Making a Living on Ten Acres?
A fairy tale or a real possibility?
I’ve written before about many small producers who are trying to make a living from growing and working on a small piece of land. Given the emergence of this growing trend the UK based ELC (the Ecological Land Co-operative) have released a guide called “Small is Successful”. The organisation want to support the creation of truly affordable and highly sustainable land-based livelihoods by highlighting what is possible. The ELC along with every rural politician and local development committee want the same thing: to re-invigorate rural economies, increase employment opportunities, increase local food resilience and address key challenges of sustainability, peak energy and climate change. In this article I summarise some of the details of the report, explore one case study in more depth and point readers to where they can get the full version themselves.
Overview of the Report
The report gains much credibility through an honest exploration of the successes and challenges faced by a varied range of eight sustainable producers which includes: four different styles of fruit and vegetable producer; one shiitake mushroom grower; a hatchery providing ducklings to poultry producers; a mail order seed company targeting the home gardener, and a mixed smallholding which produces cider, apple juice and honey, as well as eggs, lamb and cordials. Notwithstanding the ELC noted that the range of livelihoods is increasing and that the spread of new ideas across the internet is helping inspire new participants.
A number of quick take-away facts: Most of the growers themselves say that the independence and quality of life benefits outweigh the modest financial returns from their livelihoods. Secondly the land itself was often of an average or below average quality – this didn’t restrict the businesses and in fact made purchase or rental of said land more accessible. A degree of scale is possible: one of the businesses (selling flower and vegetable seeds) provides livelihoods for three full-time and two part-time workers based on half an acre of semi-improved pasture at 100 metre elevation – quite an achievement! Similarly scale is easier to achieve for some businesses (such as a market gardener growing veg) through proximity to a large town or city where a ready customer base exists. On the other hand, making a living from livestock only on small acreage is much more challenging although the emergence of micro-dairies may change this.
Intensive commercial growing is common in Monaghan, Ireland and it generally involves sizeable investment to get started. We have lots of intensive growers in the poultry, pig and mushroom sector. Most of these growers often owned their own land and have a track record in farming before starting the new enterprise which is a big advantage. Banks have more confidence in lending large amounts to such growers. However these is another way for those who are landless and low in experience.
The ELC noted that many of the enterprises they visited could increase in scale gradually with hard work and only a modest investment. And unlike commercial production where the grower focuses on intensive production of a single product, these small and sustainable firms studied tended to have several outputs for sale, which goes a long way in reducing risk. The stacking of enterprises is also seen as an ecologically sound way of maximising resources – so say for example, sheep would graze (and chickens peck) under the apple trees in an orchard with an area for bee hives tucked in a corner – so they sell fruit, lamb, eggs and honey. Finally the ELC identified common personality traits among the successful entrepreneurs: positive mental attitude, commitment to hard work and attention to detail. Owners all had a hands on approach to problem solving and learning new skills.
Holly Tree Poultry Hatchery
The case study that I highlight here is that of the Holly Tree Poultry Hatchery run by Mr Jones. He supplies 12,000 ducklings annually to producers in the region from a 2.5 acre farm. In addition Holly Tree provide oven ready ducks and geese sold at farm gate, and to local butchers. Like many of the businesses mentioned in the report, the infrastructure was developed gradually by reinvesting profits rather than through borrowing. The owner also built up his niche skills and contacts “on the job”.
Details of Production Systems
The report goes into good detail on each production system. For instance in the case of Holly Tree the ducks are a large white hybrid commercial variety which gain weight fast and have high disease resistance. Similarly, the geese and chickens are both commercial breeds. These are preferred over rare breeds as they tend to yield significantly more. The ducks are incubated in an electric setter and then an incubator, which keeps the temperature and humidity constant as when ducks incubate their own eggs, output is reduced. Birds sold for meat have access to paddocks ensuring good quality of life.
The owner avoids competing with larger hatcheries for “day old” chicks, instead focusing on “naturally reared” ducklings however this has it’s challenges. Ducklings grow quickly along with their appetite and so the owner must be confident of a market before the profit margin is lost to feed costs. Mr Jones also acknowledges that a large site (say ten acres) would make his operation more efficient as it would justify the purchase of certain machinery which would necessitate less physical labour. Still he has increased his income in other ways: he now acts as a consultant and trainer for those interested in advancing their own knowledge in the poultry hatchery business.
As well as details of the other case studies, the report makes recommendations for those interested in pursuing this route. A further report titled “Small Farm Profits”can also be found at: www.ecologicalland.coop . These are great reading for anyone exploring the area.