Posted 6th Jun 2016
Did you visit one of the farms that opened their doors to the public as part of Open Farm Sunday this weekend and feel inspired? Have you always hankered after growing your own, keeping chickens or living a more self-sufficient lifestyle? Perhaps starting your own smallholding could be the answer.
Whether you want to start small with just a few hens and a veg patch, or whether you have bigger dreams of having your own flock of sheep, a few pigs or even some cows, then it's good to get some hands-on experience and knowledgeable advice from someone who has been there and done it.
Debbie Kingsley and Andrew Hubbard run South Yeo Farm West, in Devon, and hold courses to teach would-be 'Tom and Barbaras' the basics they need to start their own smallholding. The couple have been farming-on-a-small-scale together for over two decades and before that worked in their spare time on a farm for a number of years, so have gathered plenty of knowledge and experience. Their first smallholding was 3.5 acres so they know what it's like to work on a modest veg patch, a smallholding and now a farm. Their two-day introduction to smallholding course is the perfect place to start.
The courses are designed to be lively, interactive sessions, with lots of time spent outside experiencing it for real on the farm, so that you can combine theory with practice and leave with a real sense of what you can do next. The groups are small (usually a maximum of 8 people), so you get plenty of opportunity to ask questions as the day progresses.
Your first day starts in the farmhouse kitchen where, over tea and homemade biscuits, you'll meet Debbie, Andrew and your fellow would-be smallholders, discuss your reasons for coming on the course and what you hope to get out of the two days. Then it's off to the training room in one of the farm barns, to learn about the important legal stuff, such as registering your smallholding, obtaining flock and herd numbers, the intricacies of ear tagging and understanding the paperwork needed for buying, selling and moving your livestock.
But it's not just livestock that you'll learn about on this course. Andrew carefully takes you through the practicalities, such as the basic tools you'll need, and gives you a good grounding in the utilities you'll need to consider on your smallholding, such as where your water supply will come from and how to get power to your electric fences.
Lunchtime is spent back in the farmhouse munching delicious homegrown produce. It's the ideal time to ask Debbie and Andrew any questions that may not have been answered.
Then it's time to head out onto the farm to meet the livestock. The farm is the home of the Yeoman herd of pedigree Berkshire pigs, the Kington flock of pedigree Welsh Mountain Badger Face sheep, the South Yeo flock of pedigree Whiteface Dartmoor sheep and the South Yeo suckler herd of pedigree Red Ruby Devon cattle. Debbie and Andrew rear native, traditional and rare breed livestock, and in addition to the pigs, sheep and cattle they keep Aylesbury and Black Indian Runner ducks, Black Orpington large fowl chickens and rare Pilgrim geese.
The couple are passionate about their animals and their style of teaching is fun, informal and hands-on, so you get plenty of chances to handle the animals and begin to feel comfortable with them. With years of experience, they can answer any questions you fire at them, no matter how basic they may feel to you. The beauty of spending time with a small like-minded group is that you'll find you often ask questions which the others may want the answers to as well, so it's a really easy learning process.
After an afternoon spent with the animals, it's back to the farmhouse kitchen for a delicious homemade Devon cream tea and a chance to ask further questions and discuss what you've learned during the day, then off home for an early night.
The following day has the option of an 8.30am start for those who would like to arrive early to help with the farm chores, such as feeding the animals.
Then it's off to the training barn with Debbie to learn about livestock healthcare, husbandry and feeding and how to administer medication to your animals. Then it's Andrew's turn to take you out into the fields to demonstrate the different types of stock fencing you'll need to consider and how to erect them.
After another hearty lunch, Debbie discusses how to choose the right livestock for your smallholding and whether to buy in or breed your own. This is followed by a walk around the farm, which has over 100 acres of permanent pasture, with a well-preserved medieval field system, the curving, irregular field boundaries based on early medieval strip cultivation. There is an ancient woodland of about 5 acres (a County Wildlife Site), small areas of oak copse, and a mill leat fed by the River Lew running the length of the northern boundary. And there's even a traditional cider orchard the farm. Debbie and Andrew work closely with nature, creating habitats for wildlife. From hedgebanks to woodland, owl boxes, orchids and otters, the farm walk is the perfect opportunity to see how the creation of these habitats benefits the farm as a whole. Finally, it's back to the farmyard, where Andrew will explain how to make the most of the produce from your smallholding, including preserving, smoking and curing.
The course ends with one last cream tea and time to discuss what you've learned during the weekend and, of course, a chance to exchange details with your new-found fellow smallholders. You'll leave the farm with a bulging pack full of handouts about the topics covered on the course, a fistful of useful pamphlets and a better understanding of how you can make your smallholding dream a reality.
A two-day Introduction to Smallholding course costs £195 per person for a weekend, including comprehensive handouts, homemade lunch, Devon cream tea and refreshments on both days.
For more information or to book visit www.smallholdertraining.co.uk.
By Anna-Lisa De'Ath