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Smallholders Handbook part 6

Here is our sixth instalment about joining the Good Life and living off the land with a sustainable smallholding.

At BigBarn we would love to promote thousands of profitable smallholdings on our UK Food Map to help reconnect people with where their food comes from and helping build inclusive, sustainable, communities around food.

To help here is the sixth of 12 extracts from Lorraine Turnbull’s book The Sustainable Smallholders’ Handbook

Food Production

Producing food or drink from your smallholding, allotment or garden is perhaps the most obvious way of deriving an income from it. And although everyone’s circumstances are unique, the diversity of possible projects is so great that there is bound to be something to suit. If you have hardly any land, for instance, you can still grow enough fruit and vegetables to make jellies, jams, juices, chutneys, pickles and the like; and you can make your processing equipment (ordinary domestic kitchen appliances aren’t really up to this kind of use) work harder for its living by foraging hedgerows, moors, and even beaches for wild ingredients.

Fresh healthy veg

Anyone with even a small orchard can produce culinary and dessert apples and pears, juice, cider, perry, and vinegar for sale: I have devoted a whole chapter to orchards for a very good reason – they make money! A few acres will allow you to keep goats or sheep for milk and cheese. Five acres or more is room enough for a few smaller breed cattle.

Whatever project you decide suits your own situation best, though, make sure to do your sums as carefully as if you were writing a full-blown business plan; and you’d be well-advised to major on one or two high-value strands to maximise your income and to rationalise the cost and effort involved in production, processing, and selling.

Eggs

Free range

I’ll start with egg production because it’s an enterprise in which I have fairly extensive experience, and because at entry level it’s one of the easiest ways to make a bit of pocket-money from your land. You can sell eggs at the gate without any regulation: all you need is a sign with the price on it. But although it may be comparatively easy, it’s never going to make you a millionaire. You can sell a box of six eggs at around £1.50, but that has to cover the cost of the hens, their housing, their feed, boxes and labels, and worming and vet’s bills before you see any of it.

If you have fewer than 100 hens you’ll make just enough to cover your costs, which is fine if the hens are a hobby. But to make any money out of laying birds you have to think of them as a crop that needs replacing every 18 months or so, so there’s a recurring capital cost to factor in as well.

Tasty. And really good for them.

Duck eggs will fetch a similar price, but the laying season is shorter and therefore your income will be lower unless you also hatch and raise some of them for meat.

These sums might prompt you to ask yourself whether the return is going to be worth the effort. I was an egg producer and packer for two years before realising it was too much work for the reward. I would have needed larger henhouses, a higher stocking density, and at least 500 birds to make even a small wage. But the profit from selling eggs is not going to provide you with a living unless you have thou- sands; and even at this level the input on your part – such as moving their houses regularly to deter rodents and prevent soil erosion – is beginning to mount up alarmingly. By the time you reach a genuinely profitable level of egg production your capital investment, not just in housing but in ancillaries such as automated packaging plant, packing shed(s), and feed silos, and your additional running costs including labour, feed, bedding and utilities takes you beyond the scale at which you can really be described as a smallholder.

However, if you believe that large-scale egg production is a viable proposition – and as the EU allows a maximum of 1,000 hens per acre it may very well suit your circumstances – you will also have to register as a food producer with the district council’s Environmental Health Department. Large poultry houses with a packing room and feed silos also need planning permission, so have a chat with your local planning officer before making any commitments.

Tempted? You can read more over the next few months or buy Lorraine Turnbull’s book The Sustainable Smallholders’ Handbook available here

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