Become a smallholder


A smallholding is a residential site with more land than a garden, but less than a farm. The land is typically used for productive mixed crops including livestock and woodland management for fuel. Often there will be growing both for the needs of the residents (subsistence farming) and for cash crops.  The lines between garden, smallholding and farm are blurred but basically a smallholding is just a very small mixed farm – small being relative to the size of farms in that particular society. Crofts (Scotland) are smallholdings, although there is a legally-defined tenure for a croft, but not for a smallholding.

Smallholding is still the most common livelihood in the world, even though there is a global flow from country to city (and in the West, a trickle has started in the opposite direction). The UK has larger farms than anywhere else in Europe, due to a history of deliberate policies intended to phase out smaller farms. The Enclosures were the most obvious example of this (and in Scotland, the Highland Clearances). Landowners and factory owners were often in conflict, but when it came to despatching poor farmers into cities to become factory fodder, they were in complete agreement. Also in the UK, primogeniture (passing land on to the eldest son) tended to monopolise land ownership. In France, this system was changed after the revolution, and helped to keep holdings smaller.

Below are ways that you can takes steps towards becoming a smallholder with other people, as well as going it alone.

One very important thing to remember is that smallholdings produce more food per hectare than giant, monoculture, industrial farms – and they do so without damaging soil and biodiversity. See here, here, here, here and here for more information on this. Smallholdings are the future if we want to feed a global population of 11 billion without destroying the biosphere.

Click here for introductory information on smallholding, here for a report on the viability of modern smallholding and here for a source of excellent information on land issues generally.

What to do

1. Apply to be a smallholder with the Ecological Land Co-op

Land only becomes available sporadically via the ELC, and there is hot competition when it does, so this option is not a shoo-in to getting onto the land. You’ll have to produce an excellent business plan and demonstrate your ability to implement it. If successful, you will run your smallholding alone, but with opportunities to co-operate with neighbouring ELC smallholders.

Click here for more info.

2. Become a smallholder via a community land trust

Again, your smallholding will be yours, potentially with opportunities to co-operate with other smallholders. And again, this isn’t an easy option, as you’d have to find an existing rural CLT with land available for smallholders, or you’d have to get together with others to start a rural CLT. This may improve your chances of obtaining land and planning permission in the long-run, but will involve the added complications of starting and managing a CLT.

Click here for more info.

3. Join an intentional community

In this case, you would be working and living on a shared smallholding with other people. This option is obviously only viable if you are a gregarious and co-operative person. It could turn out to be ideal for you, or it could be a stepping stone to gaining valuable skills and experience to help in running your own smallholding at some point.

You’d have to join a membership process and be accepted by existing members, after which you may be required to purchase a share in the property, or if it’s a registered co-op, to start paying rent. Each community will have a different set-up. Many communities accept WWOOF volunteers, so that might be a good way to visit first, without commitment.

Click here for more info.

4. Do it yourself

Work out what you want to do: market gardening, animals, or a combination of the two; or maybe something more specialised – veg box scheme, bees, mushrooms, flowers, wood fuel, polytunnels or point-of-lay hens? Of course you need to know how to do those things, so you need some training, some targeted WWOOFing, or a job at a specialist farm for a while. Your workload will depend on the activities you choose. On 50 acres in might be possible to run beef cattle on a very part-time basis, but a smaller more intensively run mixed holding with vegetables could involve a lot more work.

Find land: an online search will help you find sites with listings of land suitable for smallholdings for sale – like this one for example, or this one for advice on getting land. Word of mouth is also good, and about 5-10% of estate agents specialise in land. More than half of land sales are via auctions – run by estate agents. If the land has a house already on it, it’s less likely to be sold at auction. Agricultural land in the UK averages around £7,500 per acre, but lots of factors affect this number. Woodland is less, but is catching up. If you don’t have a house to sell it’s increasingly common to get together with other people, buy the land together and divide it up accordingly. There will be benefits in having a cluster of smallholdings – shared vehicles and equipment, marketing, childcare, labour, bartering…and getting away for a much-needed holiday.

Navigate the planning system: see here, here and here for more information on obtaining planning permission generally, and here for advice on obtaining planning permission in the countryside from someone who did it. To live on your smallholding – you have to prove to the planners: that your enterprise is viable and can maintain a livelihood; and that you have a need to be there for the purposes of the enterprise. One option is to build your house and apply for permission retrospectively. This not an offence, but can also take a long time. Permission is more likely for an enterprise that is demonstrably competent and financially viable. If it’s neither of those things, then you probably won’t succeed. You have to put in copious management plans with your application. Write down what you’re going to do, all the costs, and targeted profits over 3 years. If you build a single dwelling house on your smallholding and live in it continuously for 4 years and can prove it, then you will be immune from planning enforcement (which is the equivalent of having planning permission).

One planet development: Wales’s One Planet Development Policy makes it much easier for potential smallholders.

Build your home: see here for advice and info.

5. Sell your produce

If you’re going to run a successful smallholding, you’re going to need outlets for your produce. To avoid the exploitation of corporate supermarkets, there are various, local, direct options, such as: