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By Katie Thear
Buying a Smallholding is in 3 parts, this is part two covering the amount of land required for a smallholding and the quality of that land.
This article is based on The Smallholder's Manual by Katie Thear, published by Crowood and is basically an extract styled for the web. Katie & David ran their smallholding at Broad Leys for 13 years along with publishing magazines and writing. Our logo is based on the main house at Broad Leys.
The quality of land varies from one area to another. It may be heavy clay, quick-draining sand, thin chalky soil, acid peat or, if you are lucky, a friable medium-loam soil.
The better soil will grow better crops, and this fact is usually reflected in the comparative land values, with the best agricultural land fetching the highest prices.
The agriculture ministry of most countries publishes land classification maps that indicate the type and quality of soils in the different regions. In the USA, there are 18,000 different types of soil, but the local extension agent will provide information specific to an area. In Britain, agricultural land is classified into five grades.
Soil testing will establish the type and nature of the soil, as will an examination of the prevalent weeds: for instance, rushes, Juncus species, denote waterlogging, while a profusion of sheep’s sorrel, Rumex acetosella, is a sure sign of an acid soil. It is a good policy to observe what neighbouring farmers are doing with their land, because if they are dependent upon it for their livelihoods, you may be certain that they are not growing crops totally unsuited to the environment.
The best quality: suitable for most uses
Problems may be encountered with some root crops, eg, carrots
Suitable for grazing and cereals
Rough grazing only
How much land is required for a smallholding? This is rather like the question of how long is a piece of string, since it depends on what the owner wishes to do with the land, and how much money is available. A great deal can be achieved on a relatively small area of land, and it is generally true that the less land one has, the more carefully managed and productive it is in relation to its size. There is far more wastage involved where a large acreage is concerned.
A large garden can have a productive kitchen garden, greenhouse and hives of bees, as well as rabbits, chickens or ducks. As part-time activities, these can provide a certain amount of supplementary income, as well as providing for one’s own situation.
A small field adjoining a garden would enable a couple of dairy goats to be kept, or a few pigs to be reared. A hectare (just under 2.5 acres) with good pasture would allow a small breeding flock of sheep to be kept, while 2 hectares (5 acres) and over would cater for larger livestock such as a cow and calf, llamas or alpacas, or an organic enterprise.
Four hectares (around 10 acres) makes possible the growing of hay, with perhaps space given to a cereal crop or a range of forage crops for the livestock. A part of this might also be used for an orchard, woodlot or wood coppicing area.
It is easy to forget the pasture requirements of grazing animals. It is not enough that there is a certain area of grassland: there needs to be enough to allow for rotational grazing, so that as one area is used up, fresh ground is made available while the first is left to rest and recover.
If hay is to be made, this represents even more pasture. Some smallholders find it more economic to use or rent out their grassland for grazing, while buying in hay for their own use.
The time and energy factors should not be overlooked. If priority is given to earning a living, there may be little of either to spare for looking after a collection of animals.
Our 1.75 hectare (2 acre) site was used as follows: two goats, chickens, ducks, geese and bees were permanent residents, while pigs and a couple of sheep were reared for limited periods, but at different times.
Our paddock was used for rotational grazing for the goats and geese, while the hens free-ranged in the orchard. The ducks ranged on the lawn area, as did the geese from time to time.
We aimed to cover all the feeding and other costs and provide for ourselves, but not to make a profit, as our income came from another source. The diagram (above) shows the theoretical possibilities of a larger smallholding run on a part-time basis, with an income coming from another source.
These are obviously guidelines only, for a great deal depends upon the land, the inclinations of the owner, and the amount of time and capital available.