Much of what I have posted in Notes from a Suffolk Smallholding has been concerned with what we have been doing. Not a regular diary, but short episodes in a smallholding life, often reflective of the seasonal cycle. My hope is that readers, few though they may be, might find this interesting in itself. However, I am also conscious of the risk of the narcissistic potential of this approach which is inherent within digital social media. I have rarely expostulated on how to do things because there is not very often one ‘correct’ way of going about most smallholding activities, although there might be interest in how we went about things. And in any case who am I to say?
Recently I have been thinking much more about the why, rather than the what or the how. I am resuming where I left off last summer, therefore, with a slightly altered emphasis and with the occasional longer rumination on ‘why’-type issues. By way of ‘re-launch’, here is an overview of our main motivations as smallholders to start the process off.
This is a relevant question particularly for smallholders like us who live within an advanced modern economy. Herein lies a clue, however. From the perspective of a rich economy like ours why bother being a smallholder?
Our smallholding is a mixed smallholding. That is we keep a range of livestock and produce a lot of fruit and vegetables. It is a mixed smallholding for deliberate reasons. I state this positively because there is sometimes an implied criticism in the oft made observation that smallholders ‘do a little bit of everything’. In fact, I consider that there are strong arguments for having a mixed holding. There is a close fit between running a mixed smallholding and our own motivation for being smallholders.
The over-riding reason why we are a mixed smallholding is that our aim is to grow as much of our own food as we can. There are lots of different motivations for being a smallholder, but for us this is the most important one. Much as I enjoy a purposeful outdoor life in a rural location; much as I find tending livestock a satisfying experience; much as I find growing food crops rewarding, it is unlikely that we would invest so much time and energy undertaking all of these activities together if there were no produce at the end of it. We grow food to eat. None of our livestock are pets. We are not doing it simply as a lifestyle choice or ‘to live the good life’ (whatever that means). I distance myself from characterising what we do as ‘hobby farming’; our intent is more serious.
What about self-sufficiency? There is a degree of self-sufficiency in what we do of course. However, being as self-sufficient as possible in every aspect of practical living is not our main objective. In fact I would question whether this is actually a desirable goal to aspire to (I will in a forthcoming post).
A mixed smallholding can be very hard work requiring a high level of commitment on a daily basis and a heavy investment in time. A mixed smallholding like ours will be hard pressed to generate sufficient income to make a living on its own, certainly as the primary source of household income. Smallholdings that do achieve this (and there are examples to be found) tend to concentrate on one area of niche production and by adding value to what it produces. Some smallholders can make a living by having another source of land-based income such as running a campsite. Historically smallholdings were frequently a supplement to the household income earnt outside of the holding and for many smallholders this remains the case. Except the nature of outside work is likely to be less in the agricultural field than in other areas, particularly now the viability of working from home has been increasing even before the coronavirus pandemic.
We do sell some of our surpluses (and sometimes also barter) and this provides a useful cash return to offset some of our costs (though not labour costs). But that is not our objective. Ours is to produce our own food – no mean feat in itself these days for all sorts of reasons.
So why is growing our own food so important? Here for now I will simply state the main headline reasons. The first reason is that we want to grow and produce enough quantity of food that it makes a genuine and significant contribution to our household economy. We grow vegetables, for example, but not just token amounts for the thrill of it, thrilling though it might be. We want to grow and produce enough to live on and provide the bulk of our food intake. That’s why, despite the livestock, the greatest effort is channelled into vegetable and fruit growing. This must be the core focus if you intend to produce your own food. It is also why we spend a fair bit of time and energy in storing crops and preserving as much of our harvests as we can so that the fruits of our efforts are distributed throughout the year.
The second set of reasons are to do with quality. People who have consumed the food they have grown themselves (whether fruit, vegetable or meat) will often vouch for the superior taste and other qualities compared to ‘supermarket food’. Much more importantly, however, we aim to rely on industrially produced food as little as we possibly can for more fundamental reasons than this. This is for, firstly, health reasons; secondly, for reasons related to environmental sustainability; and, thirdly, when it comes to meat, for animal welfare reasons. Each of these factors benefit from some unpacking so I will elaborate each another time.