation so that you can take on volunteers to help with manual work? (There are excellent world wide volunteer schemes which can be a great help - particularly WWOOF).

How much land do you really want? Do you like building work and doing odd jobs around the house that might be perfect for renovating an older property?

These are important questions - and most people have dreams that are rather too large for their experience, skills and endurance. It is a really good idea to get some hands-on experience before you take the plunge. You can do this either by taking one of the various courses on offer or by becoming a volunteer yourself and visiting and helping out on other people's smallholdings. This is really an invaluable experience - much to be gained by learning from others mistakes and virtually nothing to be lost.

Putting these important strategic question to one side, we can say that you probably need around one acre of decent land to make an effective attempt at producing a good quantity of your own food. And if you buy more than 4 acres then you will have to accept the responsibilities of fencing and managing the whole area. You can, of course, put a good deal of land into woodlands but even this needs to be fenced and managed.

On the financial side of things you must never expect to make your fortune by growing food. Governments throughout Europe have done everything they can to make this virtually impossible. If you are going to move to part-time work then you will want to avoid taking on debt like the proverbial plague itself. So cash in your town home together with your big mortgage and buy a smallholding well within your means.

And when you do buy your dream smallholding don't forget that you can (and must) keep the land under control very simply by cutting all the grass (weeds and brambles etc,) just once or twice each year. Preferably do this in June and September with a good sharp scythe. You will find all your nasty weeds steadily eliminated and the whole affair of creating a garden when you have more time and experience becomes all that much easier.

Remember too that nature in the countryside is vibrant and very much alive. Good food will attract many and varied beasts and bugs whose antennae and senses are finely tuned to such things. Walls, fences and nets may be needed to keep such pests away - and pests includes such monsters as the neighbours herd of cattle and the delightful kiddies who come to visit. There is constant warfare going on out there in the garden and you will want to make sure your troops keep on top.

Once you have given some careful thought to the things you want to do then you have to get possession of the right place. There are 2 extremes to approach the question: buying a bare site on the one hand or buying an older property to improve on the other. In either case the position, aspect, type of land, history of cultivation, shelter and mature trees will be very important factors to consider. We should consider these general factors first.

Position - you will probably want to be fairly close to a reasonable shopping centre without being so close as the encourage thieving and vandalism from the town yobbos. 5 miles is probably about right - and if you are further than 8 then you will end up doing a lot of driving to fetch supplies, ferry kids to friends and follow your own social life.

Rainfall and weather conditions will also vary considerably from one area to another. West means wet, east means dry. High up means windy cold and wet - and take care, even a couple of hundred feet can make a big difference.

Aspect - your ideal site will be gently sloping towards the south, preferably with some shelter to the north and east. You are unlikely to be interested in a north facing site unless there are other very important benefits. This is because sunshine is so important to successful growing in the Irish climate.

Type of Land - If you have ever tried using a spade to dig wet clay then you will not need to be told twice about the importance of soil type. Clay is hard work but productive if well drained. Sandy light soil is a joy for carrots but can be difficult in hot dry weather and may need a lot of compost added. Good quality loam that has been fallow (ie. Uncultivated) for a number of years may be best. Take a spade with you when you visit your potential site and dig down in a few spots to see what's down there.

Look out for rushes anywhere on the site as they will surely indicate wet areas or poor drainage. If possible visit the site in winter after wet weather and see if water is lying on the land.

History of Cultivation - find out what has been growing on the land in recent years and how it has been cultivated. If land has been intensively used for cereals or sugar beet production this is likely to have destroyed much of the inherent fertility and soil structure. Old well managed grassland would be best - with a few deep rooted weeds as possible (i.e thistles docks, ragwort, nettles)

Shelter and Mature Trees - The existence and location of shelter and mature trees will have a large effect on the comfort and micro-climate of your site. Mature trees are a very rare luxury these days and you want them on the north or east side of your site. But generally you want a site which sees plenty of sun in the south and west - and it is a bonus if you can see the setting sun from your dining room window.

These are general factors which apply whether you are looking at bare sites or established older properties. There are a number of other factors to be looked at when considering these options.

Bare Site - A bare site is unlikely to have the charm of an older property but equally it won't have too many hidden snags. You can more or less see what you are in for. Don't forget that the location of the main dwelling needs to fit into a plan for the garden and field structure. For example if you are going to have a pig sty then you want this to be down wind of the dwelling house - equally you may want your composting area to be away from the house. On the other hand you will probably want a space to the south of the house for a grassed area for recreation, whilst you will want good growing areas reasonably close on the east side for salad crops and possibly herbs that you want near to the kitchen. The orchard and the chickens can be further away from the house.

There is much more that can be said about the planning of your smallholding but we do not have space to write a book here. Take advice from someone with experience just a soon as you have a really good idea what it is you want to do.

The Old Cottage and outbuildings - you can still find many of these in a more or less abandoned condition. Perhaps after an old person has died or maybe a farmer moved out into a modern home. If the roofing is sound then you may have a bargain. But more than likely the venture will only be possible for those who have very deep pockets or plenty of their own time to devote to sorting things out. Old building are the very devil to sort out - and often full of very nasty surprises.

Don't be put off however by the doomsters. If you do have the enthusiasm and the place feels right then you may find yourself with new skills as a builder that you never expected. We know a couple of families who left the city to grow and farm but found the rebuilding work much more interesting at the end of the day!

The Last Word - Our chief experience of those who have come on courses with a determination to change their lives has been one of great success. But often this success does not come in the package you are dreaming of or expecting. It is the very fact that one door has been closed and another opened that changes everything. Growing your own food and managing the essentials of life (bread, beer, wine, jam, pickes etc.) is a very satisfying way to get more enjoyment from life. It is a way of life which is particularly satisfying for those with young children because there is so much useful work they can do and enjoy as part of the family team. It is a way of life which means you no longer have to wait in traffic jams or rush off to the gym in your leisure time. It is way of life where the pressures of debt repayment and career pressures simply disappear.

Will Sutherland

John Seymour School for Self Sufficiency.

Also readers will find a comprehensive and "can do" guide to the whole question of smallholding and self-sufficiency in "The New Complete Book of Self Sufficiency" published by Dorling Kindersley.

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