Smallholdings - All you need to know

Key information
  • Around five acres is a good amount of land for an average family to become self sufficient
  • If you plan to keep any number of sheep, goats or pigs then you must be registered with the relevant authorities
  • To sell produce from your smallholding, you’ll need to register with your local environmental health authority

Setting up a smallholding is a lifelong dream for many. Whether it’s to enjoy your own home-grown produce or achieve full self-sufficiency, there are plenty of reasons to want to embark on your own version of The Good Life.

But it’s not without its challenges either. From finding the right land to navigating the initial costs and legalities, simply getting started can be daunting enough. 

In our ultimate guide to smallholdings, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to make your smallholding dream a reality.

How much land do you need?

As with most projects, the amount of land you need will largely depend on what you’re planning to do with it. Generally speaking, a smallholding is anything smaller than 50 acres, but this covers a wide range of anything from garden-sized plots to holdings spanning multiple acres of land.

If your goal is to become totally self-sufficient, then five acres for a family-sized holding is a good rough estimate to start with. But don’t just assume you’ll need a lot of land, or that more is necessarily better. A lot can be done with a small plot, and what’s often more important than the size of the land is how effectively you make use of it. In fact, depending on how many people there are to manage the plot, a large smallholding with acres and acres of land could end up being unwieldy and difficult to use efficiently.

Bear in mind as well how much time you will be committing to your smallholding. Having several sprawling acres to raise and grow as much as you want might sound idyllic. But if you’re still working a full-time job then tending to all of that outside of office hours is going to be next to impossible. Busy people can still do plenty of things with their smallholding; in fact, a 2008 study from Bard College, New York, showed that smaller plots can be more productive, per hectare, than farms over 10 acres, because of how the land is often used for multiple purposes, rather than, say, large fields of single, arable crops.

Likewise, if your plan is to live completely off your land and earn money from selling surplus, then you’ll need plenty of space to ensure you can grow enough for yourself and still have produce to spare.

Does my smallholding need a certain type of soil?

No matter how big your plot of land, if you're planning on planting things like vegetable beds or, on a larger scale, crops, soil type will be a major factor dictating the capacity of land that you plant on. There are 6 broad soil types:

- Sandy (largest size particles, poor in nutrients, dries quickly)
- Clay (smallest size particles, rich in nutrients but retains water too long, particularly heavy clay)
- Silt (easy to till, retains water well but requires tilling for better air circulation)
- Peat (rich in organic matter and can be found around rivers and forests)
- Chalk (Chalky soil is highly alkaline and not suitable for plants requiring acidic soils)
- Loam (loam is soil composed of clay, sand and silt, with a combination of traits from all 3. Considered the jackpot for farmers, it is also gardener-friendly and would provide a bountiful crop for those planting on it)

Even if your plot doesn't have one of the more favourable soil types, not to fear; there are always ways you can adjust the composition of your soil, using such things as fertilisers and manure. Vegetable beds can also be planted in topsoil, meaning basic produce can be grown anywhere, regardless of underlying soil type. 

You can use the Addland Professional map layers to understand everything about your land, from its soil quality to its land use and whether it's in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone.           

How much does it cost to set up a smallholding?

Farming on a smallholding

As well as the cost of the property itself, you’ll need to factor into your budget all the myriad startup costs that come with being a smallholder. Setting up a smallholding is a big investment - from buying all the tools and equipment you’ll need, to the materials to build fences, planting beds and animal housing, as well as potential labour costs.

Also bear in mind any work you may have to do to prepare your land before you can begin any planting. Unless you’re taking over a plot that’s currently used and maintained for agriculture, you’ll almost certainly have to clear it of any stones, rubble, weed roots and other waste materials. And while that might be work you can do yourself, remember that you’ll likely have to pay to dispose of that waste at your local tip.

It can be frightening seeing these initial costs mount up, but it’s important not to try cutting corners. Investing in good quality equipment and materials will always serve you better than buying something cheap only to replace it soon after, with minimal cost for things like maintenance.

However, there are still ways to save on startup costs. Using reclaimed materials for your planting beds and compost bins can be a great way to save money as well as making your project more eco-friendly.

As for tools and equipment, don’t be afraid to reach out to your local community and see what you can borrow at first. The smallholding community is a friendly one, so it’s always worth seeing if your neighbour’s willing to share their rotavator before you buy your own.

What can you grow and keep on a smallholding?

Chickens on a smallholding

Part of the beauty of being a smallholder is that you can more or less grow what you like. The only real restriction is how much land you’ve got to grow on.

Bear in mind that not all varieties of a plant will take to every kind of soil. Certain varieties will have different preferences in terms of soil quality and composition, so when you’re first planting it’s worth trying several types of each crop to see which grows best on your land.

As for animals, things are a little more complicated as there is a lot of red tape to navigate when raising livestock on your land. If you plan to keep any number of sheep, goats or pigs then you must be registered with DEFRA in England and Wales or the relevant agricultural authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

You’ll also need to obtain a County Parish Holding (CPH) number from the Rural Payments Agency. Pigs will have to be registered with the Animal and Plant Health Agency, as do cattle and large flocks of poultry.

If you are looking to add livestock to your smallholding, it’s generally recommended to start small and work up. Chickens are a good place to start as they are cheap and relatively easy to look after, and on average each healthy hen will provide you with an egg a day.

Grazing animals like geese and sheep can not only provide food but also help you out by taking care of the grass on your property. The same goes for goats, although you’ll have to be careful with them - goats are voracious eaters and will happily move on to your crops if left unchecked. It might be worth your while checking the title deeds of your land; these will contain any legal restrictions on the land, from prohibitions of use to public rights of way that could run through it. 

Setting up a smallholding might be a challenging endeavour, but when done right it’s also infinitely rewarding. Another option of course, is to purchase an established smallholding.

Addland makes it easy to find, research, and buy land. Start your land journey today.

Published: 06 May 2021
Last updated: 18 April 2023

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